Our multilingual Assembly

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Once in a while, I like to have a scan over Hansard, to see how our MLAs are occupying themselves. And, of course, to get a little sample of their wit and wisdom:

Mr Hamilton: Looking at the sparsity of the Chamber, obviously it was not clear enough before the lunch break that I would be speaking —

Mr Deputy Speaker: It was clear.

Mr Hamilton: Oh dear. I am happy to delay, Mr Deputy Speaker, if you want to let in all of the screaming hordes who want to hear my contribution, but I will ably go on.

Mr K Robinson: On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. Is it possible for the proceedings to continue given the lack of Members in the Chamber? Do we have a quorum?

Mr Deputy Speaker: If, Mr Robinson, you are drawing my attention to the fact that there is not a quorum, I inform you that we can proceed with the business after the bell has been rung to notify other Members that a quorum is required.

We now have a quorum, so Mr Hamilton should proceed.

Mr Hamilton: Ken Robinson’s cunning plan did not work.

Mr Deputy Speaker: It was Baldrick’s plan. [Laughter.]

Mr Hamilton: His attempt to try to silence me has failed.

I am pleased to be able to speak during the Second Stage of the Budget (No. 2) Bill. Coming, as it usually does, a day after a debate on the Supply resolution, there is always some level of difficulty in saying something new or original. However, as you can testify, Mr Deputy Speaker, that has been no impediment to me speaking in the past, and it will not be so today.

Mr Weir: Hear, hear.

Ooh, my aching sides. Move over, Morecambe and Wise.

But what I wanted to take a brief look at was how our multilingual policy works, and this Tuesday last the Assembly provided us with an example or two. Here is an exchange between education minister Caitríona Ruane (PSF, South Down) and Tom Elliott (UCUNF, Fermanagh-South Tyrone):

Mr Elliott asked the Minister of Education what percentage of (a) grammar; and (b) non-grammar schools offer separate sciences (triple award) at GCSE.

The Minister of Education: Sa bhliain acadúil 2007-08 bhí cásanna de dhaltaí i mbliain 12 cláraithe do GCSE sna trí heolaíochtaí leithleacha i 73% de scoileanna gramadaí agus i 2% de scoileanna neamh-ghramadaí. Mar sin de, d’fhéadfaí a rá go bhfuil teastas triarach san eolaíocht á theagasc ag GCSE acu. In 2007-08, 73% of grammar schools and 2% of non-grammar schools had year-12 enrolments in all three separate sciences and, therefore, could be classed as offering triple-award science at GCSE. The data on which my answer is based relates to year-12 pupils who were enrolled in science examination courses. That data did not include any cases in which a school offered a science subject for study but no pupils took up the subject.

And there was rather a lot more of that answer, so let’s skip to the supplementary:

Mr Elliott: That was a very comprehensive reply, although quite a bit of it was in some foreign language that I did not understand. To tell the truth, at times, the Minister makes almost as much sense speaking a language that I do not understand as one that I do.

Is it the Minister’s assessment that grammar schools play a positive role in the strategically important objective of STEM subjects throughout GCSE level?

The Minister of Education: I spoke in two languages: Irish and English. I translated the Irish that I spoke.

As Caitríona is one of the Assembly’s few fluent Gaeilgeoirí, one can perhaps excuse her tetchiness. Especially when even moderate unionists seem to get rubbed up the wrong way by a few words of Irish.

But never mind that. Later on the same day, in a debate on housing, we had a contribution from Jim Shannon (DUP, Strangford), who is not a man to be outdone in the linguistic stakes:

Hooiniver, efter thon, hoosin schemes athwart the Province saen waark done bit bae bit tae bring hooses ap tae a guid stannart an’ thon waarked weill ‘til 12 Decemmer 2008 quhan the Hoosin Executive toul the fower contractors at thair wudnae bae onie stairts i Janwerry or Februrie 2009. Es A’hm shair ithers amang ye at waark oan the grun wur, I wus gat oantae bae contractors an’ toul’ quhat wus gaein oan, an’ A wus scunnered at fundin’ wud bae tuk fae a scheme at wus daein the business sae weill.

