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“Pobal Teanga Faoi Bhláth”: why Good Friday Agreement affects the Irish language

Updated Wednesday, 22 November 2023

Why has The Good Friday Agreement left a mark on the Irish language? Dr Pádraig Ó Tiarnaigh traces the language's history and recent revival.

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Chun an leathanach seo a léamh i nGaeilge, cliceáil anseo.

"A Peace of Us" - the OU collection exploring why Good Friday Agreement matters 25 years on

This arcicle is part of "A Peace of Us", our special collection of resources exploring why the Good Friday Agreement is relevant to our lives 25 years since its signing.

The Good Friday Agreement was to herald a ‘new era of equality’ for communities, and bespoke commitments were given in the Agreement to the Irish Language community. To fully assess the progress made on those commitments in the last 25 years, we must initially cast an eye to the language prior to 1998. Why did An Ghaeilge become such a totemic issue in northern politics? Why did Good Friday Agreement come with such high hopes? And what have we learned since then?


The history of Ireland, the northern state, Britain, and their relationship with the language, both before and since 1921/2 is one rarely spoken about by current commentators. Many would begin their political analysis of the language in more recent decades, but to do so would be to whitewash centuries of oppressive and indeed colonial anti-language policies from the official narrative. The Irish language did not, by chance, become a ‘minoritised’ language here. The language was, in fact, deliberately targeted time and time again through legislative and policy, be it The Statutes of Kilkenny in 1366, the Penal Laws, through to the 1737 Administration of Justice (Language) Act (Ireland). The language was outlawed, and speakers and communities, school children and those from native Gaeltacht regions, oppressed, marginalised and often persecuted.


The new northern state was yet another step in the wrong direction, with successive Governments banning Irish from education and almost all vestiges of the language from public and state existence. Many Irish language speakers in the north today will point to the founding of Gaeltacht Bhóthar Seoighe, the first urban Gaeltacht in Ireland in over 100 years, as the beginning of the current revival, which led directly to the birth of Scoil Ghaeilge Bhéal Feirste (now Bunscoil Phobal Feirste) in 1971, the north’s first Irish Medium Primary School, with 9 students enrolled. The pioneers behind these efforts were, at the time, threatened with imprisonment for the ‘crimes’ of educating their children in their native language. The backdrop to these efforts included the Civil Rights movement and the conflict, which would ensue for almost 3 more decades. Volunteers and parents would keep the school open themselves for the first 13 years, until 1984 when Bunscoil Phobal Feirste was awarded official maintained status. In 2021, Bunscoil Phobal Feirste celebrated 50 years, and now, across the north, over 7,300 students attend over 30 Irish medium education schools at all levels. It really is quite the story of community resilience and hope.


The growth of the Irish language education sector at primary level quickly led to demands for secondary provision. Once again, state support was not only absent, but resistant. In 1991 Meánscoil Feirste (now Coláiste Feirste) was founded, and had to survive through local community support whilst challenging the northern and British institutions for official status and funding. That campaign would become one of the key factors often forgotten in the lead-up to the Good Friday Agreement. Many within the Irish speaking community viewed the demand for official status for the school as a ‘litmus test’ for the British Government, a real-time indicator for how ‘parity of esteem’ and ‘equality’ would work for them in the here and now.


Let there be little doubt. The ‘border’ in Ireland is also a language partition. In the 26 southern counties Irish is the official language of the state, enshrined in the Republic’s Constitution. In the north, prior to 1998, the Irish language held no legal status. The impact of this reality can be felt on various levels, symbolically, politically, financially, but also physically. Drive from Dublin to Belfast and as you pass across the border not only do the traffic signs change from kilometres into miles, but the bilingual signage on all traffic signs ceases to exist, the Irish language physically stops at the ‘border’ and commuters enter into  seemingly ‘English Only’ territory. Like many other language indicators, this was by design, not by accident.

The plan: why Good Friday Agreement signalled hope for the Irish language revival


That is why the Good Friday Agreement was to be a watershed turning point in the state’s relationship with the language and its ever-growing community of speakers and learners. Under the section entitled ‘Rights, Safeguards and Equality of Opportunity’, ‘Economic, Social and Cultural Issues’, the Agreement committed it’s co-guarantors to taking a series of actions and interventions aimed at recognising “the importance of respect, understanding and tolerance”, citing Irish as “part of the cultural wealth of the island of Ireland.” For the very first time, the British Government was party to an agreement which included positive actions for the promotion and protection of Irish, a reversal of centuries of discriminatory and deeply damaging policies designed and implemented to eradicate the language.


