Two years on from An Bhliain Dhearg (‘The Red Year’), the Irish language continues to be an elephant in the room for those desperate for Stormont to get back up and running. Dream Dearg activist Somhairle Mag Uidhir revisits the lessons of that year of activism.
The stand-out events of 2017, where Irish language activists swept across the northern political landscape, did not come out of nowhere. After the Stormont elections of May 2016, a new Stormont Executive made up of the DUP and Sinn Féin released their Programme for Government, setting out their plans for coming years. Many in the Irish language community were left disappointed. Firstly, there was no mention of Irish language legislation and what provisions were there for the language were extremely limited. Secondly, Sinn Féin made a promise to Irish language speakers before the election to take on the departments for Education and for Communities because they held most influence on the fortunes of the language. They reneged on this commitment, leaving those departments in hands of the DUP.
By November of that year, activists were losing patience. The DUP had made a number of attacks on the language, and the question of bringing an Irish language act (ILA) into law—a central demand since before the Good Friday Agreement (GFA)—was nonexistent.
In this context, a meeting of Irish language activists was called. Around 50 people attended, and agreed to launch a campaign to put rights and provisions for Irish speakers back on the political agenda. Over the coming weeks, the group adopted the name ‘An Dream Dearg’ and developed a logo (white-circle, red-background, now synonymous with the campaign). A plan was made to build towards a large march for Irish language rights in 2017.
Soon afterwards, another attack from the DUP. Minister for Communities Paul Givan cut £50,000 from the Líofa bursary – set up to enable children who couldn’t afford to travel to the Gaeltacht with their peers. The Irish language community responded robustly, channelling anger into a protest movement on the streets and in communities.
We took the Dream Dearg brand, and the loose plan of connecting up smaller injustices with the wider need for an Irish language act, and we ran with it. All movements build on those which come before. The same was true of ours. But without being organised prior to Givan’s cut, the campaign for an ILA could not have grown to be as strong as it was, in as short a time as it did.
In early 2017 Stormont collapsed, with Sinn Féin pulling their support for the institutions over outrage at the RHI scandal. Public pressure for an independent inquiry into RHI and an end to the Stormont status quo—plagued by scandal and sectarianism—was rife.
There would be another election in the spring of 2017 and the question of strategy arose within the Irish language movement. What should our approach be? What are our demands? How do we win them?
The Dream Dearg’s main demand became an Irish language act, for the simple reason that an act would provide much needed legal rights to Irish speakers, and the fight to win an one would concentrate most of the myriad battles Irish speakers have struggled with for a generation into one concrete demand.
Over this period, the situation facing the Dream Dearg was one where Stormont as a whole had allowed the language question to fall by the wayside. Of all the parties, and despite how it had been noticeably low on their list of priorities, Sinn Féin were still seen by some as the party most likely to achieve any tangible results. On the other hand was the DUP whose vitriol towards Irish was growing more brazen. Given the widespread and palpable hunger to fight for the language, we had to decide whether to direct our campaign at those who would never support us (the DUP), or at those who could be won to our demand (SF, SDLP, PBP, Greens, Alliance and perhaps some sections of political Unionism).
While some held an understandable desire to focus on the DUP, its effect would be to allow all others who opposed the DUP’s view on the language to get on board. And in such a campaign, it would be enough for other parties to simply be better than the DUP – without having to give concrete commitments to our demand. In fact, judging groups on whether they were better than the DUP was largely what led to the situation the language was in; it was this approach which had allowed an ILA to fall by the wayside in Stormont thus far.
Rather, An Dream Dearg making the act a ‘red-line issue’ – asking political parties to commit to not entering government without an acceptable ILA first being agreed – meant that every party was judged in the election on its own merits. We said: “it doesn’t matter if your party is better than all the rest, it must still guarantee to implement our rights in legislation”. There could be no fence-sitting – you were for our demands or against them.
The results of this approach was clear. Sinn Féin went from rejecting any red lines altogether, to making an act a red line issue. The Alliance Party supported the demand for the first time in their history, while the SDLP and the Greens improved their stances. People Before Profit supported it as a red-line, alongside other economic and social issues.1
And this shift occurred precisely because a mass movement of people power was built on the streets: an tonn dhearg (‘the red wave’). In the context of disaffection with how Stormont had failed to deliver for us, the size and effectiveness of this movement from-below meant that parties could not ignore us. Protests, symbolic stunts and huge marches allowed every member of the Irish language community to feel their own power. We were confident and united under one aim.
