Northern Ireland

NI state papers 1985/86: Governments clashed over Irish language

Margaret Thatcher and Dr Garret FitzGerald signed the Anglo Irish Agreement in November 1985. Image copyright PA
Image caption Margaret Thatcher and Dr Garret FitzGerald signed the Anglo Irish Agreement in November 1985

The efforts of the Irish Government under the Anglo-Irish Agreement to achieve greater recognition for the Irish language in Northern Ireland is detailed in previously confidential state papers newly released in Belfast.

In January 1986, the Irish government presented its views on "The Irish Language in Northern Ireland".

The four-page typescript argued that "the Irish language is central to the identity and tradition of Irish nationalists".

The paper called for "speedy action" in four specific areas: place names; the use of Irish in official business; an Irish language question in the 1991 Northern Ireland census and support for Irish language publications and events.

'Symbol of nationality'

In particular, it raised the 1941 Stormont Local Government Act, which allowed for street names in English only.

The paper stated: "Quite apart from the rights involved, the fact is that most of the place names in NI... are Irish in their linguistic origin."

It urged the repeal of the act, and for a provision whereby local residents could decide by a majority to have bilingual street names.

On the use of Irish in official business, the document argued the treatment of Irish as a foreign language in Northern Ireland was "resented by nationalists and created opportunities for subversive organisations to appropriate the Irish language - the final symbol of nationality".

It urged that provision should be made, as in Wales, for the use of Irish in official business and that a Language Act on the lines of the Welsh Language Act of 1967 should be introduced in Northern Ireland.

'Optimistic guess'

Finally, it proposed that a question should be included in the 1991 census to establish the number of Irish speakers in Northern Ireland.

In a detailed memo, dated April 1986, dealing with the Irish demands, Miss D F E Elliott of the Northern Ireland Office (NIO) stated that there was no official estimate of Irish speakers in Northern Ireland, though "one private, probably optimistic, guess" put the figure at around 50,000 (equivalent to about 3% of the population).

The NIO official noted that the government's policy was to respond to demand through the education system and support for the arts.

The school authorities decided whether Irish should be taught in response to parental wishes, while Bunscoil Gaelige (Irish primary school) had been recognised as a grant-aided Irish-medium primary school in Belfast.

The memo concluded that the compulsory Irish policy of the early Irish Free State had failed, though the language retained "a symbolic function".


The then Secretary of State Tom King had accepted the right of local residents to decide on bilingual street names.

However, it would be "inappropriate to grant Irish the parity of esteem which the Welsh enjoyed'" while the inclusion of an Irish language question in the 1991 census would have "a negative effect".

The situation was complicated in February 1986 when Ciaran Carson of the Northern Ireland Arts Council (now Professor of Poetry at Queens University Belfast) was approached by Colm O'Floinn of the Irish Department of Foreign Affairs to explore Arts Council support for Irish.

This prompted a deputation to the Arts Council led by Sinn Féin President Gerry Adams.

The language question was raised during discussions with Irish officials by S G Hewitt of the NIO in October 1986.

As he told Mr King in a memo, Mr Hewitt had tried to make the Irish side understand how divisive this issue could be: "I argued strongly that they had overestimated the interest in the Irish language displayed by the nationalist community in the North.

"They countered by saying that since Sinn Féin had identified the Irish language as a major issue, there must be a considerable interest.

"As long as we refuse to move, Sinn Féin would have a valuable stick with which to beat us and, perhaps more importantly, the SDLP."

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