A sign of the times as our city puts on a new face

By Máirtín Ó Muilleoir

First things first: The intrepid Fermanagh-born but DC-based battler for justice Fr Seán McManus published the definitive book on Irish-America’s fight for justice in  North Ireland, including the epic MacBride Principles campaign, earlier this year. It’s a book which should be in the Christmas stocking of someone you love. ‘My American Struggle for Justice in Northern Ireland’ can be ordered direct from Fr Seán at www.irishnational caucus.org or bought in An Chultúrlann.

 

AND speaking of An Chultúrlann, full marks go to Imagine Media for their uplifting chronicle of that exuberant cultural centre’s first 20 years which was broadcast on the Beeb this week. Gearóid O Cairealláin, the man whose vision inspired this Irish language revolution, continues to lead the Cultúrlann despite suffering a stroke some years back.

In fact, Gearóid made a Lazarus-like recovery – more miraculous even that that of the Irish language itself – when he awoke from a death’s door coma at the very moment when his sister had been dispatched to the O’Neills shop to buy an Antrim shirt in which to lay him out. If God is working to a script, Gearóid clearly has a bit to run in His play yet.

Which is just as well because a litmus test of the new Council will be its treatment of the Irish language and its promotion of the Gaeltacht Quarter.

For too long, Belfast City Council was synonomous with exclusion – one flag, one language, one top cat. Thankfully, that has changed and we are now building a shared city in which everyone has a stake. And if we wish to have Irish speakers and those who love Irish feel ownership of the Dome of Delight, then we have to ensure that they see the language cherished by the City Mothers and Fathers.

For that reason, it’s great to see history being made with the first-ever sign in Irish going up on City Hall – and how appropriate that it’s during a season of goodwill and reconciliation that the sign, Nollaig Shona Duit, should appear.

There has been more good news for An Ghaeilge and for the flagship Gaeltacht Quarter which runs along the Falls but has its heart and soul in the hub around the Cultúrlann: £40,000 has been set aside to start developing a tourism project for the Gaeltacht Quarter. And on Tuesday evening, the Council’s Development Committee gave the green-light to the bilingual ‘dressing’ of the Quarter as part of our 2012 drive to brighten the city.

Those banners, flags and drapes you see across the city: next year along the Falls they’ll be in Irish and English (for the first-time ever). Evidence of the respect the Council has for its many ratepayers who speak Irish and who revere their Irish identity.

That decision will have to be ratified by full Council on 4 January, but I sensed a new sensitivity around the proposal at Committee – there were no histrionics and no grand-standing. That may be born of an awareness that the two-week spat over the cadet stand-off and the Nollaig Shona Sign doesn’t serve either political parties or Belfast citizens well. I certainly hope that’s the case because the children who gathered at the Cultúrlann on Tuesday to hand over the Nollaig Shona sign to Cllr Jim McVeigh – who proposed the erection of the greeting – don’t deserve to be cut off from the full bounty Belfast has to offer.

In fact, they deserve to have their language treated in exactly the way in which the Scottish government has pledged to treat Gaidhlig – with “an equality of respect”.

For some years the word respect and Belfast City Council have been reluctant bedfellows, but in 2012 our resolution should be to change that. Respect for nationalist ratepayers certainly, but also respect between the unionist and nationalist traditions.

Come to think of it, we might just call Fr Seán out of retirement to give that pact a transatlantic blessing.

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