The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A battle over language is at the heart of Northern Ireland crisis

Supporters of an Irish Language Act in Northern Ireland, including students from Irish-language schools across the province, take part in a protest in Belfast on Feb. 1. (Brian Lawless/PA Wire/PA Images)

BELFAST — There’s a sign on the Falls Road announcing that you have entered the “Gaeltacht Quarter,” a pocket of Catholic West Belfast where the Irish language — at least a wee bit of it — is spoken with pride and defiance in the classrooms and pubs.

There are bilingual street signs here, a high school where 600 students study the ancient Gaelic tongue and an Irish theater troupe. There’s an Irish radio station, too, where on Friday afternoons the DJ hosts “Beo go Deo” (“Alive Forever”), an hour devoted to “the timeless hits of the king of rock-and-roll Elvis Presley.”

Down the block are fading murals glorifying beefy paramilitaries in balaclavas brandishing AK-47 rifles — just another stop these days on the tourist trail.

The people of Northern Ireland sincerely believe that the bloodshed of 20 years ago is in their rearview mirror. But if sectarian strife has cooled, the culture wars are hot.

The power-sharing government of Northern Ireland, a province of the United Kingdom, has been paralyzed for more than a year, in large part over the question of what to do about Irish — embrace it as an official language or keep it at arm’s length — alongside a parallel fight over same-sex marriage.

Today there is no functioning executive body in Northern Ireland, and multiple deadlines for its restoration have come and gone. There have been veiled threats from London to reestablish direct rule if compromises are not reached, although that would signal a failure not just for the U.S.-brokered peace process but also for Prime Minister Theresa May’s Conservative government. 

The parties met for roundtable talks in Belfast on Monday, the first since June, with no results. A five-party roundtable scheduled for Friday did not materialize. Britain’s new secretary of state for Northern Ireland, Karen Bradley, has refused to use the word “deadline” but said this week, “I firmly believe that an agreement in the coming days, while not certain, is achievable.”

Historic promise of peace for Northern Ireland

Perhaps the world has grown weary of Northern Ireland and its battles about what look to outsiders like mere symbols. But symbols remain no small thing in a place where lives have been lost over flags, colors, parades, words.

A leading advocate for the Irish language is Ciarán Mac Giolla Bhéin, who sat in a cafe in an Irish culture club in Belfast last week and translated for the waitress who asked in Gaelic whether we’d be wanting milk with our coffees.

“We’ve turned the tide of history,” he said. “We’ve revived a language, brought it back from the dead.” 

But that’s not nearly enough for the activists who want Irish to be given the same status and protections that other indigenous minority languages have in the United Kingdom, as in Scotland and Wales. 

Pushing for an Irish Language Act is Sinn Fein, the left-wing nationalist party allied with the outlawed Irish Republican Army during the Troubles, Northern Ireland’s 30-year-long sectarian horror show and low-intensity civil war that largely ended in 1998 but left more than 3,600 dead. The fighting pitted mostly Catholic nationalists against mostly Protestant unionists backed by the British army.

Opposed to any legislation that would enshrine Irish as an official language — in schools, courts, bureaucracy and everyday life — is the dominant Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), representing hard-and-fast British loyalists. 

Irish speakers hail the language as the island’s native tongue, a glorious survival story, spoken for thousands of years. Some unionist opponents have disparaged it as a “leprechaun language,” revived by IRA terrorists in prison and used as a cudgel against the British.

A few years back, DUP lawmaker Gregory Campbell began an address to the Northern Ireland Assembly with the words “Curry my yogurt,” mocking the Irish phrase used by nationalists in the chamber to say “Thank you, Mr. Speaker,” which begins “Go raibh maith agat.”

Afterward, Campbell told the BBC, “I exposed the fallacy and the nonsense of people who insist on using Irish to begin every single contribution, no matter what the topic is, when most people don’t understand what they’re saying.”

Sinn Fein says a majority of lawmakers support an Irish Language Act. The DUP stresses that it supports “mutual respect for all languages and cultures in Northern Ireland but not one elevated above all others.”