However, after that, housing estates throughout the Province saw work done in phases to bring homes to a decent standard. That was working well until 12 December 2008, when the Housing Executive notified the four contractors that there would be no new starts in January or February 2009. I was contacted by contractors who told me what was happening, as I am sure were other Members, and I was dismayed that funding was to be taken away from a scheme that is doing the business so effectively.

I take my hat off to that man. Wha’s like us, indeed.

Where’s the beef? Cultural politics in the New Dispensation

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I should, I suppose, have covered the PSF Ard Fheis, but I didn’t follow it as closely as I should have. This is entirely because Gerryspeak does my head in. Props to the Dublin organisation, though, for their valiant attempt to reinstate the old tax policy. This shows a grasp of the realities of southern politics that many Nornies still haven’t got their heads around.

So what of our New Dispensation up here? What there hasn’t been so far is any worthwhile legislation, or indeed many executive decisions. Everything is under review. And, with the honourable exceptions of Margaret Ritchie and Michelle Gildernew, few ministers seem in a hurry to do anything. This was raised in the Assembly back in October by the estimable Naomi Long (Alliance, East Belfast) and provoked a most un-PC response from Papa Doc.

It’s all the more puzzling when you consider that on the big socio-economic issues, everybody at Stormont agrees with everybody else. In fact, all the big rows have been about cultural symbolism.

Take the attendance of culture minister Edwin Poots (DUP) at the Pobal conference. It was said that this was a great step forward, that it was the first time anyone from the DUP had attended an Irish-language event. The latter is true, and it does mark some modest progress from the days when Sammy the Streaker and his cronies at City Hall were banging on about Gaeilge being a “foreign language”. But there’s a way to go yet, as demonstrated by Pootsie’s speech. I’m paraphrasing of course, but I think I have the gist:

Yo! I’m here. I’m doing my job as culture minister and reaching out to all sections of the community.

Now you guys think you’re getting a Language Act. Well, you can whistle for it.

And what’s all this about bilingual signage? I don’t think so.

What’s more, you Gaeilgeoirí keep letting Sinn Féin/IRA lead you by the nose. You need to correct that in the future.

Sin é.

Well, no, to be totally fair, there was a bit more to it than that. Pootsie did do a bit of soft-soaping about the shared heritage of our community. And he also had a pop at the Provos for launching an Irish-language campaigning group named after martyred IRA volunteer Caoimhín Mac Brádaigh. In the minister’s view, this tended to associate an Ghaeilge with “terrorism” and made things more difficult for friends of the language like himself.

We may well say the minister is being disingenuous, and there’s a fair possibility that might be true. But he’s also hit on something, in that republican politics in the North these days consists in very large part of cultural symbolism, combined with invoking the names of republican heroes. At this rate, the Provos will have more commemorations than the Orange Order.

So it was with PSF’s International Women’s Day initiative, which was to hold a celebration of the life of martyred volunteer Máiréad Farrell. A perfectly worthy thing to do – Máiréad was a serious republican woman who deserves to be commemorated. But then there was the idea of holding the event at Stormont, instead of (say) a West Belfast venue. This drove the unionists apeshit, which may have been the point. As it happens, the Assembly business committee wouldn’t let them use the Long Gallery. And so Nelson McCausland (DUP) got to go on the wireless and crow about how the Shinners had been forced to hold the commemoration in a poky wee party office.

This, I suppose, is what passes for politics in the North these days. Where’s the beef, indeed?

Rud eile: On a related note, I can’t help but notice all the tributes to Brendan Hughes that have been appearing in the Andytown News. It’s all the more striking in that the Dark had been an unperson for the last lot of years. But now, I guess, it’s okay to praise him now that he’s safely dead and unable to answer back. Lord help us, these guys will probably even have something nice to say about John McAnulty when he goes.

Shocking lack of sweetness and light at the House of Fun

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Well, it’s all go at Stormont, isn’t it? That was some day yesterday, and while it isn’t by any means the beginning of the end for the New Dispensation, it does at least tell us that the underlying tensions here are still very much present.

