Councillors clash over £10k Irish language funding boost

Councillors clash over £10k Irish language funding boost

7 November 2018

A POLITICAL row erupted at Monday night’s meeting of Newry, Mourne and Down Council over a decision to increase funding for an Irish language bursary scheme.

Republican and nationalist politicians backed a recommendation to increase the local authority’s commitment to the bursary scheme to £40,000 — an increase of £10,000 — but the move was rejected by unionist politicians, who claimed the community they represent received no financial support from the local authority.

Council officials say they are expecting increasing numbers of people from across the district to sign up for both the Irish language bursary scheme and a separate Irish language financial assistance programme. 

While the bursary funding has been increased to £40,000, support for the financial assistance programme remains at £50,000.

The bursary is designed to assist people improve their Irish language skills by providing financial support to allow them to study dedicated courses, with applicants able to apply for up to 50% of their total cost fees. 

Criticism of the decision to allocate almost £100,000 of ratepayers money to the Irish language programmes was led by the DUP’s Billy Walker in what at times was a particularly fiery and heated debate.

He declared: “I am absolutely outraged about this decision. Unionists are looking at this council throwing money hand over fist to the Irish language and see no money coming the way of their community.

“Every time those associated with the Irish language come to this council for funding they get it and I am getting it in the neck for the people in my community as they see no money coming their way. The unionist community gets absolutely nothing from this community as all the money appears to be directed towards the Irish language. What about fairness and equality?”

Party colleague Garth Craig said that while £90,000 has been allocated to the bursary and financial assistance schemes, the money did not include staffing costs, suggesting the overall amount being spent will be much greater.

He added: “My contention is the level of funding involved. This council is already cash strapped and we are starting the rates setting process and I am also thinking about other minority languages.

“Irish is the fourth spoken language here and we are treating residents from other groups in an unfair manner. I have no issue with people wanting to learn Irish, but have a difficulty with the level of funding involved.”

UUP councillor David Taylor expressed concern about the increased bursary funding and accused council officials of paying lip service to those in the unionist community.

“It is clear there is inequality here, but I am not looking to deny anyone the opportunity to express their culture and identity. I am looking for parity of esteem on this issue as the unionist community is being denied the same opportunities and financial assistance. What we are seeing here is a bias towards one culture,” he added.

Independent Unionist councillor Henry Reilly asked what evidence there was of the success of the bursary scheme, suggesting the local authority was making money available to groups “it did not know much about.”

He also claimed unionist groups across the council area had been told they would not be getting a “cold penny from the council” and demanded that the unionist community is treated fairly.

Sinn Fein’s Barra Ó Muiri said the local authority invested in people and services and paid tribute to the “fantastic work” of those in the Irish language department.

He said the council set up an Irish language working group and rejected DUP claims that people are looking for money “hand over fist” for the Irish language.

“For the first two years of the Irish language strategy there was no money up front as it was decided to explore how other councils deliver their strategy and we were able to develop a budget as a result,” he said.

Cllr Ó Muiri said last year’s bursary allocation of £30,000 resulted in children who wanted to learn the language being turned away as it was oversubscribed.

“This was a fantastic scheme and people have been contacting the council flat out to find out when it opens next tear. Sinn Fein welcomes this increased investment in the Irish language as it is money being spent in the right way,” he added.

Independent councillor Davy Hyland said the local authority is a bilingual organisation and there was nothing to prevent it from supporting the Irish language.

He also suggested £90,000 was a “small amount” to be handed over, pointing to the expense incurred repairing bilingual signs in parts of the district which have been “targeted on regular and sustained basis”.

SDLP councillor John Trainor said he “despaired” at the level of debate in the council chamber on the issue. He described the way people were attempting to vilify sections of the community and stoke up sectarian hatred as “disgraceful”.

He declared: “We should be leaders in our community. We should not be seen driving wedges between us, we should be seeking to engage with each other. This issue is about the Irish language and we should not be trying to rile people up outside this debating chamber.”

Cllr Trainor’s SDLP colleague, Michael Savage, said he “did not buy” the argument that Newry, Mourne and Down Council was not supportive of all communities across the district.

“I am disappointed that once again this issue is being used as a political football. This is a bi-lingual council and we are also looking at other minority languages that have sprung up over the past decade and more,” he said.

Cllr Savage added: “In the council’s application for financial assistance, no one asks you what your background is. The process is open to every single person in this district.”