A year ago last month, the government of Northern Ireland collapsed when Sinn Fein withdrew from the power-sharing executive called for by the Good Friday Agreement of 1998. The pact had ended the violence of the Troubles but not the conflict’s underlying cause — British identity vs. Irish.

The long, marbled halls of Stormont Estate, site of the assembly, are mostly empty these days. The province of 1.8 million people is being run by unelected civil servants. Major decisions about the budget, health, education and the economy have stalled. 

The sleepy security guards at Stormont read newspapers, recently featuring an article about a patient who endured a 49-hour wait at a local emergency room. A Belfast reporter said with bitter humor that the only thing missing from the TV reports at Stormont is tumbleweeds blowing by.

Unionists and nationalists alike describe the atmosphere as toxic, the worst in years. 

Twenty years after the optimism of the Good Friday Agreement, “I would have thought there would be more progress, more reconciliation,” said Emmet McDonough-Brown, a Belfast city councilor from the middle-of-the-road Alliance Party. 

“Yes, the violence is gone, and that is great. But don’t we deserve more than that?” he said. “The feeling now is, ‘Is there no fixing this place?’ ”

Nobody in Belfast sees widespread violence returning, but the power vacuum has created anxiety. McDonough-Brown recalls that in 2012 there were death threats — and petrol bombs — targeting members of his party who pushed for a compromise over how many days a year the British flag should fly over the Belfast city hall.

He supports an Irish Language Act but said, “You’re not going to unite Ireland with bilingual traffic signs.”

Northern Irish politicians say everything now is complicated by Brexit, the decision by U.K. voters to leave the European Union. The voters in Northern Ireland came out against leaving, but theirs was a minority voice.

Unionists and nationalists here worry about a return to a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, which is remaining in the E.U. In the bad old days of the Troubles, the border area was widely described as “bandit country.”

This is why Irish politicians are frustrated with the U.K.’s Brexit negotiations

 Last February, DUP leader Arlene Foster vowed, “I will never accede to an Irish Language Act” and said that Sinn Fein was using language to beat unionists over the head. Asked about compromise at the time, Foster added, “If you feed a crocodile, it will keep coming back and looking for more.”

Sinn Fein seized on the remark. “See you later, alligator,” said its outgoing leader, Gerry Adams, who sent campaigners out in crocodile costumes.

There have been two elections since. In the first, Sinn Fein gained; in the second, the Democratic Unionists did well — enough to prop up May’s weakened government in Westminster.

Peter Weir, a DUP lawmaker and former education minister (who upon taking up his position removed all the Irish language from his portfolio’s website), said the recent elections have hardened positions. 

His constituents aren’t opposed to anyone speaking Irish, he said, but oppose an Irish Language Act because “the general feeling is, why is this needed? Why spend the money?” Supporters of the legislation say the program’s costs would be modest — about $12 million to initiate it and $3 million a year after that.

Weir said: “It feels threatening to some. It seems partisan.” Signs in Irish, he said, look “like a marking of territory.” 

Máirtín Ó Muilleoir is a Sinn Fein member of parliament. “I speak Irish, and my kids speak Irish,” he said. “There will be no back of the bus for anyone anymore.”

About 170,000 people in Northern Ireland have some knowledge of Irish, he said, with a fraction speaking it fluently. “It’s a sustainable figure,” Ó Muilleoir said.

“We preserve our old beautiful buildings,” he added. “We should preserve our old beautiful language, too.”

The East Belfast Mission, in a neighborhood with deep support for the DUP, holds classes for folks wanting to learn Irish. Most are Protestant. Students said they were curious about the language and did not see it as belonging to Catholics or Protestants, nationalists or unionists.

On a recent evening, beginners were learning that “Béal Feirste” is Irish for the mouth of the sandbanks — and also Belfast, the province’s capital.

“It’s a shame the language has been so politicized,” said Ian Fleming, a local artist struggling with his first Irish phrases: I am happy. You are sad.

“But you also know why, and I know why,” Fleming said. “Everybody knows why.” 

A modest revival for the Irish language

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