One of the most emotive issues arising in current Northern Irish politics is the thorny issue of Irish Language legislation. Understandably unionists are sceptical about the Irish Language lobby, given the long history of nationalism’s use of it as a political and ethno-exclusivist weapon.
As proponents of an inclusive and multinational United Kingdom however, it is incumbent upon civic unionists to accommodate the minority languages within our islands as generously as is practicable, without recourse to any cynicism about the authenticity of those languages or their proponents.
Within the United Kingdom diversity should be cherished and the strain of Irishness which cleaves to the Gaelic language should be no exception. The Irish Language should be encouraged and fully funded in the educational and cultural spheres.
That is not to say that unionism shouldn’t be firm in maintaining that the language has no practical role to play in areas of public life where efficiency and cost-effectiveness are paramount. Replicating forms, necessitating Irish speaking provisions for government departments dealing with the public etc. are unnecessary and divisive measures which will merely waste public money.
The challenge is to be firm in contesting that encroachment in these areas will not be tolerated, whilst stressing the respect and value which we accord the language. Strident attacks on the language lobby play into the hands of the republicans who wish to exploit this issue. The unionist response to proposed legislation shouldn’t be a downright rejection, rather it should be close scrutiny and involvement in the process to ensure that the legislation copper-fastens current language rights and encourages Irish as a valuable cultural area, and does not attempt to introduce expensive and exclusivist dual-language requirements in the public sphere.