Irish is not just of the Irish anymore. It is getting more embraced by people from all corners of the Northern Irish society. But in politics, the words ‘Irish Language Act’ cause a heated discussion every time someone brings them up. It has even brought the Northern Irish government to a fall.

“Tá gaeilge agam is Irish for ‘I speak Irish’, but it actually translates to English as ‘I have Irish’,” explains Linda Ervine of the language course provider TURAS. “That’s one of the expressions that gripped me, I thought it was beautiful and it made me want to learn the language.”

Linda Ervine’s organization TURAS is a special case when it comes to Irish language courses. They operate from the East Belfast Mission and mostly attract learners from the east of the city. This is peculiar because East Belfast is a typically unionist area. Meaning that the people who live there generally identify as British and support the British government. Therefore, it is not the area of the capital where you would find street signs in both Irish and English, or the local special of the pub written on a chalkboard in Irish. Those are all characteristics for the opposite side: West Belfast, where most of the people who live there identify as Irish. The Irish language is seen very much as a piece of their culture, but with the arrival of TURAS in the not-so-Irish-orientated East Belfast, these hard lines begin to blur.

How Northern Ireland is divided
The Northern Irish society is still segregated after the Troubles of the last century. During the Troubles there were numerous attacks and bombings from both sides of the conflict. On one side there were people who associated themselves with Ireland and wanted to be independent from the United Kingdom. These people are called nationalists, who were also mostly Catholic. On the other side you had unionists, who were loyal to the British and who were also mostly Protestant. These divisions are still very prominent in today’s society. In Belfast, this shows very clearly in the city with East Belfast being a mostly unionist/Protestant area and West Belfast being a mostly nationalist/Catholic area.

TURAS is now the number one Irish language course provider in Northern Ireland. “For that to be based in the unionist area, that is showing in itself that there are changes going on,” says Deirdre Dunlevy, researcher into sociolinguistics at Queen’s University. “Despite what we see in politics with the Language Act causing a lot of discussion, you can see that people are willing to move beyond that and explore more of their heritage and their identity.”

Irish is a political football

Even though the Irish language gets more embraced throughout the entire community, it is not in politics. Irish has become a political football in the game between the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and Sinn Féin, the nationalist party. The Irish Language Act, which would provide rights and protection for the language, has been something the two parties have very different stances on. It is even one of the main reasons why Northern Ireland has no acting government at the moment.

Northern Ireland equal power politics explained:
The Northern Ireland Assembly, also called Stormont after the building they reside in, collapsed in January 2017. The two parties with the most seats in the Assembly, the DUP and Sinn Féin, could not agree on a few major issues, such as equal marriage rights and the Irish Language Act. The DUP didn’t want either of them, which resulted in the resignation of Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness.
Due to the turbulent past of Northern Ireland, it was decided that unionists and nationalists have to equally share power on every decision made by the Assembly. Which also results in a First Minister from one side, and a Deputy First Minister from the other. The two roles essentially having the same status because one can’t act without the other.
Since 2007, the DUP has been the largest unionist party and Sinn Féin the largest nationalist party. But because the DUP is bigger than Sinn Féin, they have had the post of First Minister since 2007, giving a politician from Sinn Féin the role of Deputy First Minister. After Martin McGuinness resigned, Sinn Féin announced that they wouldn’t replace him, which therefore caused the role of First Minister Arlene Foster to have no meaning and resulting in the fall of the Assembly.

Irish is a minority language in Northern Ireland, but Sinn Féin would like to see legislation to protect the language and have more people in Northern Ireland speak it. Legislation would mean the right for education through Irish, bilingual signs on public buildings and roads and the use of Irish in courts, the Assembly and other state bodies.

It would also be a way to maintain or even grow the number of Irish speakers. Because the latest numbers of people who are able to speak some Irish in Northern Ireland lay around 11%. “That’s quite low,” says Deirdre Dunlevy, “But for a minoritized language in any country, that is a substantial part of the community that do engage with the language.”
“Even in the Republic of Ireland, where Irish is the first official language, it is still a minority language,” says Dunlevy. In 2016, 40% of the population of the Republic of Ireland could speak Irish.

Getting anything done is almost impossible

“The Assembly has never agreed on anything regarding the Irish language,” says Janet Muller. She is the head of POBAL, the umbrella organization for the Irish language community in Northern Ireland. And according to Muller it’s very hard to get anything done on the subject of the Irish language or any form of legislation on it because of the way politics in Northern Ireland works. In 2007, when the different departments within the government got re-assigned, the department of Culture went to the DUP. There had been some talk about legislation regarding the Irish language prior, “but the first thing that DUP minister did was say: I’m not going to bring in this Irish Language Act,” Muller explains. “After that we had three other DUP ministers who also said there wasn’t going to be an Irish Language Act. Then we got a Sinn Féin minister, who was more sympathetic but not more effective,” says Muller. “Any political decision here would require the agreement of the Assembly.”

There are certain things that a single minister from that specific department can decide on. “But then the composition of the Assembly changes again and a nationalist minister gets replaced by a unionist minister, they can then reverse everything that had been done. So it’s very stuck,” Muller says.

A mural at the Peace Wall in Belfast illustrating Janet Muller’s organization POBAL and what it stands for. Photo: Claire Poel

Politics don’t come into the classroom

While the Irish Language Act is causing a stalemate in politics, it is not necessarily seen as something political by the people who are learning the language. Dunlevy has been doing research at multiple language classes throughout Belfast, “and they all mention that politics isn’t coming into the class,” she says. “People know who you are from where you live generally, but that doesn’t matter in this instance. Because they are all there in the same objective. I think people really enjoy that they have something across the city where they can socialize with people.”

