Home > Feature > The struggle for Irish language rights in Northern Ireland: an interview with POBAL’s Janet Muller

The issue of equality for Irish language speakers continues to be a stumbling block in the ever-evolving Irish peace process. What was once the primary language spoken in Ireland is now at the heart of talks for political parties engaged in restoring Northern Ireland’s powersharing government.

Why is the Irish language such a seemingly intractable matter of contention? Éist recently spoke with Janet Muller, director of POBAL, the umbrella organization for the Irish language community. In the following interview, Muller discusses the history of the language, organizing for Irish language rights and the power relationships at play within the struggle for equality:

Can you tell me a little bit about the history of the Irish language, and how it came to be an issue within the peace process?

The Irish language is one of the Celtic languages, which include Welsh, Cornish, Breton, Manx and Scottish Gaelic. It is one of the oldest written languages in the world, dating back 2,000 years. Until the nineteenth century it would have been the main spoken language of the island of Ireland, in spite of enormous pressures brought to bear by the English-speaking Norman invaders who had come to Ireland a number of centuries before and established their own civil, economic, political and social regimes. These included repressive legislation and practice, including language laws designed to ensure that English was the language of power and influence. It is widely acknowledged that the Great Famine in the mid-nineteenth century, during which  2 million Irish people died and a further 1.5 million were forced to flee, was a turning point for the Irish language as the main language of the country.

Political factors have continued to influence the development and use of the Irish language from that time. The Easter Rising of 1916, followed by the War of Independence and the Civil War culminated in the partition of Ireland, with six counties in the north east province of Ulster remaining under the control of the British government. These six counties were selected to ensure that the Protestant settlers who had been given land and power during the Plantation of Ireland were a majority over the native Irish population, which was mainly Catholic. The six counties, now called Northern Ireland, were administered by this almost exclusively Protestant and pro-British Unionist section of the population, to the exclusion of the Irish Catholic population from many spheres of influence.

From the inception of the state in 1922, measures were taken to discourage the use, learning or teaching of Irish. The continuous transmission of Irish across generations was broken in the six counties. There are no Gaeltacht areas (areas where the Irish language is the first language of its population) in Northern Ireland, and the last native speakers of the language in the Glens of Antrim, County Tyrone and Rathlin island died decades ago. In spite of this, even as the language was being systematically squeezed, new speakers were emerging. In the 1940s, a small group of language learners founded Belfast’s Cumann Chluain Árd as a hub and a haven for Irish speakers, and throughout the years that followed, the community built its own housing estate for Irish speakers, Gaeltacht Bóthar Seoighe, and founded what is now a thriving Irish Medium education system. All of this was done in spite of the state, rather than because of it.

In the twenty-six counties, called first the Free State, and now the Republic, the new Irish state embraced the language, at least on paper. It was made First Official Language of the state and all children were taught it in school. However, the language failed to thrive, perhaps because of a complex series of factors—social trauma from lengthy periods of violent struggle, the perception that Irish was associated with poverty, and the neglect of positive action to promote the practical use of Irish outside of the education system.  Almost one hundred years of lack lustre government language policies and practice in the twenty-six counties has continued to have detrimental impact on the Irish language, with the remaining small Gaeltacht areas (areas where Irish is still the first language of its inhabitants) under pressure, and the latest census figures showing a drop of 15% in the number of people using the language.

Today, the Irish language remains an integral part of the social, cultural and economic identity of Ireland as a whole. Policies and practice regarding the language is formulated in two different jurisdictions by two different governments, each with distinct goals in relation to the language and the political, social and cultural circumstances in which it exists, North and South. Since the 1998 Good Friday Agreement (GFA), a changing conflict resolution context in the North has been trumpeted, however the real impact of the language provisions contained in the text of the GFA focus on the British government alone, placing no specific LPP duties on the Irish government.

When was Pobal formed and what need it was responding to at that time?

POBAL was established in January 1998, at a time of considerable political, social and cultural change in the six counties. The focus was on the Peace Process and Irish speakers wanted to have an umbrella organisation that could put forward strategic approaches. Irish language groups in the North tended to be small and their efforts were very much directed at their own particular area of work–whether that was in providing educational, arts or social and economic support for the language. POBAL’s role was to link groups together to facilitate communication and give a voice to the emerging Irish language sector in the north so it could play an appropriate role within the building of a new society.

Is the Irish language perceived to be a sectarian issue in Northern Ireland, and if so, why do you believe this is so? Is this primarily why it seems to be such an intractable issue in the North?

Irish speakers firmly believe that the Irish language belongs to everyone. In recent years, there has been a small but significant growth in interest from the Unionist community in the Irish language, and this has added an element to the depoliticisation of language. But these are complex issues, which some would argue relate to the nature of a long-lasting and deeply-rooted ethnic struggle in Ireland. Language is a primary form of communication for human beings and reflects society however, so the power relationships that prevail in any given situation will probably be reflected in language. Discrimination and discouragement against the use of Irish at a state level has been a feature of life in Northern Ireland, and it is unrealistic therefore to expect that this deliberate marginalisation would not link in with the perceived democratic deficit here. However, anyone who has read statements from some of our politicians in the English language will know that it is the content of speech that makes it sectarian, not the language it is said in. Some gains in normalising Irish were made after the Good Friday Agreement was signed initially. However, in 2006, during crisis political talks, and as a response to POBAL’s ongoing work, the British government gave a commitment in the St Andrews Agreement to introduce an Irish language Act.  It subsequently and publicaly reneged on this commitment and used the act as a bartering tool to encourage the Democratic Unionist Party (the largest party in the unionist block, who had not supported the Good Friday Agreement) into a re-established devolved Assembly with Sinn Féin. The lure of ‘smashing the act’ appears to have given a green light to some sections of unionism to attack the Irish language in a sustained manner since 2007.

