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Home arrow Education arrow Education Policy and Power-Sharing in Post-Conflict Societies: Lebanon, Northern Ireland, and Macedonia

Northern Ireland

Like Lebanon, contemporary Northern Ireland is a largely monolingual region: just 3.7 % of residents can speak, understand, read and write Irish and less than 1 % have a similar knowledge of Ulster-Scots. However, Northern Ireland’s linguistic homogeneity is relatively recent: ‘the Irishspeaking community collapsed to the point of extinction’ only in the late nineteenth century.73 Declining numbers of native speakers paralleled the increasing ‘symbolic and to a degree ... cultural status’ of Irish and its political relevance.74

Indeed, after partition, the consolidation of Northern Ireland as distinct from the Irish Free State became the main thrust of local language policies.75 In 1915 the Gaelic League had called for a Free Gaelic-speaking Ireland, thereby associating the Irish language with an Irish Nationalist project.76 In contrast, the new Northern Ireland state education system, as Chap. 3 explained, aimed to form loyal British citizens. Thus, new curricula immediately marginalised the Irish language and by 1936 Prime Minister James Craig openly opposed funding Irish teaching in schools on the grounds that ‘we do not see that these boys being taught Irish would be any better citizens’.77 His successor added that the state should not pay for the teaching of Irish, ‘chief object of which is to foment antagonism to Great Britain’.78

The Irish language in Northern Ireland remained taught in Catholic maintained schools. However, by the 1960s, it became relegated to a symbol of resistance to the state, and only the Troubles provided impetus for its ‘revival’.79 In 1971, ‘without any involvement by church and state’, a group of parents established the first Irish-medium school in West Belfast.80 They presented Irish-medium schooling as part of a right to freedom of expression for the Catholic/Nationalist minority and called for access to the Irish language as part and parcel of ‘parity of esteem’.81 Unionists remained suspicious of Irish, associating it with resistance to the Union.82 However, the ‘minority rights discourse’ adopted by Irish- language activists resonated with the British state. In the late 1980s the British government started presenting Irish as part of one of the two native cultural traditions of Northern Ireland rather than as a ‘foreign and subversive’ element.83

Education policy expressed the ‘reinvented’ role of the state ‘as a “promoter” of the Irish language’.84 Irish was introduced in the 1989 curriculum and in 1994-5 the Department of Education Northern Ireland (DENI) provided funding for Irish-medium schools and curriculum material in Irish. The British government argued that the Irish language was ‘an important strand in the complex cultural inheritance of Northern Ireland ... [and should] be valued as such by all sections of the community’.85

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