O ur Lord fell three times on the road to Calvary, so let’s not be too disappointed that the youthful DUP Lord Mayor slipped up at full Council on Monday night. He was brought low by that most prickly of issues facing unionists: the Irish language.
To date, Peter Robinson hasn’t told his party to step it up in the respect stakes by treating the Irish language with the respect it deserves. Thus, the very scent of the Irish language leads to a kneejerk response from the brethren.
It’s not always as extreme as UUP Councillor Davy Browne, who earlier this year branded Irish “gobbledegook”, but it’s depressing nonetheless.
Thus, last month unionists voted against the inclusion of the Irish language on Council information boards in the Gaeltacht Quarter (if you can’t speak Irish in the Gaeltacht Quarter, just where do unionists think it should be spoken?) And, in perhaps the most risible show of indignation, unionists voted en masse against having the ‘Nollaig Shona’ on City Hall last December.
Let it be said that our youthful DUP First Citizen Gavin Robinson deserves the plaudits he got for attending Casement Park to back the primary school Gaels, and similarly he was rightly lauded for visiting families right across the city who were devastated by the floods. In fact, he made it a hat-trick when he invited citizens and politicians of the greener variety to his installation dinner on Saturday week past in the Dome of Delight.
But when you line up for the plaudits you must also take the brickbats when you fail to live up to the high standards this new shared city sets itself. And fall miserably below those exacting standards Alderman Robinson did when he voted against a proposal to greenlight the first-ever Belfast City Council-backed programme linking the Irish language and Scottish Gaelic to boost the economies on both sides of the Moyle.
£1.1m in funding for the European scheme would have come as a welcome fillip to the faltering Belfast economy and the city would have found itself at the forefront of a link-up which has received the blessing of Scotland’s Minister for Languages.
The proposal to reject the Gaeilge-Gaelic partnership came from Jim Rodgers, a UUP Councillor not best-known for his love of the Irish language. Sadly, the Alliance Party, which backed the partnership at committee, flipped at full Council to back the opposition – and then the rest of the unionists piled on.
The Lord Mayor voted along with his colleagues while insisting, as Alderman Rodgers did, that his opposition was in no way motivated by the Irish language content of the Ireland-Scotland programme. On reflection, young Gavin might consider that a First Citizen who has adopted the stirring theme of ‘Reaching Out’ for his time in office would have been better served by recording a ‘No Vote’ – as he did later on the gay marriage proposal.
But that’s not how the cards were played and the voting record now shows that a Lord Mayor who has committed himself to building a shared city let down all those who love and cherish the Irish language as a treasure of the great city of Belfast.
But one swallow doesn’t make a spring and the Lord Mayor will have plenty of opportunities to make amends in the time ahead. We remain optimistic that he may yet be the first-ever unionist Lord Mayor to embrace the Irish language, which is so much a part of our past and our future.
However, despite the foot-stamping, the unionist minority and the Alliance Party together couldn’t muster enough votes to stop the landmark project from getting Council assent, courtesy of sdlp and sf votes.
Speaking of unacceptable excuses, I had the misfortune to come face-to-face with what NI Water and the Department for Regional Development call customer service last week during the torrential rains.
NI Water directed callers to a “dedicated” floodline which was manned by just two people, knowing full well it would be easier to put a call through to God to stop the downpour than to get through to an NI Water engineer.
And even as residents across the city communicated with their elected representatives by text, Facebook, Twitter and email, the authorities supposed to be leading the response to the crisis confined communication to a phoneline they wouldn’t answer. To add insult to injury, NI Water fobbed off callers begging for sandbags by saying that was someone else’s job. What exactly NI Water does, then, is anyone’s guess.
It’s a sorry day when householders have to see their homes destroyed due to the ineptitude and downright incompetence of the authorities.
In the United States, they talk about ‘CMA’ approaches. CMA stands for Cover My Ass. As far as I can see, NI Water and DRD are experts at CMA, but at little else.
The only bright star in this dark firmament was the all-hands-on-deck response of the top team at City Hall who rushed to set up the Emergency Room in the Dome and took the crisis by the scruff. While other senior executives from government bodies slept soundly in their beds, the most senior figures in City Hall were setting up systems to collate information on where the flooding was worst and leading a timely and efficient fightback.
The rest of government has a lot to learn from the public service ethos and the effectiveness of the City Hall top team.