Friday, 9 January 2015

Plus ça change …

Among the traditional rites of every New Year is the annual release of Cabinet papers subject to the 30-year rule.

In Northern Ireland this has a particular importance, since the years in question cover the Troubles — and only about half of them have been released thus far.

This time around it was the turn of 1985-86, and it's astonishing both how much and how little has changed in the interim.
"In January 1986, the Irish government presented its views on 'The Irish Language in Northern Ireland'.
The four-page typescript argued that 'the Irish language is central to the identity and tradition of Irish nationalists'.
The paper called for 'speedy action' in four specific areas: place names; the use of Irish in official business; an Irish language question in the 1991 Northern Ireland census and support for Irish language publications and events."
According to the BBC interpretation, "The then Secretary of State Tom King had accepted the right of local residents to decide on bilingual street names." Yet the Irish Government had in fact been asking for street names to be decided by a majority of residents. As we have seen, the actual wording of the resulting change means that Unionist-controlled councils are free to require super-majorities — and to count those who fail to respond as having voted against, an interesting form of democracy of which Londonderry Corporation would no doubt have been proud.

Needless to say, there is no obligation on Government bodies to hire Irish-speakers to deal with the public, and before the courts the use of all languages other than English is explicitly banned.

A question on Irish is, however, now included in the Census, and there is support for publications and events, albeit in an unsatisfactorily arbitrary and impermanent manner.

Most tellingly, Irish officials pointed out a home truth to NIO staff:
"As long as we refuse to move, Sinn Féin would have a valuable stick with which to beat us and, perhaps more importantly, the SDLP."
The definition of madness is sometimes said to be doing the same thing again and again despite knowing that it doesn't work. In Northern Ireland language politics, the particular form taken by that madness is to complain that Irish is being abused by Republicans and then summarily refuse reasonable demands on that basis, thus making it, and often its speakers and their relatives, all the more Republican.

Even in this New Year, there seems little sign of that vicious circle being broken.

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