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Sunday 23 July 2017


Policy on the hoof and a dead horse strategy

By slavishly following the Sinn Fein line in Northern Ireland, Simon Coveney is making everything worse, says Ruth Dudley Edwards

Minister for Foreign Affairs & Trade with Special Responsibility for Brexit, Simon Coveney. Photo: Collins Photos

Senator Padraig O Ceidigh - a fluent Irish speaker whose many entrepreneurial accomplishments include founding Aer Arann - last week described the Government's Irish language strategy as a dead horse and recommended dismounting. This came not long after Foreign Minister Simon Coveney, a career politician, threw his weight behind Sinn Fein's demand for an Irish Language Act in Northern Ireland that would be - in terms of the good it would do the language - a very expensive dead foal.

It was former Taoiseach Enda Kenny who - at the suggestion of Fianna Fail leader Micheal Martin - appointed Mr O Ceidigh to the Senate in May 2016, and what a fine addition he is if you like uncomfortable home-truths.

Last October, he published an article expressing his concern that our political system had generated a Dail that "lures TDs to serve the parish pump to the neglect of national issues" and is a place "where action invariably takes the form of hollow posturing and populism". On Irish, the senator brutally pointed out that seven years in, what the 20-year strategy had to show was a drop in the number of those speaking Irish daily from 83,000 to 73,800, and no increase in native speakers. He believes the only hope is to change course and concentrate on providing jobs through such initiatives as the highly successful Wild Atlantic Way that would keep locals at home. 

Minister Coveney, who - to continue the equine metaphors - seems to make up policy on the hoof, has been giving a master-class in populism in his dealings with Northern Ireland. As the commentator Newton Emerson put it, by "blundering in with doom-laden pronouncements on Brexit" he had engaged in "futile, ill-timed stirring of the pot", as with an intervention on the language that did nothing to make an Act more likely and "just got the other side's back up".

The minister has positively Trumplike impulses to be seen as an action man on the international stage, while at home he seems driven by a desire to impress Cork South-Central, where one of his rival TDs is Deputy Martin. If you're trying to live down a prosperous merchant-prince background in The Rebel County while challenging a fluent Irish-speaker who leads the Republican Party, "hollow posturing" involving snuggling up to Sinn Fein and annoying unionists must seem very tempting and the hell with the welfare of the language.

My bilingual mother, a gifted teacher who was devoted to Irish, despaired at how making it a compulsory qualification for pretty well everything made generations of young people hate it and alienated most Protestants. She took a degree in Celtic Studies, could hold her own in Welsh and Scots Gaelic and had a go at Manx. I don't know if she had much exposure to Ulster-Scots, but I've no doubt she would have been fascinated by its history and development. She believed you kept language alive through spreading your love and enthusiasm for it, and killed it by turning it into a political weapon. For her, this was exemplified by what happened to Douglas Hyde, a Roscommon Protestant who, as President of the Gaelic League, had been crucial to the success of the language revival, and who resigned in 1915 as a result of the movement's destruction by infiltrators from the Irish Republican Brotherhood. 

The history of language in the Celtic fringe has everywhere been one of decline, but the failure of the draconian experiment to have Irish, in practice, the first official language it is in theory been most dramatic. In the 2016 census, 70pc said they could not or did not speak the language. Although compulsion has lessened, there is still enormous waste through, for instance, pointless translations of Government documents and small armies of unnecessary translators on stand-by. The campaign to make Irish an official language of the EU has created well-paid jobs there are insufficient qualified candidates to fill and has the interesting unintended consequence that when post-Brexit English ceases to be an official EU language, the Irish will have to speak Irish. 

The DUP didn't sign up to an Irish Language Act in the St Andrews Agreement, which committed the British government "to introduce an Irish Language Act reflecting on the experience of Wales and Ireland and work with the incoming Executive to enhance and protect the development of the Irish language". No one did anything much about this, but in 2015 the Sinn Fein culture minister sent out proposals for consultation that included putting Irish - which only 5pc claim to read - on a par with English and would cost billions and make everyone hate it. 

Welsh (spoken by 19pc) has official status, but no one cares since there are no political objections; the Gaelic Language Act of 2005 in Scotland (1pc speak Gaelic) aims to have it "commanding equal respect" with English. In Northern Ireland, with good reason, unionists see the language as a part of a Sinn Fein culture war designed to hollow out Britishness. 

Telling Sinn Fein to stop weaponising Irish is like telling President Trump to stop tweeting. But if the Taoiseach cares about the language, he could tell Mr Coveney to 'dun his gob', listen properly to Senator O Ceidigh and then send him North to explain what won't and what might work for the good of both Irish and Ulster-Scots.


Ruth Dudley Edwards’ The Seven: The Lives And Legacies Of The Founding Fathers Of The Irish Republic, was published by Oneworld Publications on March 22.

Ruth Dudley Edwards' 'The Seven: the life and legacies of the founding fathers of the Irish Republic' was published by Oneworld on March 22

Ruth Dudley Edwards

© Ruth Dudley Edwards