Judging political parties individually on whether or not they support our aims does not mean we fall into the liberal trap of saying that all parties in the North are as bad as each other – they are not. It does mean, however, that while some may be better than others, all need to be held to account.
These were heady days: an ILA seemed right round the corner; Irish language campaigners had taken over the airwaves; the DUP suffered a defeat in the polls; international support rolled in; and organisations such as Conradh na Gaeilge were in frequent contact with political parties and the Irish government.
This was context when, in March 2017, the Education Authority (EA) announced large cuts to Irish language youth services in Belfast, a city decimated by a mental health and suicide crisis among young people. The cuts had added impact on Irish speakers, because the Irish language community in Belfast is mostly comprised of young people, and youth services are a central component of the growth of the language. The Irish organisations affected organised a sit-down protest in the EA offices at the beginning of April. Hundreds joined the occupation – most were young people whose services were cut – chanting and demanding their funding.
It was to the movement’s credit that it stayed radical at this point. As movements gain success (as we did), they attract a wider layer of support, some of whom urge caution and ‘safe’ rhetoric. Irish speakers could have succumbed to the temptation of softening our words and actions lest we upset the applecart and lose support for an ILA which was finally within grasp. Instead, Gaeilgeoirí ignored this ‘advice’, and not only were the youth services restored (and indeed increased funding was found), but the radical protests re-electrified the campaign for an ILA.
And this wasn’t radicalism for radicalism’s sake, where a minority acted on behalf of the movement. This was mass activity, in tune with the majority of Irish language community. It served as a reminder to all the political parties that even when an ILA was on the cards, we wouldn’t be placated. We were willing to be bold.
A few weeks later and Theresa May had collapsed Westminster; the resulting general election meant that talks between Sinn Féin and the DUP at Stormont were put on hold. Both parties went into general election mode. This development, unforeseen and out of our control, meant our ILA had to wait. Despite the brakes being put on, an important lesson was learned: staying on the streets is still important, even when victory appears close at hand.
An Irish Language Act not worth its name
In February 2018, after the general election, months of talks and over a year since Irish language campaigning began, Sinn Féin and the DUP announced that there would be no Stormont deal. But it transpired that there had been a draft agreement between the parties which was later rejected by the DUP. Journalist Eamonn Mallie was given a copy which he published online.
It didn’t go far enough to meet the key demands of our campaign. Conradh na Gaeilge put it perhaps too mildly when they said that it “contained gaps”. There were worthwhile elements—it would be a standalone piece of legislation and contained provisions for an Irish language commissioner— but it fell at the first hurdle: official status.
Official status is the font from which all other Irish language rights flow. It is not the only necessary part of an act, but it is not worthwhile speaking of one without it. The draft agreement proposed “official recognition of the status of the Irish language” instead, which, for all intents and purposes, is meaningless, especially given that Irish’s current legal status is deeply contested and wholly inadequate. This could have led to a dangerous ambiguity – the kind of ambiguity which has dogged political agreements since the GFA. And the rest of the draft deal was not much better. It contained no provisions whatsoever on bilingual signage, an issue highlighted repeatedly by international experts working in the Council of Europe as being central to language rejuvenation and normalisation. And in reality, the provisions for an Irish Language Commissioner allowed for a unionist veto over all of the commissioner’s potential work. It was an Irish Language Act not worth its name.
Two questions should be asked about the draft agreement. Was its weak nature relevant to the Dream Dearg and the wider movement? If so, why did a year of remarkable campaigning result in a deal so hollow?
Firstly, yes – the content of the draft agreement matters because an Irish language act matters. Practically, it would make it easier for Irish speakers to live their lives through Irish.
When councils in Antrim ban Irish language street signs, or when the state does not provide enough Irish-speaking educational psychologists, or when public bodies have no obligation whatsoever to facilitate communication in Irish, the individual Irish speakers affected have two choices: either continue to campaign on each issue individually, or acknowledge that the very absence of an act makes all of these discriminatory practices possible, and more likely. Bringing each of these campaign groups together to fight for an act serves not only to unify a movement, but winning an act would allow people to focus on more important cultural and educational projects—what most Irish speakers would rather be getting on with—because they would not be forced to fight those same arduous, local battles.
Of course, the experience from the republic warns of the damage that bad legislation can do. That danger is heightened in the the context of northern politics, where political Unionism will make no bones about trying to undermine any act from day one – this proposed deal would have landed us in serious difficulty. Therefore, it is not enough to win an act, we must win a good act.
