Derry & Strabane Council has agreed to illuminate The Guildhall or another civic building in support of the campaign for an Irish Language Act, despite claims by unionists that this will set “a dangerous precedent.”
Ellen Cavanagh, Lead Democratic Services & Improvement Officer at the council, said the council was seeking elected members’ views in relation to a request from Conradh Na Gaeilge to light up The Guildhall or another civic building in red, the colour of the campaign, for one day.
Councillors were told that, subject to mayoral approval, requests from charities to have the Guildhall clock and/or the Strand Road Offices lit up have been facilitated, adding that in 2018, council passed a motion calling for the introduction of Acht na Gaeilge as promised in the St. Andrews Agreement. There is, however, no formal written policy, councillors were informed.
Sinn Fein Councillor Maolíosa McHugh, proposing the council agree to the request, said: “In my time as mayor, I often would have used the Irish language and that actually would have drawn, at times, a very negative response from some sources but I have always insisted the language is above party politics and I firmly and absolutely believe that in every respect.”
Colr. McHugh pointed out that Irish was the indigenous language of the island and also the indigenous language of Scotland, Wales and Cornwall, and was being learned by people from all traditions, including in East Belfast.
Independent Unionist Alderman Maurice Devenney said he had nothing against Irish, but wouldn’t be supporting the proposal. After Mayor John Boyle, chairing the meeting, said he would not allow any grandstanding on what was a straightforward request.
Ald. Devenney said many unionists couldn’t go along with it “when the Irish language has been used as a political football at times to beat the people they are now trying to bring on board.”
He added: “When there are comments such as, ‘every word spoken in Irish is the same as a bullet fired for Irish freedom’, that’s where the problem with the Irish Language Act is.
“It’s good to hear Sinn Fein saying they are taking it out of the political sphere,” he added.
DUP Alderman Graham Warke said his party would not be supporting the request, adding: “I have to question Londonderry & Strabane District Council for even thinking of bringing this forward,” to which the Mayor said that he was sure Alderman Warke was aware of the name of the council he was elected to.
DUP Alderman Hilary McClintock, meanwhile, warned: “I think it would be a very dangerous precedent if we went with this motion because all the other times that we have talked about lighting up council buildings, we have done it because of particular charities or health commitments but we have never got involved in lighting up a political campaign. I think the fact that it is asking for mayoral approval is putting your role as apolitical in jeopardy.”
Mayor Boyle responded that as mayor it was his responsibility to ask the council for its opinion sometimes and that he would follow that opinion if it had been given.
SDLP Colr. Martin Reilly said that when he had seconded Colr. McHugh’s proposal earlier, he hadn’t intended to speak as most of the salient points had been covered, but some of those who had spoken since hadmade this political.
“The Irish language does not belong to any political party or any individual, it belongs to every single person who choses to speak it and this building doesn’t belong to any particular party or individual, it belongs to every single citizen. So if there is a request coming forward from people who are in our area who want to see the building illuminated, I was happy to second it,” he said.
Independent Colr. Paul Gallagher said to those who opposed the motion: “Those in the Chamber opposing it, they were somewhat in the support of the Irish language act. I’m talking about the DUP here.
“Maybe if this campaign convinced the people who told the DUP not to support it, it might work. Those who were blocking it, those who convinced the DUP to pull out, maybe they are the ones we should be talking to.”
A total of 30 councillors voted in favour of granting the request, with eight councillors voting against.