Landmark march in Belfast in support of Irish speakers’ rights

Thousands call for official recognition of language, immediate action

The demonstration in Belfast.
The demonstration in Belfast. Author: An Dream Dearg
Thousands of protesters —17,000, according to organisers— demanded on Saturday 21 May in Belfast the passing of legislative measures in favour of the rights of Irish speakers in Northern Ireland. It is one of the largest demonstrations in history for Irish, which, unlike Welsh or Scottish Gaelic, does not have an act of its own seeking to promote it.

The demonstration was organised by the associative network An Dream Dearg (“The Red Group,” because of the colour it uses in events), with the support and participation from a number of Irish language organisations such as Conradh na Gaeilge.

Demonstrators reproached the authorities for their inaction in providing legislation to grant language rights to Irish speakers in the administration, schools, and courts, among other areas. According to the organisation, the lack of specific legislation turns Irish speakers into “second-class citizens.”

The historic demand of the Irish language movement has been for the Northern Ireland Assembly to pass an Irish Language Act, which would recognise Irish and English as having equal status. Unionist parties, however, have always blocked it.

The way forward in the short term goes via London. The adoption of measures for linguistic rights of Irish speakers is foreseen in the 2020 New Decade, New Approach (NDNA) agreement between the British and Irish governments, which enabled the recovery of the Northern Irish government after three years of suspension.

With unionist parties preventing the measures from being passed in Belfast, the UK government has committed to doing so in Westminster. This will take the form of the Identity and Language (Northern Ireland) Bill, announced by the UK government as part of the NDNA. This new law is set to “deliver a carefully balanced package of identity and language measures” including the “creation of a new Office of Identity and Cultural Expression that will provide guidance for public authorities on a series of national and cultural identity principles.”

The bill is expected to be taken to the UK legislature in the next few weeks, if not this week, according to The Irish News today.

Criticism from the European Charter’s Committee of Experts

The UK’ inaction has been criticised by the Committee of Experts of the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages (ECRML). In its latest communication (2021), the Committee criticised the fact that no specific legislation or comprehensive strategy for the promotion of Irish in Northern Ireland has yet been adopted. The expert group recommended that the UK authorities adopt such a strategy and a comprehensive law —the one about to be presented does not appear to be so— and also criticised the fact that the NDNA commitments have not been completed.

In line with the arguments of pro-language organisations, the ECRML Committee points out that the adoption of these partial measures under the NDNA is not a substitute for the passing of an Irish Language Act.

On the other hand, the Committee also recommends that the authorities immediately provide basic and advanced training for a “sufficient number of teachers teaching in Irish,” for which there is an “urgent need.”

The ECRML is an international treaty under the auspices of the Council of Europe in which several states commit themselves to protect and promote minority languages in their territories. The UK ratified the Charter in 2001 and recognises seven languages: Irish, Scottish Gaelic, Welsh, Cornish, Scots, Ulster Scots, and Manx.

Nearly 100,000 speakers in Northern Ireland

The linguistic substitution of Irish on the island of Ireland began in the 17th century and intensified in the 19th and 20th centuries. At the time of partition (1921), there were still Irish-speaking communities in Northern Ireland. But unlike south of the border, where preservation efforts concentrated on the rural areas known as the Gaeltacht, in Northern Ireland the emphasis of the language movement was on spreading knowledge of Irish throughout the territory, especially in the cities. This effort was most successful in the politicised environments of Irish republicanism.

Currently, 6 per cent of the Northern Irish population, some 100,000 people, claim to speak Irish, according to 2011 census data. However, only 0.2 per cent claim that it is their “main language,” which clearly shows its extremely limited use as a community language.