Perhaps more importantly again, what was on the table was not a reflection of the demands made by Irish speakers. It did not do justice to the energy, creativity and commitment shown by campaigners over many months.
As a response to this reality, it could be argued that the Irish language community in general, and the Dream Dearg in particular, has always been independent from political parties, and for us to get bogged down in the maneuverings of parties like Sinn Féin and the DUP would be counterproductive. Therefore, the argument goes, we might make the point that the deal was not good enough, but we have more important things to be at. Instead, we should be harnessing the energy generated by the campaign into the smaller, local projects unleashed by An Bhliain Dhearg; banging on about the problems with whatever political parties had signed up to was not a priority.
That above reaction is the wrong one, whether the holder views the Dream Dearg’s objective as solely winning an ILA, or as building a strong politically-minded Irish language community. The draft deal would have set back both of those objectives, and so would overlooking the political parties and the manoeuvrings which led to it.
Channelling the energy of An Bhliain Dhearg into further grassroots efforts has always been core to An Dream Dearg’s approach, but recent memory should be enough to tell us that a lack of an ILA consistently makes many of these projects more challenging. We might want to ignore political parties, but as the whole history of the Irish language in the northern state tells us, political parties won’t ignore us. We campaigned for an ILA precisely because the language was in the hands of individual ministers and parties, to do with what they like. We rightly argued for provisions within the act which would give the best protection possible. We laid down red lines which five parties agreed to adhere to. When one of those parties signs up to a deals without those provisions, they are fudging their commitment to language rights.
Finally, setting Irish aside, the rest of the draft agreement was extremely poor. It did not touch the issue of welfare reform, it kept intact the neoliberalism at the heart of the Fresh Start Agreement, and it didn’t contain any provisions for equal marriage. And given that Stormont was collapsed over large-scale deceit, it was bizarre that not one single measure addressed corruption in any way, not even the minimum that Arlene Foster should be made resign.
With all that then, it was a mistake not to loudly call out both parties involved in the February negotiations. No doubt, it should be clear that the DUP are beyond redemption; the fact they couldn’t agree to such a paltry piece of legislation is truly pathetic, exposing their blind sectarianism once again. But the DUP’s bigotry should not cloud the hollow deal on the table, which Sinn Féin were committed to. Because if we are to get a better act in future, then we need to recognise that our efforts only brought us to a point where Sinn Féin felt safe committing to a bad deal for us.
Without that understanding, we cannot tackle the problem of what we must do to win strong, sustainable legislation in future.
Sinn Féin and the Deal
A return to Stormont was being sought, and it was not only the Irish language which felt the impact. The right to same-sex marriage was not insisted upon. The demand for Arlene Foster to step aside after overseeing the largest financial scandal in the history of the north was also dropped. A full explanation of why the Sinn Féin leadership were satisfied with the draft deal is outside the scope of this article, but some short points should be made.
At the time, elections seemed a distinct possibility in the south. In the context of the FF’s constant and opportunistic attacks, pressure was likely coming from Dublin to the Sinn Féin northern leadership to ensure they presented the image of a ‘party of government’. Moreover, making the institutions work has formed a core part of SF’s northern strategy for quite some time, and while their membership largely welcomed their withdrawal from Stormont in early 2017, a year later the pressure of not having a government was building among some sections. Relatedly, SF’s long-term economic perspective for the north revolve around marketing it as being great for inward, international investment, especially in the tourism sector. In fact, this has been an internal driver for the party, and it is an objective made all the more difficult without a functioning administration – who wants to invest somewhere without a government?
With the benefit of hindsight, then, it is worth looking at the Dream Dearg’s role in the lead up to the February deal. It was difficult for us to judge when exactly the prolonged Stormont negotiations, between the big parties and behind closed doors, would come to a head. People in the north had become inured to news that politicians were close to agreement, and the development in February took us a bit by surprise. The result was that, at the time, it wasn’t seen as the make-or-break moment which it turned out to be. Not enough pressure was put on Sinn Féin to stick to the red lines.
It’s fair to say, too, that at this point a spotlight shone on the intransigence and the bigotry of the DUP towards the Irish language. For six months, Irish language activists had asserted their independent power. Nationalism had been gotten on board with our demands, People Before Profit were on board, the Greens and Alliance might have wavered at times but were still supportive. Sinn Féin had seemed committed to staying out of Stormont until an act was agreed to, and so the movement increasingly, and justifiably, focused its ire on the DUP and the British Government (which the DUP was propping up since the Westminster election of 2017). It was the opposition of DUP and the British Government which was blocking the act.
