Thousands demonstrate in Belfast against stalled Irish language legislation
Hailed as the ‘biggest Irish language protest of a generation’, the weekend’s An Lá Dearg event in Belfast was planned just under two months ago due to growing concerns over stalled legislation .
Around 10,000 protesters marched through the city on Saturday demanding the immediate introduction of Irish language legislation, while celebrating the “community revival” of the language in the North.
School children, youth workers, community organizations and sports clubs were among the activists who marched from West Belfast to the city center at a rally organized by campaign group An Dream Dearg.
Among those addressing the crowd at Belfast City Hall was five-year-old Daíthí Mac Gabhann, an Irish speaker who needs a heart transplant and was the face of a successful campaign to change organ donation law in Northern Ireland earlier this year.
Protesters’ chants included “tir gan teanga, tir gan anam”, which translates to “a country without a language is a country without a soul”.
The UK government is expected to announce a Culture Package Bill this week – including the protection of the Irish language – almost a year after a similar pledge was made to bring it forward by the October 2021 deadline.
Ciarán Mac Giolla Bhéin of An Dream Dearg described Saturday’s massive turnout as “inspirational”.
He told the Irish Times that the grassroots movement had ‘decided to mobilize again in large numbers’ – a similar rally took place in 2017 – due to ‘growing concerns’ the ‘promised legislation was not happening “.
“What we witnessed on Saturday was a sea of positivity. Our group is ultimately dealing with the revival of the language and we see the very positive impact the legislation has had in Wales; we say, why can’t we benefit from the same thing? We know that there has been a commitment from the British government since 2006 following the St Andrew agreement.
“The demonstration had two objectives; the first was to advocate for strong but equally important language legislation, the second was to celebrate the community renewal of the language, the genesis of which dates back to the start of the school movement 50 years ago.
“As far as the logistical organization of the rally is concerned, there was a delay of six to seven weeks, which is incredible.
Legal protections for the Irish language in the North were a key part of the New Decade Deal and New Approach which restored Stormont in January 2020 after a three-year collapse.
They have been included in a wider set of cultural laws which include an Office of Cultural Identity and Expression to promote respect for diversity as well as an Irish Language Commissioner and a Language Development Commissioner, the arts and literature associated with the British Ulster Scots/Ulster tradition. .
Despite a pledge given by British Prime Minister Boris Johnson on the legislation, Mr Mac Giolla Bhéin said they will “reflect the state of affairs” once they see the bill.
He added: “This legislation is not our ultimate goal. The idea of language planning and language legislation is that we gradually draw inspiration from them.
“Our group will ensure that we continue to push for more language support and more recognition. Given the history of where we live and what we have been through, we must be eternally vigilant We know that there will be serious and continuing efforts to obstruct the legislation – especially from the DUP – and try to weaken it.
“As citizens, we are obligated to continue to hold politicians to account to ensure that when rights are guaranteed and legislated, they are fully implemented.”