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Popular demands for linguistic rights in high spirits across Atlantic European nations

Galicia, Ireland, Asturias, Wales, Brittany, Basque Country witness renewed push by social movements calling for further official recognition of own languages

Thousands call for Irish language rights, May 2017, Belfast.
Thousands call for Irish language rights, May 2017, Belfast. Author: An Dream Dearg
Popular mobilizations demanding respect for the rights of speakers of minoritised languages have attracted in recent weeks considerable attention in several parts of Europe. Even if obeying to different national dynamics, they share a peculiar, common geographic feature: many are found on Europe’s Atlantic Arc, spanning from Galicia to Ireland. Even the most recent pan-European effort in favour of linguistic rights —the Donostia Protocol— has its roots in the Basque Country. A review of this demand-rich, linguistically diverse region.

More rights for Galician in the socioeconomic sphere. Even if it has been an official language since the adoption of the Galician Statute of Autonomy, pro-Galician language groups believe that the protection the language enjoys is not enough. In certain spheres, they argue, linguistic rights of Galician speakers are not well protected. The Mesa pola Normalización Lingüística has thus been collecting signatures since March with the aim of introducing a citizens’ initiative at the Galician Parliament. The proposal targets the approval of a law on “measures to guarantee linguistic rights in the socioeconomic sphere”. 10,000 signatures are needed so that the initiative can be discussed by MPs. Coinciding with a Galician language demonstration, May 17, the Mesa collected more supports for the initiative. Mesa campaigners will continue to disseminate it throughout Galicia until 21 September.

As a part of the campaign, the Galician rights group unveiled a short film depicting obstacles that Galician speakers face in their daily lives when they try to use the language.

New push to grant co-official status to Asturian. East of Galicia, demonstrations and concerts demanding an official status for the Asturian language are attended each year by thousands. Still, Spanish remains the only official language there. The Xunta pola Defensa de la Llingua Asturiana (XDLA) announced in May 2017 the launching of the “Official Status 2018 Project”, which seeks to introduce an amendment to the Statute of Autonomy to include recognition of Asturian as a co-official language, alongside Spanish. The XDLA says it has a “commitment” by more than 25% of the members of the Asturian Parliament to advance the proposal. Those MPs hail from left-wing parties Podemos and United Left, with enough seats to launch a reform procedure.

However, in order to be passed, the amendment will also need, at a later stage, the approval of centre-left PSOE, which in past times has resisted calls to grant Asturian official status. The XDLA, however, argues it has room to negotiate with the party.

As is the case in Northern Ireland, local councils are a few steps ahead. Several municipalities have approved, in recent years, motions granting Asturian local official use. One of the last towns to pass such a regulation is Mieres. But according to Spanish conservative PP party, the measure is unconstitutional.

In recent weeks, it has also come to widespread attention that local football team Real Oviedo has launched an Asturian language version of the club’s website.


Demonstrators call for official status for Asturian, Oviedo, May 2017 / Photo: Xunta pola Defensa de la Llingua Asturiana.

Donostia Protocol being disseminated across Europe. It has been in meetings by several international organizations held in the Basque Country, and on the initiative of Basque umbrella alliance Kontseilua, that the Protocol to Ensure Language Rights —also known as the Donostia Protocol after the name of the city where the document was unveiled in December 2016— has been drafted. The Protocol’s stated aims are “to declare that guaranteeing language diversity and ensuring language development are keys to peaceful coexistence,” “to create an effective instrument for language equality and the cultivation of languages in unfavourable situations” and “to ensure that the language community is the actor in this process and assert that society’s involvement guarantees fair play.”

The document builds on the experience of the 1996 Universal Declaration of Linguistic Rights. The Protocol is sponsored by more than 100 organizations belonging to 26 linguistic areas. Thus, over the first months of 2017, the text has been disseminated in several European territories where minoritised languages are spoken. As a first step at the institutional level, the document has been presented to the Parliaments of Navarre and Galicia, and to the Directorate-General of Linguistic Policy of the Catalan Government.

Macron urged to meet commitments on minoritised languages. A few days before the French legislative election, language associations of several stateless nations are recalling president Emmanuel Macron that, during the campaign for the presidential election and at the request of the European Language Equality Network (ELEN), he undertook the commitment to ratify the European Charter for Regional and Minority Languages, and vowed to give further chances to learn those languages in schools.

One of the places where the promise did not go unnoticed was indeed Brittany, not only because of the involvement of Breton activists in ELEN’s request —in 2016, some 60 pro-Breton language groups had already called for a languages act before 2018—, but also because in its election manifesto, the main pro-autonomy alliance running for the legislative poll (Oui la Bretagne) is proposing a constitutional reform that allows Breton to be declared an official language.

Welsh speakers take action for linguistic rights in private sector, broadcasting. Successive laws and regulations in favour of the Welsh language have been putting in place over the years a range of linguistic rights which can be mostly exercised within and in relation to the public sector. But for years, Welsh language groups, with Cymdeithas on the lead, have been claiming that the place of Welsh rights in the private sector is much more precarious. Cymdeithas is organizing protest actions in front of several supermarkets in order to put pressure on the Welsh Government so that a planned amendment of the Welsh language law extends linguistic rights of Welsh speakers to the private sector.

Meanwhile, another campaign is asking UK authorities to devolve broadcasting powers to the Welsh National Assembly. Some 50 Cymdeithas activists are refusing to pay an annual TV fee —worth 147 sterling pounds— until powers are devolved to Wales. Campaigners say this is the only way Wales could have a range of public radio and TV stations in Welsh.

New network of language activists in Northern Ireland. Closing the review of the Atlantic Arc, one must refer once again to Ireland. The 2006 St. Andrew’s Agreement provided, among other measures, for the adoption of an Irish language law in Northern Ireland. Eleven years later, the law has not yet been passed, as unionist parties continue to oppose it while Irish language groups demand its approval.

With that in mind, the most recent mobilization has taken place in May 2017, encouraged by several Irish language groups including An Dream Dearg —a network of activists that, being founded just a few months ago, has succeeded in taking thousands to the streets of Belfast demanding language rights for Irish speakers.

At the party level, Sinn Féin argues that the adoption of the law is a sine qua non condition for the republican party to agree to form a new government in Northern Ireland. DUP —the unionist party that must be Sinn Féin’s partner in government— has always opposed the measure, some of its members having despised Irish in public. However, DUP leader Arlene Foster has hinted that her party could accept a deal to pass a language law if it also included recognition for Ulster Scots —which was brought to Northern Ireland by Scottish settlers, a process mostly started in the 17th century.

According to the 2011 Northern Irish census, 6% of the population said they could speak Irish. However, only 0.2% declared it to be their “main language”.

At the local level, further steps in favour of the Irish language can be found. Thus, the Belfast City Council has approved a draft proposal to appoint an Irish Language Officer as one of several moves in the Northern Irish capital to promote linguistic diversity, including Irish, Ulster Scots, and other minoritised languages. The City Council has opened a website where citizens can contribute to the draft with their own ideas or amendments. Unionist parties oppose the fact that only the Irish language has its own specific officer, but they are in the minority in the council —Sinn Féin, SDLP and the Alliance Party support the move.