John M Kirk

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Language and Politics

The Language & Politics of the Gaeltacht and Scotstacht ran from 2000 to 2010. Here is my report of its Impact:


The inspiration for the symposia came directly from the Belfast / Good Friday Agreement of 1998 which propelled language centre-stage. But they also came about because, following Dónall Ó Baoill’s appointment as Professor of Irish at Queen’s in July 1998, he and I were eager to work together and cross the boundaries between our subjects in a genuinely inter-disciplinary way.

In the aftermath of the Belfast / Good Friday Agreement, 1998, it quickly became clear that political and linguistic opinion were not aligned. By 2000, we were struck by the need for a forum for debate about both ‘languages’, where all sides and parties, linguists as well as politicians, implementers as well as practitioners, could participate. At the same time, it became clear that it would be pointless to discuss Irish and Ulster Scots in Northern Ireland without discussion of Irish and Ulster Scots in the Republic of Ireland (shared linguistic continua, separate jurisdictions), and Gaelic (separate language) and Scots (shared dialect) in Scotland (shared UK jurisdiction).

First Symposium

With these considerations in mind, the first symposium was organised for 12 August 2000, as a one-day event within Dialect 2000, a joint conference of the Forum for Research on the Languages of Scotland and Ulster (FRLSU), and the Irish Association for Applied Linguistics (IRAAL). The primary theme for that day was ‘discrimination’, arising from the contention that provisions such as those in the European Charter were necessary because there was a feeling that speakers of those languages had been discriminated against. However, we widened the debate to include LGBT people, speakers of immigrant languages, and deaf speakers.

Symposium Series

About that time, the then Arts and Humanities Board initiated a number of research centres, including one for Irish and Scottish Studies at the University of Aberdeen (RCISS), with Queen’s University Belfast and Trinity College Dublin as junior partners. Because of its organisation of Dialect 2000 with the Irish Association for Applied Linguistics (IRAAL), the FRLSU was invited by the centre’s first director, Prof. Tom Devine, to contribute a series of symposia to the centre’s work. The continuation of the languages and politics theme was an obvious choice, so that, in turn, on behalf of the FRLSU, Dónall Ó Baoill and I were invited to organise what became the next four symposia in 2001, 2002, 2003 and 2004. At the same time, for the purpose of wider dissemination, we became obliged to produce from each symposium an edited volume of proceedings (Kirk and Ó Baoill 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004).

Mindful that it was the European Charter which had inspired the provisions in the Belfast / Good Friday Agreement, we quickly decided that the programme for these seminars should not only deal with what we came to formulate as the Gaeltacht and Scotstacht, covering Scotland and the Republic of Ireland as well as Northern Ireland, but also directly with the Charter’s provisions and include as many non-academics and politicians as possible. At the same time, we decided to include presentations about other minority or regional languages, particularly in Europe, with which Irish and Ulster Scots might beneficially be compared.

The second symposium, in August 2001, thus addressed the issue of policy head-on. In addition, there were valuable comparisons with Frisian and with Norway and Switzerland.

The third symposium, in September 2002, tackled the issue of Irish-medium and Gaelic-medium education. The question of Scots and education had a different orientation and was accompanied by a set of papers on issues of standardisation.

By then, the symposia had covered four areas of the Charter’s provision: ‘status’, ‘discrimination’, ‘rights’ and ‘education’. The fourth symposium, in September 2003, tackled other areas of Part III provision: ‘the media’, ‘cultural activities and facilities’ and ‘economic and social life’. We divided the papers into the following sections: ‘broadcasting’, ‘the press’, ‘culture in the shape of the performing arts’, and ‘the economy’. International comparisons were made with Basque and Walloon.

The fifth symposium, in September 2005, concluded the survey of Part II provision by tackling the trans-frontier issue of Irish in the European Union, Irish by then having become an official language in the EU. It also tackled the impending Gaelic Bill in Scotland, the question of literary uses of Irish, Gaelic and Scots, and also the sociolinguistics of each language. Comparisons were also made with Maltese, which had provided the key to the recognition of Irish in the EU, and Kashubian.

During 2005, the AHRC RCISS became funded for a second period of five years from 2006–2010 (Phase II). This time, Ó Baoill and I became invited directly to organise a further five annual symposia and accompanying publications.

