Friday 24 November 2017

As gaeilge: PSNI and sports stars to lead language push

Steven McCaffery

Northern Ireland's police service and a string of sporting bodies are being asked to back a plan to create an extra 1,000 Irish speakers by 2015.

The North’s Culture Minister Caral Ni Chuilin will ask high-profile figures, plus members of the public, to agree to try to become "liofa", Irish for fluent, by the target date.

The Sinn Fein minister said she hoped "Liofa 2015" would attract people from across the political divide and said the Gaelic language should be seen as belonging to all communities.

Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) Deputy Chief Constable Judith Gillespie is among the public figures set to attend the Stormont launch of the project on Monday.

While the language has sparked rows between unionists and nationalists at the Assembly, the minister said Liofa 2015 was a bid to get away from political divisions.

"At times the Irish language came up for debate in the Assembly and, because of the conduct and the remarks that were made, members of the Irish language community felt very hurt and offended," she said.

"They felt that there must be some way that we can deal with, and promote and advance, the Irish language without it becoming a divisive political issue."

Ms Ni Chuilin added: "We want learning Irish to be a natural and normal thing that people do without any comment.

"I was conscious of the fact that the language seems to be viewed by some as the preserve of the nationalist and republican community, and that's not the case. The Irish language belongs to everyone."

A wide variety of people have been asked to take part in the project.

The minister said: "We have been speaking to people from all walks of life.

"We have been speaking to people from the PSNI, from cricket, from rugby, from soccer, speaking to people from the Fire and Rescue service. I have asked their support for Liofa.

"We want to speak to people, wherever they come from, wherever they hail. Whatever townland, city or borough, they live in. If they are interested, then we are keen to help them."

The Department of Culture's website will offer details of where classes are available. Support may also be on offer to learners in need of advice but the minister said she did not foresee any major expenditure.

Traditional Unionist Voice leader Jim Allister said the scheme was Sinn Fein pushing a "political agenda", which he said had "politicised Irish as a cultural weapon of war".

"The latest phase in this divisive anti-British vendetta is to use departmental office, money and facilities to promote their language agenda," he said.

The minister denied republicans had used Irish as a political weapon.

Referring to the historic attempts to force the demise of the language, she added: "You could go back, but I don't want to go back. I want to go forward."

Ms Ni Chuilin said people had a right to raise legitimate concerns over how the language had been dealt with.

But she said the decision of the Queen and US President Barack Obama to use Irish during their recent visits to the Republic of Ireland had helped break down barriers.

"I think those initiatives have done a lot to help build good relations between the communities around the language."

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