In the morning we had the discussion of the Acht Gaeilge, in which culture minister Edwin Poots (DUP, Lagan Valley) basically told Gaeilgeoirí they could whistle for their language act. He hummed and hawed a bit about costs, but the essential part of his statement was that there was insufficient cross-community consensus – in other words, the Prods wouldn’t wear it. He did however flag up his acceptance of the importance of Irish and his willingness to fund discreet projects which don’t scare the Prods.

This delighted Dave McNarry (OUP, Strangford), who has spent a very long time in unionist politics while making minimal impact. Dave, who gets very annoyed if you call him Dáithí, has recently found his niche in life by issuing apocalyptic warnings of how the New Dispensation is going to force innocent Prods to speak Irish. Less impressed were two of the Assembly’s more fluent Gaeilgeoirí, culture committee chair Barry McElduff (PSF, Mid-Ulster) and Dominic Bradley (SDLP, Newry and Armagh), both of whom gave off about how the Brits had promised a language act at St Andrew’s and the DUP was reneging on the settlement. This buttered no parsnips with Pootsie, who noted the irony of nationalist MLAs appealing to Westminster, and further noted that Gaelic was a devolved matter in any case.

So that was the morning. In the afternoon, social development minister Margaret Ritchie (SDLP, South Down) made her statement on the Conflict Transformation Initiative, the rather swanky name for a £1.2m state subsidy to the UDA arranged by then proconsul Peter Hain before the restoration of Stormont. After the UDA had shown no signs of cleaning up its act, Margaret warned the boys that they had sixty days to do so or they risked losing their cash. Since the sixty days have expired and the UDA, well, is still the UDA, Margaret announced that she was stopping the CTI and would seek ways to divert the cash into deprived Protestant areas. I say, good on you Margaret, and I would further add that if you want to help working-class Protestant areas, some of which are suffering super-deprivation, the last thing you want to do is to bankroll the loyalist paramilitaries.

As soon as this statement was made, finance minister and would-be Cardinal Richelieu of Stormont, Peter Robinson (DUP, East Belfast), was on his feet roaring that Margaret had acted ultra vires and was in breach of the ministerial code of conduct. How this was so, Robbo did not say, although speaker Willie Hay (DUP, Foyle) was flustered enough to call an adjournment and consult with civil service head honcho Nigel Hamilton. Margaret also took a bit of flak from PSF MLAs, although their more crabwise approach probably has something to do with the underlying tension between their desire to do down the SDLP, and republican voters in places like North Belfast being none too keen on the enormous state subsidies being handed to the death squads.

Which should all make tomorrow’s Executive meeting quite interesting.

Also at Stormont, the competition to be the North’s new Victims and Survivors Commissioner has been reopened, and applicants will be interviewed by the Chuckle Brothers themselves. This raises the problem, however, of how you could find a commissioner who was acceptable on a cross-community basis, given that everybody is keen to claim victimhood these days. I’ve heard it suggested that, taking the First and Deputy First Ministers as a precedent, two co-commissioners, one unionist and one republican, could be appointed. But this is surely not inclusive enough, as the loyalist paramilitaries would have to be included as well. What odds can I get on Hard Bap as an alternate commissioner?

Gaels to protest at Stormont

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This is short notice, but it’s well worth supporting. Thanks to Ciarán for the forward.

PROTEST AGAINST ANTI-IRISH RACISM – SUPPORT THE IRISH LANGUAGE!
Tuesday 9th October 12pm Stormont

On Tuesday 9th October, UUP MLA David McNarry is proposing a draconian motion to ban the use of Irish in the NI Assembly. Irish language organisation ACHT have organised a protest to coincide with the hearing of the motion at Stormont next Tuesday at 12 pm.

ACHT Spokersperson Ciarán Mac Giolla Bhéin said, “this motion not only contravenes Article 73 of the Assembly Regulations but also the Good Friday Agreement and the European Charter for Regional and Minority languages, both of which which uphold the right to speak and learn Irish. The use of indigenous languages is an internationally recognised human right that can’t be held to ransom by anti-Irish racism or party political posturing. The Irish language community firmly believes that instances such as this highlight the necessity for a rights-based Irish language Act in the six counties.”