At the fourth symposium, in 2004, the session on language and economy proved so stimulating that we became urged to devote an entire symposium to the topic. This was the immediate choice of theme at the sixth symposium in September 2006. We had the good fortune that, for this purpose, François Grin devised a set of four paradigms which could link language with economic development and which each contributor addressed. As a result, we constructed a coherent set of position papers for Irish, Gaelic and Scots, some looking back to explain the present position, others looking forward to see how the matters could or should be developed.

Following the sixth symposium, the Northern Ireland (St Andrews Agreement) Act 2006 of December 2006 promised to bring forward heads of a Bill for a new Irish Language Act in Northern Ireland. Some Irish activists construed this as meaning that there would be an Irish Language Act. The British Government fulfilled the letter of the agreement by bringing forward heads for a Bill but the whole project was vetoed by the DUP. The Agreement also promised an Ulster-Scots Academy.

The seventh symposium, in November 2007, tackled the question of communities in which Irish, Gaelic and Scots were spoken, how they might be sustained, and what policies might ensure their sustainability. There was a central focus on the adequacy of current arrangements and practices for minority languages in Ireland and Scotland, the importance of infrastructure, environment, society, employment, urban renewal, culture, the role of education, the vibrancy of the languages themselves, and whether minority language sustainability is a matter for a top-down or bottom-up approach.

The eighth symposium, in November 2008, doubled up as the first United Islands? symposium (see its own section on this website); the ninth symposium in 2009 formed one of the thematic strands running through the ISAI conference Global Nations? – Irish and Scottish Expansion since the 16th Century at the University of Aberdeen.

The tenth symposium, in September 2010, took its cue from the publication of the draft 20-Year Strategy for the Irish Language. The symposium sought to consider what it means to be ‘bilingual’ in Ireland, what the role of policy and education to this end is supposed to be, and what wider concepts and experience need to be considered for implementing the 20-Year Strategy. Given the continuum of language but separation of jurisdiction, the symposium also focuses on the implications of the Strategy for Northern Ireland. A Strategy for Indigenous or Regional Minority Languages has long been promised by DCAL, but none so far has appeared. Finally, the symposium received a report on the first set of recommendations to the Scottish Government by the Ministerial Advisory Group on Scots.

Volumes of Edited Proceedings (each edited by John M. Kirk and Dónall P. Ó Baoill)

Strategies for Minority Languages: Northern Ireland, the Republic of Ireland, and Scotland, Belfast Studies in Language, Culture and Politics 22. Belfast: Cló Ollscoil na Banríona, 2011. ISBN 978 0 85389 977 8

Sustaining Minority Language Development: Northern Ireland, the Republic of Ireland, and Scotland. Belfast Studies in Language, Culture and Politics 20. Belfast: Cló Ollscoil na Banríona, 2011. ISBN 978 0 85389 976 1

Language and Economic Development. Belfast Studies in Language, Culture and Politics 19. Belfast: Cló Ollscoil na Banríona, 2009. ISBN 978 0 85389 910 5

Legislation, Literature, Sociolinguistics: Northern Ireland, the Republic of Ireland, and Scotland. Belfast Studies in Language, Culture and Politics 13. Belfast: Cló Ollscoil na Banríona, 2005. ISBN 0 85389 860 X

Towards our Goals in Broadcasting, the Press, the Performing Arts and the Economy: Minority Languages in  Northern. Ireland, the Republic of Ireland, and Scotland. Belfast Studies in Language, Culture and Politics 10. Belfast: Cló Ollscoil na Banríona, 2003. ISBN 0 85389 856 1

Language Planning and Education: Linguistic Issues in Northern Ireland, the Republic of Ireland, and Scotland. Belfast Studies in Language, Culture and Politics 6. Belfast: Cló Ollscoil na Banríona, 2002. ISBN 0 85389 835 9

Linguistic Politics: Language Policies for Northern Ireland, the Republic of Ireland, and Scotland. Belfast Studies in Language, Culture and Politics 3. Belfast: Cló Ollscoil na Banríona, 2001. ISBN 0 85389 815 4

Language and Politics: Northern Ireland, The Republic of Ireland, and Scotland. Belfast Studies in Language, Culture and Politics 1. Belfast: Cló Ollscoil na Banríona, 2000. ISBN 0 85389 791 3