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How the Irish language became a pawn in a culture war

The indigenous language has become a totem in an escalating struggle over the meaning of identity in post-conflict Northern Ireland.

On a balmy July morning in a small castle nestled at the foot of the Sperrin mountains, Diarmaid Ua Bruadair reclines in his office chair and sighs contentedly in a rare moment of quiet, after another hectic school year. It’s the first week of the summer holidays at Gaelcholáiste Dhoire in County Derry. The school, which just days ago was buzzing with pupils, is now silent save for the whir of a vacuum cleaner at the end of the corridor and the occasional chirp of birds through an open window.

The castle, affectionately nicknamed Hogwarts by its pupils, is an unconventional building for a school. But most things about Gaelcholáiste Dhoire are unconventional. It opened in 2015 in response to the resurgence of the Irish language in the region following the end of the Troubles conflict, and is one of just two Irish language secondary schools in Northern Ireland.

In recent years the Irish speaking community has found itself unexpectedly thrust into the centre of a cultural tug-of-war between Northern Ireland’s two communities, amid a tense and often bitter debate about what role, if any, the language should play in the region as its popularity grows. In January 2017, the government at Stormont collapsed when Sinn Féin withdrew from its power-sharing partnership with the DUP.  In subsequent negotiations about whether to return to government, Sinn Féin introduced what it says is an immovable condition for any future at Stormont: new legislation to protect and promote the Irish language. But the DUP says it will not return to any new government with Sinn Féin if such legislation is introduced.

The internecine stand-off has lasted more than two and a half years. In the absence of democratically elected politicians, civil servants have been tasked with running Northern Ireland.

Irish is spoken by a small minority of people in Northern Ireland; the most recent census in 2011 recorded that 11 per cent of people in the region identify as speakers of the language. But it has become a totem in an escalating tussle between the nationalist and unionist communities over what parity of the British and Irish identities really means in a post-conflict Northern Ireland.

While Irish was originally the indigenous language across the island of Ireland, deliberate attempts to suppress it were implemented under British colonial rule, in a bid to reduce Irish identity and enhance British control of the country. These included forcing families to adopt English translations of their surnames and banning the use of Irish language in the legal system. As a result, English became the primary language of most Irish people.

Following independence, the Irish language experienced a resurgence in the Republic of Ireland throughout the twentieth century. Yet Irish continued to be sidelined in Northern Ireland under the unionist government. It was primarily spoken by the Catholic and nationalist community, and was strongly associated with Irish nationalism. Following the Good Friday Agreement, which guaranteed parity of esteem for both the British and Irish identities in Northern Ireland, the language has seen a resurgence among many in the nationalist community who consider it an important aspect of their identity and heritage. 

When Ua Bruadair set up Gaelcholáiste Dhoire, it had just 13 pupils in its first intake. Four years on, 120 pupils now attend and a further 56 are due to begin this September. The school’s lessons, from maths to history and home economics, are all conducted in Irish. Pupils are encouraged to chat amongst themselves in Irish. Although it is one of only two secondary schools in the region, there are dozens more Irish language primary schools and nursery schools, many of which have opened in recent years as young parents who are part of the post-conflict generation opt to have their children educated in the language.  

“The vast majority [of pupils] come from families where the parents don’t speak Irish, who maybe didn’t have any opportunity to learn Irish at school but feel that it’s important for their children to speak Irish. They also value and recognise the value of a bilingual education,” Ua Bruadair explains.

He estimates that the school will have around 450 pupils by 2026, as the current primary-age cohort enter secondary school. Ua Bruadair describes this as a “pyramid effect” that will result in a boom in the language over the next decade.

As a child, Ua Bruadair attended the very first Irish language secondary school in Northern Ireland, Coláiste Feirste, which opened its doors in Belfast in 1991. Its founders were threatened with imprisonment for setting up an unapproved school. Coláiste Feirste received no government funding during its first 14 years; parents raised money by selling Christmas cards and collecting at Gaelic sports matches. “The parents cleaned the school. The teachers had money gathered to pay their wages. The building quality was poor, it was old pre-fabs handed down second or third hand from different organisations,” he tells me.

The situation changed dramatically after the Good Friday Agreement, which provided some protection to the Irish language and placed a statutory duty on authorities to encourage Irish education. But Ua Bruadair thinks more Irish language legislation is needed to ensure that ambiguities in the current law are ironed out.

We walk past a block of specialist classrooms that have been added to the side of the castle building. Bunsen burners are lined up in science labs and kitchen units visible in purpose-built home economics suites. The new extension was first approved under a Sinn Féin education minister. When a DUP minister took their place, the project was halted and referred for a review – the delay meant pupils were unable to use the buildings for a year.

Some fear an Irish Language Act could politicise the language. Ua Bruadair doesn’t agree. “The opposite would be the case… it would make it very clear what we can expect from statutory authorities”, he says.

Provocative gestures from DUP politicians have compounded calls for Irish language legislation. DUP MP Gregory Campbell mocked the language during a debate at Stormont. Michelle McIlveen, the DUP’s agriculture, environment and rural affairs minister, changed the name of a fisheries protection boat from Irish into its English equivalent. And an equalities investigation showed that Stormont’s Department for Communities, headed by DUP minister Paul Givan, had failed to carry out necessary equality tests before cutting a small bursary scheme that enabled disadvantaged children to learn Irish.  

Iain Carlisle is chief executive of the Orange Order, one of Northern Ireland’s most prominent loyalist groups. The organisation, which has close links to the DUP, are opposed to new legislation to protect the Irish language. Carlisle believes the legislation is a fig leaf for Sinn Féin to undermine the region’s position within the UK. Though he says the group has “no quarrel” with those who have an affinity to the Irish language, Carlisle argues that Republicans are using the language as a political weapon.

“Having failed to drive out the British community via a 40-year campaign of terrorism, the Republican movement has in recent years moved their focus to a ‘culture war’”. The demand for an Irish Language Act is simply the next chapter in a Republican campaign to rid Northern Ireland of “any semblance of British cultural identity”, he adds.

Carlisle fears that quotas could be introduced in the civil service or other professions to give preference to Irish speakers over those who only speak English, thereby inadvertently placing non-Irish speaking communities at a disadvantage.

When I ask Carlisle whether he believes the ongoing absence of a government at Stormont is a price the loyalist community are willing to pay in order to ensure an Irish Language Act isn’t introduced, Carlisle says: Like most citizens here, we wish to see stable and accountable government restored in Northern Ireland. Sinn Féin, however, are holding the political system to ransom under false pretences. It is plain to see that the cultural and linguistic rights of Irish speakers are not being denied or undermined in any way. Such a tactic cannot be rewarded.”

Back in Derry, Ua Bruadair is excited to welcome the new cohort of pupils to the school this September. Although conscious of the potential problems his school could face again in the absence of legislation, Gaelcholáiste Dhoire’s growing numbers have “vindicated” Ua Bruadair in taking on a challenge. “There’s something special about people, children in particular, being able to speak their own language in Ireland.”

Siobhán Fenton is a Belfast-based writer covering gender, politics and Northern Ireland.