Mr Mac Giolla Bhéin also stated that Tuesday’s motion can’t be taken in isolation and follows what he descirbed as, “a month of vitrolic and hugely insulting racist anti-Irish attacks by senior elected representatives of both the UUP and DUP. This was epitomised by the deeply offensive racist mockery of DUP MLA Gregory Campbell last month where he disgracefully imitated an Irish phrase by saying ‘Cori my yogi Bear, a can coca colya’.

Such irresponsible and racist behaviour is totally unacceptable and wouldn’t be tolerated by any other linguistic or ethnic minority. The Irish langauge community is no different and deserve a complete retraction and apology from Mr Campbell.

“ACHT is calling on support of the Irish language community and all others who oppose racism and believe in human rights. We look forward to seeing you at Stormont.”

CUR I gCOINNE CINÍOCHAS FRITH-GHAEILGE – TACAIGH LEIS AN GHAEILGE!
Dé Máirt 9 Deireadh Fómhair 12in Stair Mhonadh

Dé Máirt 9 Deireadh Fómhair, tá rún á chur os comhair Thionól an Tuaiscirt ag David McNarry, Feisire ón UUP, ina molann sé bac iomlán a chur ar úsáid na Gaeilge sa Tionól. Tá agóid eagraithe ag an eagras Gaeilge, ACHT, ar 12in Dé Máirt chun cur i gcoinne an rúin.

Dúirt Úrlabhraí ACHT, Ciarán Mac Giolla Bhéin; “Ní hamháin go bhfuil an rún seo ag teacht salach ar Alt 73 de Rialacha an Tionóil ach fosta ar Chomhaontú Aoine an Chéasta agus ar an Chairt Eorpach, a thacaíonn le ceart an duine an Ghaeilge a fhoghlaim agus a labhairt. Tá an ceart chun teangacha dúchasacha a úsáid aitheanta go hidirnáisiúnta agus ní féidir ligint do chiníochas frith-Ghaeilge agus páirtithe polaitiúla an ceart seo a dhiúltú ar phobal na Gaeilge. Creideann cainteoirí Gaeilge go léiríonn eachtraí mar seo go bhfuil géarghá ann do Acht ceart-bhunaithe Gaeilge sna sé chontae.”

Luaigh an tUasal Mac Giolla Bhéin chomh maith go gcaithfear rún na Máirte a chur san áireamh leis na hionsaithe fíochmhara eile a rinne polaiteoirí ón UUP agus ón DUP ar an Ghaeilge le mí anuas. “Is iomaí masla ciníoch a caitheadh leis an Ghaeilge ar na mallaibh. Mar shampla rinne Gregory Campbell, Feisire ón DUP, scigaithris chiníoch ar fhrása Gaeilge sa Tionól an mhí seo caite. Ní féidir glacadh leis an chineál seo iompair ó fheirsirí tofa agus ní chuirfeadh aon phobal eitneach suas lena leithéid. Is amhlaidh an scéal le pobal na Gaeilge agus tá leithscéal tuillte ag cainteoirí Gaeilge láithreach.

“Tá ACHT ag iarraidh ar phobal na Gaeilge, agus ar dhuine ar bith eile a thacaíocht le ceart daonna, tacú leis an agóid agus cur i gcoinne an chiníochais. Tá súil againn go mbeidh sibh linn ag Stair Mhonadh.”

CRÍOCH/END

Pootsie the Gaeilgeoir

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If you were watching the news last night, you’ll have seen the PSF delegation, headed by Grizzly himself, going to talk to our new culture minister, the DUP’s Edwin Poots, about the implementation of the Acht Gaeilge. I fear they didn’t get very far. Pootsie, as his performance over the national stadium saga demonstrates, is a master at buck-passing and stonewalling. The situation currently is that, of the 4000 responses to the original consultation, the overwhelming majority were in favour and only a small number hostile, which confirms my view that most Prods don’t care much about Gaelic one way or the other. However, since the issue became a unionist hot potato, another consultation was called, and the DUP was properly mobilised this time. But fear not – our minister holds out the prospect of taking some unspecified non-legislative action for Gaeilgeoirí, just as long as it doesn’t get him into trouble in the Assembly.