Amongst those actions, the British Government signed up to take “resolute action to promote the language”, to encourage and facilitate the use of Irish in public and private life, and gave bespoke promises around broadcasting and seek to remove restrictions which “would discourage or work against the maintenance or development of the language.” One of the key ‘perceived wins’ in the Agreement was the ‘statutory duty on the Department of Education to encourage and facilitate Irish medium education in line with current provision for integrated education.” Largely undefined, that statutory duty can be used as an example of how political agreements become largely detached and removed from the community realities that follow. The emerging quarter of a century would see almost every element of those Irish language commitments undermined, delayed, denied or undone to such an extent so as to render them useless.


Whilst that ‘statutory duty’ has, to some extent, been an incredibly positive legal instrument regarding the development of the Irish medium education sector, it has been bottomed out time and time again by political opponents and a state that institutionally has been restrictive and unresponsive to the ever-growing Irish medium sector. Rather than echoing the ‘resolute action’ of the Good Friday Agreement and supporting the continuous growth of Irish medium schools, the sector came to realise that in every category of support it was being failed. The result, 25 years on from the Agreement bringing the statutory duty for IME into effect, is a sector that has been starved of bespoke Irish language resources, that has been left without essential special educational needs services, that is decades behind other sectors regarding accommodation, and has a teacher training deficit that cannot match demand, leaving the sector hamstrung and under-staffed, almost unfit to cater for the waves of students knocking at the door. And, whilst enrollments continue to increase, schools continue to grow, the potential growth is not being met. Coláiste Feirste is now the largest Irish Medium Secondary School anywhere in Ireland, and the demand has increased so much that there is a real and pressing need for a second campus for the school in North Belfast. A mixture of political failure and a state that is unambitious at best, belligerent at worst, has led to years of dither and delay on this issue.


In 2001, in line with their 1998 commitments, the British Government did ratify the European Charter for Regional and Minority Languages up to Part III for Irish. As a Council of Europe treaty, it is monitored to ensure state parties are actively implementing their bespoke obligations as agreed in the Charter. Every 5 years the UK Government will be invited to inform the Council of Europe on the steps they are taking to fulfil their Charter duties, before the Council’s Committee of Experts will visit and investigate current standings. At every monitoring report since 2001, the Council of Europe has been relentlessly critical of the British Government for a lack of implementation across almost all of their duties. Like many other instruments designed to protect Irish, the Charter is undermined by a lack of political will and an absence of tangible actions. Rather than being the guiding international instrument that would bring lasting change for the Irish language community, the Charter quickly became a ‘here’s what you could have won’ reference document with little to no legal effect in domestic law here.


It was no great surprise then that the language re-emerged time and time again in political negotiations as the community continued to assert their demands for bespoke language rights. In 2006 at St Andrew’s, an Irish language Act was promised by the British Government, in an attempt to fill the void left by the lack of language rights enshrined in the 1998 legislation. At Hillsborough in 2010, the Irish Language Investment Fund was established and funded £8million by the British Government to support community capital and capacity developments across the north. The Irish language continued to be an outstanding issue simply because it was never comprehensively addressed by any single agreement, nor were many of those commitments ever truly fulfilled. And whilst community frustrations grew and grew, political unionism’s opposition to the language, and regressive, petty and often sectarian attacks, ensued. The language would be mocked and ridiculed, while schemes or initiatives set up to promote the language would be cancelled or cut by Unionist Ministers. The decade following the St Andrew’s Agreement was one entirely removed from the ‘resolute action’ envisaged in 1998.


The Good Friday Agreement did see the establishment of both Comhairle na Gaelscolaiochta, a body tasked with promoting and developing Irish Medium Education, and Foras na Gaeilge, a cross-border body tasked with promoting and developing the language, both would be hamstrung by political opposition in the following decades. The cross-border nature of Foras na Gaeilge has ultimately been it’s achilles heel, as the key state sponsor of Irish language funds depends on a formula of funding from the Department for Communities in the north and The Department of Tourism, Culture, Arts, Gaeltacht, Sport and Media in the south. When the political institutions have not been operating, budget allocations cannot be agreed, and where one jurisdiction wants to increase funding, more often than not the other doesn’t. The result is that Foras na Gaeilge’s budget is lower now, in 2023, at €16.265m, than it was in 2003, at €17.18m, during which time costs, inflation and community demand has increased over and over again. The Foras issue is but another legacy of the 1998 package that needs urgent attention and reform. This cross-border statutory body, arguably the most symbolic result of 1998 at that time, has been left to stagnate in a financial vacuum. At its best, Foras have overseen language schemes that have been transformational to local communities across Ireland, however, lack of strategic and consistent investment in Foras has left communities both disillusioned and underfunded, eventually seeking financial support elsewhere.