Dunlevy has also been working with Linda Ervine’s organization TURAS, “there are people in these classes who are sitting in a room with people from other parts of the city that they would otherwise not have had the chance to get to know,” Dunlevy explains. “Some people from TURAS told me about traveling across to Cultúrlann, the cultural center in West Belfast. It’s not an area of the city they had ever been before, and these people have lived in the city for whole their lives. It is helping them to feel like they belong more to the whole city instead of a small area.”

Linda Ervine set up TURAS after being part of a tester with a cross-community women’s group eight years ago. The tester that lasted for six weeks addressed the Irish language. “What was interesting to me, was that most of the Catholic women weren’t so interested,” says Ervine. “They were mostly interested in the royal wedding that was just about to happen. It was myself and a few other protestant women who were more interested in the Irish language classes.” The chance to learn a bit of Irish was an eye-opener for Ervine, “I didn’t know it existed and that you could go and learn it. It sounds really stupid now, but I didn’t. At the time it was just a social outlet for me,” she explains. “I had no serious idea of getting to grips with the language, it was just something to do. But at the time my husband was the leader of the Progressive Unionist Party so whenever word got out that I was learning Irish, journalists got hold of the story and it went in a couple of newspapers.” That resulted in other people at the East Belfast Mission wanting to learn the language as well. But there was no class, it had just been a tester. “So they came to me and asked if I could facilitate it if we had a teacher.”

Linda Ervine speaking at an event. Photo: Ivan Skinner of Tin Man Photography

But it wasn’t that easy. When word got out about Irish classes being held in East Belfast, there were mixed reactions. “Some people were intrigued and wanted to learn because they felt like they had never had the opportunity to,” Ervine says. “Other people thought it was a bit strange and a small minority was actually hostile. I worked in the office at the East Belfast Mission at the time and had to sit there while other people took phone calls from benefactors of the Mission to say that they will not be getting any more money, because of the Irish classes.”

Learning to sing in Irish

TURAS grew out to be a big organization. 250 people have already taken classes there this year and there are around fifteen classes every week for different levels of abilities. There is even an Irish singing class. Sitting together in a classroom with their folders of song lyrics before them, a group of around ten to fifteen people learn the songs. The pronunciations get practiced and the right way to make the melody flow gets worked out.

Listen to what an Irish singing class sounds like here and hear why Stephen and Maggie chose to join the class:

Legislation helps to protect

Even though the language is getting picked up more by all sides of the society, the language is still in a fragile position. “there is a dynamic and lively community of young Irish speakers, which grows all the time,” explains Janet Muller of POBAL, “But it is recognized around the world that where you have minority languages, legislation is one of the ways to protect it and increase its usage.”

Linda Ervine wasn’t initially in favor of an Irish Language Act, “But after speaking to people in Scotland and Wales, where Scottish and Welsh do have a language act, I recognized what legislation does for a language.” A specific event that pushed Ervine over the edge was the incident in Stormont when Gregory Campbell, a member of the DUP, mocked the Irish language when addressing the Assembly. After this he was barred from addressing the Assembly for a day.  “Nobody would have accepted that behavior if it had been Chinese or Polish, but it’s okay to ridicule the Irish language,” says Ervine. “There are over 6000 children in Northern Ireland who are educated through the medium of Irish every year, and there they see the leadership of this country making fun of the language they use every day. I don’t think that’s acceptable.”  

A video of how Gregory Campbell addressed the Assembly. Video: Broadsheet Ie

“If there’s some kind of recognized legislation for the language, in some ways it provides perimeters for everyone,” says Deirdre Dunlevy. “So not only is the language protected, but it also means that it can’t be forced on people. That’s a big fear people have around the Language Act. That the language is going to be forced on everyone.” In the Republic of Ireland, Irish is a compulsory subject in primary schools. “I think that’s where the fear comes from,” says Dunlevy. “But the difference is that in the Republic it’s the first official language. That’s not what they are advocating for here. So, it’s a very different situation.”

According to Janet Muller, the feelings about the Irish language are so polarized because it feels as something alien to the people who identify as British and unionists. “They feel that it is dangerous to their identity because it’s Irish. And it reminds them that Ireland is Ireland,” Muller says. “It comes from an insecurity that some unionists have about their own identity.” Regarding the political side, with the DUP in front, the denial of an Irish Language Act is mostly an easy way for them to please their hardcore voters, according to Muller. “It can make them look strong for their voters. And they just don’t want to spend money on it. They quite often say: we don’t mind the Irish language, we just don’t want money spend on it.”

A tweet by DUP leader Arlene Foster in a reaction to Sinn Féin wanting an Irish Language Act before returning to Stormont.

When Brexit is over…

Whether an Irish Language Act will happen in the future is hard to tell. “There’s been such a problem in Stormont for the past two and a half years, and Brexit caused for the focus not really being on Northern Ireland politics as well,” says Dunlevy. “So it’s hard to see any resolution to this problem at the moment because there is such big other issues going on, such as Brexit. But after that it will take negotiations and compromises from all sides.”

According to Janet Muller, until legislation is created, she is just spinning in circles. “It’s just a game we play with ourselves of demanding services we know that are not going to be provided. And then having to go complain and go to court. That happens over and over again. We have seen over the years that politicians are ready to sign up to very little, but there is no stopping the pressure and the campaign for an Irish Language Act.”