The huge and historic Lá Dearg march took place in May 2017, followed by a quieter summer, and then a renewal of activism in the early autumn. By the end of 2017, confidence and morale of Irish speakers remained high, but our activity had decreased – especially the mass activity (2017 had been a long year, and most were feeling the effect).
Unfortunately, one consequence of the failure to stick to our strategy of judging parties on their individual response to our demands is that everyone who was not the DUP began to look rosy. With their unmatched charlatanism, the DUP tend to have that effect on things. So when the strategy was relaxed, parties could find more wiggle room. The result of that wiggle room can be seen in the February deal.
Looking back, we should have made one more huge push to remind the parties who claimed to support us previously (Sinn Féin in particular) that our demands were the same, 12 months on.
The DUP and the Deal
It should be asked, that if the deal was so weak, why couldn’t the DUP sign up to it? The fact they could not, that they would rather walk away from institutions they were committed to restoring, provides its own valuable insights: it shows the limits of the northern state.
When socialists support the demand for public housing for all, it’s not that we think capitalism can be reformed. If won, it practically improves people’s lives and puts them in better circumstances from which to launch further struggles. No longer are they weighed down by the stress and exhaustion of housing difficulty. With a dependable, decent roof over our heads, we can devote more time and energy to bettering other aspects of society. And crucially, the very nature of the demand is in fundamental tension with capitalism itself, and a successful movement exposes that, opening up all sorts of other questions about the system. Not dissimilarly, the demand for an Irish language act came into fundamental tension with the north as a state.
The DUP, as the main Unionist party, has pursued policies which make the lives of much of its base materially worse. Like the various forms of mainstream Unionism that came before them, they are vehemently right-wing – supporting the worst of privatisations, austerity, and attacks on the vulnerable. No one enjoys having a low-quality job, suffering from poverty, etc, and historically, to offset the anger within their base which resulted from their policies, big-house Unionism discriminated against Catholics and could, when pressed, bestow some limited amount of material benefits on working class Protestants. To do that, they created the Orange machine.
Post-GFA Northern Ireland is slightly different. The tension between Unionism and their base still exists, but the one-party state is no more. Therefore the DUP cannot dish out the goodies so easily (they still try, but they are now compelled to rely more heavily on dodgy practices such as Red Sky, RHI, and SIF, though these never benefit working class unionists). The only remaining mechanism for the DUP to keep its base on board is sectarianism. As a diversion from their neoliberal policies decimating communities and services, they blame ‘Catholics/Nationalists’ for getting it all, and over ten years in government they have directed a huge amount of ire towards the Irish language.
Faced with signing up to an Irish language Act, the DUP would therefore have appeared to be giving even more to ‘Catholics/Nationalists’. As Eamonn McCann wrote over forty years ago in War and an Irish Town, Unionism built the Orange machine, but given time, the machine took on a life of its own. The Orange Order reminded the DUP of this fact in the summer of 2017, making their opposition to an ILA clear. The DUP cannot cross its base, because to do so would be political suicide. But neither can it satisfy it, because they have fundamentally opposing interests.
This contradiction, at the heart of the northern institutions, will be present in any major attempt to bring about substantial reforms, from the necessary restructuring of the economy along fairer lines, to something as simple as an ILA. Aside from the bigger political conclusions we might draw, it is therefore crucial for us as Gaeilgeoirí to make an ILA a red-line issue, a precondition for any kind of power-sharing. When any demand comes up against the limits of the very way the state is set up, the campaign needs to be resolute.
2019: Another Red Year?
Recently a large crowd gathered and chanted outside City Hall, as it was lit up red in a nod to the campaign for an ILA. It was the two-year anniversary of the first Dream Dearg protest, and it was clear from the atmosphere and the energy on social media afterwards that an appetite exists to renew the campaign for an ILA in 2019.
Going forward, we should remember what worked for us in 2017, as well as what did not. We should be clear about what we are demanding of an Irish language act; be unequivocal in our criticism of the DUP; be aware of the importance of focusing particular efforts on those who claim to support us; be wise to how poor the February 2018 deal was; and be committed to building as broad and as radical a movement as possible. Most importantly though, we should be confident that the only limit to what can be achieved is the limit we place on ourselves. Acht Anois!
Somhairle has written a more extensive piece on the Irish language for the Irish Marxist Review here.
- In fact, prior to the 2017 Assembly election, People Before Profit were the only party to have made an ILA a red-line issue