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Brian Wilson: Gaelic’s decline continues for reasons that are obvious – and they are not all about language

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IT IS the close-down-Stormont-on-full-pay season again and Sinn Fein are threatening to do just that unless they have agreement to an Irish Language Act by July 10th, dates always being carefully chosen.

“Official status” via an Act is seen by Unionists as the platform for continuing demands to reinforce Gaelige as an “equal” language throughout the island of Ireland. This is a stand-off about symbols and status which has little to do with the wellbeing of the language.

It reminds us that a minority language is not well served by becoming identified with a partisan political cause. That only polarises those who want to claim the language as a token and opponents who then adopt irrational hostility, for fear of the same political significance. The urgent needs of the language get lost in the stand-off.


In Northern Ireland, the DUP should relax their paranoia in recognition of a greater good – avoiding another Stormont shut-down and the dangerous hiatus it creates. If they were smarter, they might see that the way to deal with the “threat” is to embrace those who have worked for decades to stop the Irish language falling into the hands of political sectarians.

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Twenty-odd years ago, I advanced an initiative to bring the Gaeltachts of Scotland and Ireland closer together. To neutralise potential hostility, I sought out Rev. Ian Paisley to explain the thinking behind it. “No problem,” he replied, “I remember when the Irish language was taught in Orange halls all over the North”. I doubt if anyone in the DUP now has the same hinterland.

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Symbols aside, official status delivers little. Anyone who doubts that could learn from the Scottish experience. Gaelic has had “official status” since 2005 and precious little good it has delivered. Indeed, it may well have been a net negative, diverting very scarce human resources into such useless activities as translating annual reports of quangos, to tick a box.

Obligations supposedly imposed by official status are ignored more often than respected. Would it have cost anything, for example, to have had Cùm Sabhailte (Keep Safe) on Ms Sturgeon’s pulpit throughout the pandemic? Official status or not, I’m sure it never occurred to anyone in Edinburgh for lip-service removes the need to actually do anything.

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The Gaelic Language Act of 2005 created a quango called Bòrd na Gàidhlig, the main impact of which was to subsume activist organisations which had been effective in promoting the language and pressuring government. There is now little in the official Gaelic world that does not come under the aegis of Bòrd na Gàidhlig, a wholly owned government subsidiary – and hence never a challenger.

As a concept, “official status” sounds right and proper. The mistake is to think it resolves anything in the hugely unequal struggle a minority language faces in modern society. That is as true in Ireland, where Gaelige has been up to its ears in “official status” for a century, as it is in Scotland.

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Ministers always need numbers and “targets” to proclaim. In Scotland, this led to prioritising urban Gaelic speakers and learning, because that is where the numbers are. Unless the official body is very careful – which it was not – that comes at the expense of any focus on the diminishing number of places where Gaelic remains in daily use as a living language, hanging by a thread.

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The big “official” advances for Gaelic were won in the 1980s and ‘90s without the benefit or handicap of official status. These were decades in which local authorities – led by Glasgow – adopted and expanded Gaelic-medium education, Sabhal Mor Ostaig developed, foundations were laid for a TV channel and radio broadcasting expanded hugely. It was also a vibrant period in the dynamic between aforementioned activist organisations and government, when demands were made and responded to.

It is difficult to think of any comparable progress achieved through official status. Meanwhile, decline in Gaelic’s fragile bastions continues for reasons that are pretty obvious to anyone who cared to look. These are linked inextricably to issues which are not overtly about language. Where there is no work or access to housing and land there are no people and where there are no people, there is no language.

A volume titled The Gaelic Crisis in the Vernacular Community has caused ripples by pointing out it will be pretty much dead as a community language within 20 years unless very different strategies are adopted. That need not have come as news but was useful because it provided the obvious with a stamp of academic authority. The question is whether anyone cares enough to do anything about it – and I don’t mean police cars in Fife with Poileas inscribed on them.

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This week, a very good report was produced on Lewis about how absence of childcare in rural parts of the island is driving the decline of Gaelic (as well as public services) because families move out in order to secure a service that makes it possible for parents to work. That report has more relevance to Gaelic’s future in these places than any Act of Parliament. Until such connections are made, the cause is lost.

Northern Ireland is different and symbols are more potent. But the DUP could perhaps learn from Scotland that getting hung up on official status is hardly worth the trouble. It is more likely to hasten decline than to spark a great Celtic revival.

Our columns are a platform for writers to express their opinions. They do not necessarily represent the views of The Herald.

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