The reality: why the Good Friday Agreement still doesn't live up to its Irish language promises

The potential of the Good Friday Agreement for Irish was immeasurable; the implementation a damp and discoloured process that left communities asking if this was the best they could expect. Mixed with the emotional community response to years of attacks and ridicule from political unionism, the Irish language community, through An Dream Dearg, would finally find their voice in 2016. Emerging from a decision from then DUP Minister Paul Givan to cut the cross-community, means tested Gaeltacht bursary scheme Líofa the day before Christmas, the #AchtAnois campaign re-emerged from its St Andrew’s slumber to demand bespoke and comprehensive legislation to bring the north into line with Wales, Scotland and the south of Ireland. The result of that campaign would be the provisions set out in the 2020 New Decade New Approach Agreement, and that draft legislation being brought through Westminster via the Identity and Language (Northern Ireland) Act 2022. For the first time in the history of the northern state the Irish language will be afforded an element of official status enshrined in law, a commissioner and best practice standards ensuring public services for communities across most public bodies. The historic legislation will also see the repeal of the 1737 British law banning Irish in courts here. Yet communities will be quick to point out that, like always, the legislation doesn’t stack up to the language rights afforded to Welsh speakers via the Welsh equivalent, not the commitments given in previous agreements. Campaigners cautiously welcomed provisions as a ‘historic staging post’ in the campaign, whilst signalling that the powers that be can expect the campaign to continue until language equality is delivered and implemented in full.


In the meantime, rather than embracing the shared values and history of the language, the DUP continue to retreat from their New Decade New Approach commitments, voting against the legislation at Westminster in 2022, having previously blocked progress on an Irish language strategy 26 times in 2021 alone. The anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement is undoubtedly the time to take stock of the achievements and failures, of the delays and the developments. Unfortunately, the biggest block to Irish language equality remains those within political unionism with a very real and very well documented opposition to the language; parties, who, even now in 2023, continue to vote against Irish language signs in Belfast’s Gaeltacht Quarter. The reality is that between Good Friday, St Andrew’s, Hillsborough, and New Decade New Approach, the Irish language community continues to face an uphill battle to acquire the most basic support from the northern state. And so the question is being asked across communities, can that northern state, and its current political ecosystem, ever fully embrace the Irish language community as an equal part of its day-to-day fabric? That 1998 vision remains fundamentally unfulfilled, and so community efforts to drive the language revival on to the next chapter will continue full steam ahead, whilst challenging the state to finally play their part.


The Irish language community will continue to pursue their calls for equality, through equitable policies, laws and investment initiatives that seek to address the deficits of decades past. Legitimate expectations will include increased legislative protections for Irish Medium Education, a fully functioning Irish language Commissioner free from political veto, ambitious and ongoing investment, and a fully resourced 20 year strategy that has been illegally denied since 2006. In the absence of devolved institutions, the British and Irish Governments will be expected to play an increasingly active role in safeguarding and funding the language . As co-guarantors of the Agreement and all subsequent treaties, self-defining as neutral referees has seen the language re-emerge time and time again in the face of political opposition. It is long past time for both Governments and all parties to finally embrace all of the opportunities and benefits the Irish language brings, take sincere steps to a truly shared society and finally deliver on that new era of equality promised in 1998.

Photograph of the author, Dr Pádraig Ó Tiarnaigh, who explains why the Good Friday Agreement matters to Irish language.Dr Pádraig Ó Tiarnaigh is an Irish language Activist with the community campaign An Dream Dearg and has been to the fore of efforts to secure language rights in the north of Ireland in the last decade. He is Communications Manager with Conradh na Gaeilge (the Gaelic League) and is Chair of Irish Language Community Group Gaelphobal Ard Mhacha Theas in South Armagh.

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