But it was encouraging that Pootsie managed the traditional cúpla focal, thus proving, as the minister joked, that he knows as much Irish as many nationalist MLAs. This is probably true – Caitríona Ruane is a good speaker, and Barry McElduff can (and frequently does) talk Irish till the cows come home, but that’s about it. There can be few more painful experiences than going to a republican meeting and hearing the speaker read out a Gaelic text that neither he nor 80% of the audience understands.

Rud eile: Readers will be aware of the Stormont Executive’s campaign to encourage inward investment by lowering corporation tax in Norn Iron. Now comes word that El Gordo has a better idea: lowering the minimum wage. It’s plausible, I suppose, that London workers should get a premium, but what kind of cracked redistribution is it to further lower the wages of workers in what is already the lowest-paid region of the ‘UK’?

Pádraig Mac Piarais and the poetic imagination

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Pearse is a very unfashionable figure these days, indeed for decades past. Although there are plenty of people who would love to claim the banner of Connolly, sometimes by gutting his ideas and sometimes by ascribing to him an ultra-radicalism he didn’t have, Pearse would be nearly forgotten had he not got the station named after him. This reflects, I think, a deep ambivalence towards 1916, such a significant event that it still makes our political establishment uneasy 91 years later, but also in a basic lack of ambivalence in Pearse’s mode of expression. Connolly can be, and has been, reinvented as a Labourite, a Stickie, a Fianna Fáiler, a Provo, even someone close to the esoteric ideology of the Socialist Party, but Pearse is harder to bend to a foreign purpose. Possibly that’s why few people today bother to ask the question, what did Pearse think he was doing?

The great martyr has been particularly badly served by our historical revisionists, who like to write him off as a virtual madman, something you can get away with by throwing around cant terms like “atavism”. Often this is given a theological gloss by reference to mystical ideas of “blood sacrifice”, which shows a basic lack of knowledge of Catholic theology. It’s true that Irish Catholicism, and its colonial offshoot in Scotland, are deeply weird from the standpoint of Vatican orthodoxy, but they still don’t find much of a place for “blood sacrifice”. In any case, the man was not a mad Catholic theocrat in the Maria Duce mould, but basically a Rousseauist political thinker.

What sets Pearse apart, and renders him difficult for a lot of people to understand, is that he was not only a revolutionary but also a poet, a combination that used to be a lot more common than it is these days. Not only that, but he had an intimate knowledge of a Gaelic canon that is unfamiliar to most modern readers, not least because a big chunk of our society believe that having no Irish at all is the mark of a sophisticate. If you’ve even a passing acquaintance with the old literature, and even with my horrible Irish – like the Myles na gCopaleen character, I have no Gaelic only Ulster Gaelic, and not a fierce amount of that – I do my best, then what is obscure becomes clear.

It’s worth remembering the basic transformative element of the aisling genre, a patriotic verse form that Pearse was steeped in, whereby the cailleach (hag) becomes the spéirbhean (goddess or woman of great beauty). This is a very old theme in folklore, and a sanitised version appears in European fairy tales in which a girl kisses a frog, whereupon it magically transforms into a handsome prince. In the old Irish versions, not only are the gender roles reversed, but, as Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill is fond of reminding us, the hero doesn’t get away with just demure kissing – no, he has to sleep with the hag. Damn, those old Gaels were a racy bunch. The aisling poems of later centuries tend to be more elevated in tone than the Old Irish texts, as befits their identification of the cailleach-spéirbhean transformation with the cause of national rebirth, but nonetheless they build on the original.

Let us then turn to Pearse’s most famous poem:

Mise Éire:
Sine mé ná an Chailleach Bhéarra.
Mór mo ghlóir:
Mé a rug Cú Chulainn cróga.
Mór mo náire:
Mo chlann féin a dhíol a máthair.
Mór mo phian:
Bithnaimhde do mo shíorchiapadh.
Mór mo bhrón:
D’éag an dream inar chuireas dóchas.
Mise Éire:
Uaigní mé ná an Chailleach Bhéarra.

Incidentally, Bernie McAliskey does a great recitation of “Mise Éire”, though she may prefer to sing some Leonard Cohen, as she did last time I was at a meeting with her. But to return to the point, what is Pearse saying here? It’s well known that he is lamenting the state of the nation, but what’s crucial here is the aisling convention – having identified Ireland with the Hag of Béarra, as night follows day, the cailleach must inevitably become the spéirbhean. But to accomplish that, one needs a heroic intervention.

