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Unionist fear of Irish must be overcome

(Jude Collins, Irish News)

What is it about the Irish language that makes unionists nervous? Sammy Wilson used to get so worked up about it at meetings of Belfast City Council, he denounced it as a "leprechaun language".

Chris McGimpsey of the UUP once had a reputation as an Irish speaker but when asked about this on television he denied it, saying you could count on one hand the number of Irish words he knew. Last October Fermanagh District Council discussed promotion of the Irish language. DUP councillor Bert Johnson described it as "another example of tomfoolery" and his colleague, councillor Tom Elliott, said promotion would be "a waste of money".

In recent days Gregory Campbell has said he'd be happy enough for people to use the word 'Doire' in correspondence with the local authorities of his home town, but that's because Gregory is scared stiff that his home town will become officially known as Derry.

Some unionists explain their aversion to the Irish language by blaming republicans. They have politicised the language, unionists say. They use it at the start of speeches in the assembly, at the start and end of their letters and they used to use it when a volley was being fired over the coffin of a dead IRA volunteer.

The language has been hijacked, unionists say, and that's why they don't want anything to do with it.

Just as well that these people were never asked to respond to a real plane hijacking. Far from rolling their eyes and walking away, those faced with a real hijacking roll up their sleeves and get cracking, not resting until the plane has been reclaimed.

So to unionists who feel the Irish language has been hijacked by republicans, the answer should be obvious: hijack it back. Or to be more accurate, seize it and make it work for you as well, because the language is big enough to accommodate everybody.

In Irish, it's just as easy to say 'David Trimble is an agreeable man in whose strong hands the union is safe' as it is to say 'I met Carmel Hanna for tea and buns yesterday and she showed me her plans for a united Ireland'. But of course nervous people need encouragement. Des Browne, our present Minister of Somethingorother, recently launched a report called 'A Shared Future'. He and it emphasised how silly we are to be living apart, physically and culturally.

More than 70% of public housing estates are almost entirely segregated and less than five% of children attend integrated schools.

"This can and must change," Des said. Quite right.

Like Catholic-maintained schools, integrated schools offer Irish to all the children in their care. How different the picture in Protestant/ controlled schools.

Despite all the emphasis on teaching cultural heritage, on providing education that promotes mutual understanding, not a single Protestant school in the north has Irish as a full subject on its curriculum. Why not? Well, it's that nervousness again. Schools have to work with parents and there are a lot of Protestant parents out there who, because they've bought the boring old 'Irish has been hijacked' rubbish, see the teaching of Irish as the natural precursor to classes in mercury tilt-switch assembly. Faced with such bone-brain thinking, Protestant schools sigh and duck out from doing the right thing.

Des Browne, on the other hand, isn't answerable to bone-brain bigots. In fact he doesn't have to answer to anybody here – his seat is back in Scotland. And yet Des has managed to write the foreword to a report which claims to be casting around for possible shared areas for the future and which doesn't once mention the Irish language.

Some facts, then. In the north, the Irish language is booming as never before. Irish-medium schools, once confined to republican areas, are now to be found in middle-class and mixed areas as well.

No matter where you are – Downpatrick, Ballycastle, Portadown, Armagh, Maghera – there's at least one Irish school near you. In Belfast alone there are more than 2,000 youngsters learning all their school subjects through the medium of Irish. And if you think that's putting them at a disadvantage, then you haven't been reading the research that lists the advantages of bilingual education; or, if you like your research blunt and brutal, the pass figures for youngsters sitting the 11-plus in such schools.

Sad to say, none of these youngsters is Protestant – this despite the fact that the Irish language is a unique cultural store-house, doors wide open to all. Come on, Sammy/Chris/Bert/Tom/Gregory. Give your people a break. I ndiaidh a aimhleasa a chi an tEireannach a leas.

February 7, 2003

This article appeared first in the February 6, 2003 edition of the Irish News.

This article appears thanks to the Irish News. Subscribe to the Irish News