Friday, 27 September 2013

Language Wrongs



















Mark Devenport (or "wee Mark Devenpoort" as the Blether Region once heard the late David Ervine refer to him) has an interesting article about the new "supercouncils" over on the BBC website. Tensions between the two largest parties in the Stormont Executive may yet mean that the new councils never get off the ground, but for the time being let's assume that they do.

Mark Devenport's focus is on a clause in the Local Government Bill stipulating that votes on a yet to be revealed subset of controversial issues should be defined in secondary legislation as requiring weighted majorities. His take on it is clear from the subheading in the article — "Flags" — but there is of course another issue that has proven equally controversial, and, indeed, is often equated with that of flags: language. If votes on the promotion of Irish were included in the proposed schedule of disputed areas through secondary legislation, progress could be blocked entirely, even in comparative Republican heartlands.

It is surely one of the most bizarre aspects of Northern Ireland that linguistic rights can routinely be subject to democratic or communal veto. The origin of that veto lies in the Good Friday/Belfast Agreement itself, which mandates certain levels of cross-community support for Stormont votes on which a "petition of concern" has been submitted. Another part of the agreement — laid down in law in section 75 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998 — outlaws discrimination against individuals on the grounds of religion or political belief, among other factors. The trouble with language is that there is only so much the individual can do.  Real language shift, perhaps even effective language maintenance, requires the support of the state.

Supporters of Irish in Northern Ireland already see the pernicious influence of communal politics on attempts to promote Irish in local government in the form of section 11 of the Local Government (Miscellaneous Provisions) (Northern Ireland) Order 1995, which requires public consultation on street signs in a language other than English. Bilingual signage everywhere else in the world — indeed, state-backed bilingualism in general — is about respect for the minority language. When someone wishes to have a bilingual English-Irish street name in Northern Ireland, however, Irish can be blocked, even where a majority of residents support bilingualism, as long as the blocking minority is large enough — a perversely unsatisfactory situation. The blocking minority need merely allege that the presence of Irish on a street name makes their own neighbourhood into a "cold house" for them: instead of pointing out that such prejudice is irrational, the state indulges the irrationality.

This of course stands in stark contrast to what happens with Government Departments at Stormont. The DUP negotiated an Executive veto on controversial issues at the time of the Saint Andrews Agreement, and may soon use it to block the passage of an Irish language Bill. Yet the backsliding on commitments to Irish inside Departments that change hands each time the d'Hondt process is run is subject to no particular veto. Indeed, the fact that such backsliding has been allowed to progress so far may be one reason that the Northern Ireland Executive was unable to agree on its input into the UK's report on the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages.

If Stormont is ever again suspended, these issues will have to be discussed.

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