So, in place of the blood sacrifice, do we then have 1916 as a symbolic act of sexual intercourse? That may strike the literalist reader as weirder still. But we are talking about allegory layered upon allegory: the sex is not sex, but symbolic of the self-sacrifice of the hero. Semiology, how are you. It’s a particularly difficult point for those whose cultural background is basically written rather than oral, as evidenced by the Austrian policemen in 1914 who laughed when the Sarajevo assassins described themselves as junaci (heroes). Had the Austrians known the nuanced meaning of junak in Serbian patriotic poetry, where the term equates pretty well to our fian, the assassins’ self-description might not have sounded so, well, incongruous.

Incongruous, of course, is how it appears to our soi-disant rationalists, who find it bizarre that anyone, outside of the wilder reaches of Islamic fundamentalism, could be inspired to drastic political action by poetic imagery. The power of the poetic archetype as a way of describing our current situation and pointing towards the future passes by those who see the flip soundbite as the mark of the great communicator. But this just goes to show that there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamed of in the logical positivist mind.

Liúdramán aontachtach na seachtaine

In our new post-Troubles dispensation, Norn Iron politics is coming into synch with the norm in other countries. That is to say, politics is increasingly indistinguishable from showbiz – Schwarzenegger and Dana prove the point in a literal sense, but the histrionics of a Clinton or Mr Tony, or the entire career of Rankin’ Dave Cameron, can also be taken as examples. In this paradigm, Big Ian would be our answer to Jerry Lee Lewis, the original and best, a one-off who can’t possibly be replicated. And thank the Lord for that.

But where Jerry Lee Lewis appears, Liberace cannot be far behind. Step forward Strangford MLA Dave McNarry, a man who has spent a remarkably long time in unionist politics to remarkably little effect. Dave is OUP chief whip in the Assembly and as such a key player in Sir Reggie’s doomed strategy of trying to out-Paisley Paisley. Dave is also, readers will be cheered to learn, deputy chair of the Stormont culture committee. This makes him third in the North’s cultural hierarchy, behind the towering intellects of the minister, Lisburn ‘City’ Council leader Edwin Poots, and the committee chair, Tyrone GAA man Barry McElduff. The discussions between these characters are so high-flown as to give the observer nosebleeds.

Anyway, in his cultural capacity Dave has penned a missive to the News Letter on the subject of the Acht Gaeilge. Why is this like Liberace? Because reading the letter, one gets an overwhelming sense of having come across a bad cover version of the DUP of the early nineties, complete with copious references to that mythical beast the “pan-nationalist front”. Such a farrago of paranoia is a rare treat.

Dave refers to a vote on the culture committee where all the PSF and SDLP reps raised their hands for the Acht Gaeilge. Dave sees this as evidence of a sinister plot. It clearly doesn’t occur to him that, since both parties’ stated policy is in favour of the Acht Gaeilge, one might have expected them to vote this way.

Seeing is believing and believe me, what I saw across the table from both Sinn Fein and SDLP members has given great cause for alarm. Witnessing republicans and so-called constitutional nationalists resurrecting a pan-nationalist front and watching a display of defiant triumphalism was a setback, as was their evident sectarian attitude, determined at all costs to push the Irish language down unionist throats,” arsa Dáithí.

Dave also finds it sinister that Sinn Féin Nua’s Caitríona Ruane is minister for education, apparently believing that she has the superhuman ability to turn Prod schoolchildren into Gaeilgeoirí overnight. Dave further warns the Prods that they “risk waking up to find the Irish language taking over your lives in both permanent and prominent manifestations of visible displays unfolding before your eyes”. By this Dave seems to be referring to things such as bilingual road signs. Perhaps he should have a word with his party colleague, Laird Laird, who has spoken in favour of Ulster-Scots signage across the whole of Ireland, or indeed take into consideration the signage and letterheading policy of Airds Cooncil in his own constituency.

Dear God. You know, nobody is proposing that Prods be forced to speak Irish. In fact, some unionist assemblymen struggle to communicate as Béarla – Dave is more articulate than most, but he still retains that unmistakable streak of paranoia that results from Orangeman’s X-ray vision being able to discern dastardly plots everywhere.

