“I want him to belong to the future”
On Tuesday at the Eisteddfod, the national Welsh cultural extravanganza, I had the decided privilege of meeting Dafydd Elis-Thomas, a legendary politician and champion of linguistic equality.
Established in 1861, the Eisteddfod attracts around 150,000 people to its festival site during its week-long run and boasts 250 trade stands, campaigning booths and dozens of meeting spots — as well as a pop-up art gallery.
A member of the House of Lords and an Assembly Member in the Senedd, Dafydd Elis-Thomas enjoys a special place in the hearts of Irish nationalists for moving the Westminster writ for the Fermanagh-South Tyrone by-election after the 1981 death on hunger strike of Bobby Sands MP.
But it’s his role as a champion of the Welsh Language which has earned him the support of all who believe language choice is a civil right — without which there can be no acceptable government in any of the Celtic nations. We had sneaked into the green room at the back of the 5,000-seater main pavilion to chat at the invitation of Welsh Finance Minister Mark Drakeford. While North Wales and Anglesey — where this year’s Eisteddfod is based — is the heartland for the Welsh language, Dafydd Elis-Thomas told us that Welsh medium schools had transformed support for the language in the communities of South Wales. However, most of the parents of children attending the Welsh-only schools don’t themselves speak Welsh. “I was standing outside my grandchildren’s school in South Wales and fell into conversation with a farmer, there to pick up his son, from a community which traditionally would have had no interest in the Welsh language,” he said. “I asked this farmer, who couldn’t speak Welsh, why he had sent his son to a Welsh-medium school. ‘Because I want him to belong to the future’ was his answer.”
Which brings us neatly to the Ulster Unionist Party leader’s statement this week that his party would oppose an Irish Language Act. Such utterances belong to our divided past because Irish speakers and their rights belong firmly to our future.
Also belonging to our future are those around the world who trace their roots to Belfast and enjoy coming back to build a brighter tomorrow for all our people, unionist and nationalist alike. This week, we got to roll out the red carpet for two of our brightest ambassadors: Robbie Hunter, President of the 450,000-member building trades union in California and Scottish businesswoman of the year Marie Macklin, whose great-granny left Belfast for Paisley, Scotland in the 19th Century.
Robbie had the first-ever delegation of California legislators to Belfast in tow (led by Assemblyman Bill Brough, a republican, and his colleague Patrick O’Donnell, a Democrat). As a son of Sailortown, Robbie is no stranger to hard times — but equally he believes that training young people in trades so they can get well-paid, sustainable, unionised jobs on the many building sites in Belfast is part of our bright future. Marie is a fan of “the air of optimism in Belfast” and contends that successful regeneration projects must be embedded in the community. She should know: this week the £67m regeneration project she has led for her native Kilmarnock was unveiled.
Both Robbie and Marie reconnected with Belfast through the Belfast International Homecoming which is coming back to my favourite city from 4-6 October 2017. You don’t have to be a global superstar like Robbie or Marie to attend — anyone committed to building a better Belfast is welcome.
Getting to our bright future is not without its challenges though as I was reminded this week when I met representatives of two of our most professional social enterprises: Colin Care and Bryson Care which provide domiciliary care to our elderly. Both would benefit greatly from social clauses in government and Council contracts but in the absence of criteria awarding extra points to organisations which make a positive impact on the community (which are included by law in Scotland), we have a financial race to the bottom. And in that race, there is no room for values like community benefit, a sharing society, or boosting civic pride. That’s why both not-for-profits lost out in the most recent tender for domiciliary care providers. However, the tender process has now been put on ice due to protests from the social enterprise sector. I am adding my voice to those protests. To punish Colin Care in Twinbrook and Bryson Care is to punish our pensioners.