Irish language funding plan sparks huge row

Irish language funding plan sparks huge row

6 December 2017

A POLITICAL row has erupted over plans by Newry, Mourne and Down Council to establish an Irish language bursary scheme.

Unionists — who are opposed to the move — failed in an attempt to have the bursary extended to include all minority languages when the issue was debated in a stormy meeting of the local authority on Monday night.

Passions ran high during the debate, forcing council chairwoman, Roisin Mulgrew, to adjourn proceedings for five minutes before a vote was taken on the issue. The amendment to extend the bursary to include all minority languages tabled by the DUP’s Billy Walker was defeated by 28 votes to eight.

Sinn Fein, SDLP, Alliance and Independent councillors, backed the motion to set up the Irish language bursary, but it was opposed by the DUP, Ulster Unionists and Independent Unionist Henry Reilly who all wanted it extended to include minority languages.

Councillor Walker argued the bursary should cover all minority languages, claiming the council spend on the bursary could be as much as £130,000 and his party would be seeking legal advice on the decision.

“This decision discriminates against unionists and other cultures out there. We are asking to be given a level playing field,” he declared. “It is clear to us that this council is not inclusive.”

Councillor Reilly said he had serious concerns about the bursary and claimed there was never any policy agreed that would give a “hugely biased consideration” in the distribution of ratepayers’ money to one section of the community. He said the bursary should be open to all cultures and sections of society.

Ulster Unionist Robert Burgess said the Irish language was being used as political football, branding the decision to exclude minority languages from the bursary as “disgraceful,” while the DUP’s Garth Craig said he was at a loss to understand why the scheme was not widened out to include other minority languages, describing it as “one dimensional and preive.”

Party colleague, Glyn Hanna, said while he has no problem with the Irish language, he suggested the Ulster Scots and unionist community is “totally neglected” by the local authority, claiming it is viewed as one of the most nationalist and republican councils in Northern Ireland. He said republican and nationalist councillors need to show more compassion and try and reach out to the unionist community.

SDLP councillor, Michael Savage, said Newry, Mourne and Down Council was a bilingual local authority, arguing everyone should be looking to embrace bilingualism.

“I see the language as very much part of the heritage of where we are. Yes, widen the language out to other communities so they have more of an appreciation of it and how deep the Gaelic language is across this part of the island and throughout the rest of it. My party sought and got assurances in relation to the equality proofing of this bursary and to suggest the Irish language is narrow and one-sided is wrong,” he added.

Alliance’s Patrick Brown said it was wrong for the DUP and other objectors to the bursary scheme to think they speak exclusively for unionists in this district. He said there is nothing about the Irish language which excludes unionists and nothing about it to fear within political unionism.

Sinn Fein’s Barra O Muiri said the Irish language is not a political football and is there to be respected, issuing a reminder that the local authority has in place an Irish language strategy which has been debated and discussed at length. He said unionists were asked to join the council’s Irish language working group but chose not to.

“There are proud traditions in the Presbyterian Church of people who fought and revived the Irish language which was close to extinction.The bursary scheme is designed to bring people together and we will not accept the DUP amendment,” he said.

“We have nothing against any other minority language and there are lots of them across this district. It has been suggested a minority language strategy should be developed so let’s have that debate. People talk about a level playing field; I would like to see the Irish language on a level playing field with the English language.”