How does Pobal approach this, from the perspective of organizing and outreach? How might we broaden the conversation so efforts to support the Irish language are not treated as sectarian?

Sectarianism is about power relationships, and so the context needs to change. Irish speakers are aware of our role in bringing this about, but it is unrealistic to suggest that we should bear sole responsibility for redressing systematic abuses in society. Our view is that the introduction of comprehensive legislation for Irish, based on expert proposals which POBAL has produced with the advice and support of some of the world’s most renowned experts in language law (Professor Robert Dunbar, University of Edinburgh; Professor Colin Williams, University of Cardiff; Professor Wilson McLeod, University of Edinburgh; Professor Fernand de Varennes, Moncton University) would have the potential to shift the issue of the Irish language into the administrative sphere rather than the political one. It would normalise the public use of Irish and make it easier for Irish speakers to know and use their rights, and for public servants to understand what they have to do, how and when.

In 2010, we collaborated on the first Congressional briefing on Irish language equality in Washington, DC. Seven years later, the Irish language still seems to be a point of political tension in Northern Ireland. Can you tell me what, if anything, has changed over the past few years?

The Irish language continued to be subject to a two-track approach within the Assembly, with Unionist Ministers tending to respond negatively to initiatives and projects, and with Nationalist Ministers tending to behave more favourably. In 2014, however, Carál Ní Chuilín, the Sinn Féin Minister for Culture agreed a plan with the cross border funding body for the Irish language, Foras na Gaeilge, to withdraw all core funding from all Northern-based Irish language organisations (seven groups including POBAL, the Ultach Trust, the Early Years group Altram etc). Six Dublin-based organisations were awarded funding in their place. In 2015, Ní Chuilín put Irish language legislative and strategic proposals to the NI Executive, but they were rejected by Unionists. In spite of this, work was ongoing between all parties at the Assembly on a new Programme for Government which contains only the weakest references to Irish language projects. The Stormont Assembly continued to operate from 2010 until February 2017. The Assembly ceased to function because of the serious illness of Martin McGuinness, Deputy First Minister,  who died several weeks after leaving office. There had also been a public and media outcry alleging mismanagement and/or corruption in respect of a Renewable Heating Scheme costing taxpayers some £500 million over 20 years.  Sinn Féin withdrew from the institutions, prompting political talks.

POBAL called on politicians not to return to the Stormont Assembly unless the introduction of the Irish language Act promised 10 years before, was honoured.  We have succeeded in making this a key issue within the talks, leading to Democratic Unionist Party leader, Arlene Foster, agreeing to meet some Irish language organisations for the first time. POBAL  met her and other senior DUP members to discuss the Act. However agreement was not reached between the parties on  the Irish language Act and other matters; a further election has been called which will take place in June.

What is the biggest obstacle currently facing the passage of an Irish Language Act?

The failure of the British government to fulfil its commitment in the St Andrew’s Agreement. It is clear that neither the Irish government nor the political parties here who are supportive of the Irish language have brought enough pressure to bear to date to make this happen.

There was what seemed to be a large public outcry in early April after public funding was cut to a few Irish language youth programs. Can you comment on the importance of these programs, and whether their funding has since been restored?

This was the latest in a long line of cuts and barely disguised attacks on Irish language projects in rapid succession. In the North, although cut backs are affecting English language services too, there are very few Irish language services provided by the state. Most services that Irish speakers avail of are provided by community sector groups determined to provide high quality services on a shoe string. As the Irish Medium schools sector has consolidated and grown, so the need for a youth infrastructure through Irish has become more apparent. However, this is very much an embryonic sector at present, so the withdrawal of funding to all the youth groups in Belfast was potentially a major blow.

Not all controversial and damaging funding decisions come about in this way, however. Just as all core funding from Foras na Gaeilge was cut to the few Irish language groups based in the north in 2014, now Foras is holding a consultation on its proposal to substantially cut funding to energetic Irish language arts centres, Cultúrlann McAdam Ó Fiaich in Belfast and Cultúrlann Uí Chanáin in Derry, and to transfer this funding to other areas. This is causing great concern at present.

What impact do you envision Brexit will have on the struggle for Irish language equality?

It will mean that some Irish speakers are EU citizens and some are not, even though we all speak the same language. This could mean different rights and entitlements. Some commentators are concerned that there will be a ‘carnival of reaction,’ with the British government moving away from current human rights protections. That could be a worry in the North because of the lack of domestic legislative protection for Irish. There are also many issues potentially regarding access to the Republic’s broadcasting service through Irish, TG4 [the Irish language television channel] which is currently provided free of charge on many platforms. Issues around freedom of movement may affect Irish speakers unduly as well. In some ‘border’ areas, children who live in the North may attend Irish medium education in the Republic. A ‘hard border’ could have major implications. It remains to be seen what the full complexity is of these issues and how they play out over time.

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