An dara mórshiúil ar son Acht Gaeilge

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This blog has previously covered the question of the Acht Gaeilge, and readers will be aware that the unionist parties at Stormont have steadfastly opposed this worthy and harmless move. Since under the new dispensation the DUP’s Edwin Poots gets to be minister of culture, it goes without saying that the Executive will not move without substantial external pressure.

Therefore we are appealing to readers in Belfast to turn out for the second march for the Acht Gaeilge. More details on Indymedia, and míle buíochas to Ciarán for the tip.

 Update 4.6.07: I espy in the latest Newtownards Chronicle a letter from local MLA Jim Shannon, urging the broad masses to get down to their DUP office (Comber people will be at an advantage here) and sign a petition against the Acht Gaeilge, which Jim condemns as divisive and wasteful of public resources. Jim, by the way, has been a leading light in pushing forward Ards Council’s bilingual policy. That is, it refers to itself as ‘Airds Cooncil’, but definitely not ‘Comhairle na hArda’.

Béalbochtachas Próvach

Never let it be said that Northern nationalists have lost their knack for street politics. Although they have been fairly quiescent of late, Northern nationalists have a long and not easily forgotten history of voicing their discontents, on occasion inscribing pithy slogans on placards and gathering together in numbers to give off. Thus we see a mass rally being organised for West Belfast next Saturday.

So what is the subject of the rally? Are the proletariat protesting against the restoration of Stormont and the prospect of Big Ian becoming prime minister? No, as far as can be seen most people cling to the vain hope that some deal will be done. Are they, as the left hope, all riled up over water charges? No, although nobody actually wants to pay the charge the non-payment rallies have not been growing – rather the reverse. In fact, the masses are due to rally in support of the promised Irish Language Act.

This is rather revealing of how the peace process works. At the St Andrew’s talks, in exchange for agreeing to whatever Big Ian demanded, the Provos were fobbed off with various small commitments from the Brits, the most visible of which was the promise of legislation to give Irish some sort of official recognition – the details remain vague. There’s nothing wrong with that. It should be a basic democratic position that Irish should get no less official support than Welsh does. And it’s basically a feelgood measure – it gives nationalists the illusion of having their identity recognised without undermining the basis of the Northern statelet. (“Parity of esteem” is the Humespeak term, now widely adopted by all sorts of people.)

But that isn’t how unionists have seen things. Any official recognition of the Fenians, no matter how innocuous, is guaranteed to get unionist backs up. The OUP have got stuck into the DUP for letting this dangerous proposal see the light of day. The Orange Order have taken the headstaggers and included the Language Act as part of their long list of grievances. The DUP, whose position in the past has oscillated between “English Only” and the odd semi-serious attempt to demand parity of esteem for Braid Scotch, have belatedly woken up to the fact that this small gesture to the Fenians is going down like a lead balloon with the Prods. And, while the Brits seemed to have made an ironclad commitment to the legislation, suddenly the proposal finds itself back on the table and gradually sliding off the table. Such is the dynamic of the peace process.

This in turn has started to sink into the nationalist psyche, and a march and rally are necessary to demand something that was supposed to have been a done deal. It’s also interesting that there are two overlapping constituencies involved here. There are in West Belfast many serious and devoted Gaeilgeoirí who are genuinely annoyed about the Brits’ vacillations. But there is also the luvvie wing of Sinn Féin Nua, many of whom know no Irish except “Ba mhaith liom deontas”, but whose beady little eyes lit up like Scrooge McDuck’s at the prospect of a well-funded Gaelic subsection of the grantocracy. Parity of esteem is one thing, but the prospect of those juicy grant cheques vanishing concentrates the mind wonderfully.

Am I being unduly cynical? Possibly. After all, the Language Act is a worthy cause no matter the motivation of the march organisers. It wouldn’t make much practical difference, but Gaeilgeoirí with some experience of activism behind them appreciate the value of even a small victory. But it’s worth noting nonetheless that imperialism can give and take away with equal facility. It’s the old old story – the only rights you have are the ones you can win for yourself.