Derry Girls and Peaky Blinders star joins tens of thousands on Irish language rights protest
'It’s extraordinary to see how people have been galvanised'
The message was loud and clear – Irish language rights now.
Anyone listening in Westminster or Stormont cannot now be in any doubt about the strength of feeling and desire for Irish language legislation.
Belfast city centre was a sea of red, a pall of red smoke hung over the city streets as tens of thousands of Irish language activists made their way to the City Hall yesterday.
The crowd stretched all the way along Donegall Place and to the end of Royal Avenue in one of the largest public rallies seen in the city for many years.
They heard repeated calls from the platform for the government to act and act now.
The atmosphere was carnival-like with families and children enjoying the afternoon sun. Kids with painted faces and balloons walked with parents, but there was no mistaking the underlying message.
Among the protesters was Peaky Blinders and Derry Girls actor Packy Lee.
“You can see how important this is to people,” Packy Lee told the Sunday World.
“You can see what it means, now is the time, especially for the children,” he said, pointing to his own kids who attend an Irish language school.
“The education they are getting is second to none, as parents we couldn’t be happier. Just look around, I’ve never seen so many people in the city centre. And while this is not a day for politics, it’s clear what needs to happen.”
Cold Feet star Jimmy Nesbitt tweeted out his support during the week.
As expected the turnout represented the largest language rally in a generation, organised by An Dream Dearg, an estimated 30 busloads of supporters travelled from across Ireland to protest against the lack of movement on Irish language legislation.
Legislation on cultural issues including Irish and Ulster Scots formed part of the New Decade New Approach agreement struck in 2020.
It has remained stalled ever since despite pledges from the British government, most recently in the Queen’s Speech earlier this month.
“For too long our rights have been denied,” said Conchur Ó Muadaigh of Conradh na Gaeilge.
“Its 2022 –now is the time for language rights.”
Two thousand red T-shirts were sold – protesters wore red to represent ‘dearg le fearg’ – red with anger.
Marchers set off from the Culturlann McAdam-Ó Fiaich shortly after 1pm, led off by 31-year-old Niamh Ní Ruanaidh, they made their way down the Falls Road with hundreds joining the sun-kissed procession from side streets growing in size by the minute.
By the time Niamh had led them to the platform, a snake of red stretched the whole way back to the former Belfast Telegraph building and beyond.
It is five years almost to the day from the last march in 2017, and the scale could not have been greater.
“It’s extraordinary to see how people have been galvanised,” said Aine Mehaffey who had travelled with husband Gerry from Athlone.
“The Irish language is so important to so many people, all you have to do is look at the number of people who have taken to the streets.”
Even Batman put in appearance with the caped crusader lending his support to the cause.
“We have had some lip service towards New Decade New Approach commitments in recent weeks,” added Conchur Ó Murdaigh.
“We have had no action, nothing concrete in terms of dates, in terms of any legislation coming through. We’re bringing this to the streets.”
He said the mass turnout was representative of the anger felt towards the government and the DUP who have constantly voiced opposition to the legislation.
In the absence of a fully functioning Executive he called on Secretary of State Brandon Lewis to appoint a commissioner to oversee the process.
He accused Mr Lewis and Prime Minister Boris Johnson of issuing “soundbites” with no indication they are going to move on the legislation.
Earlier in the day a huge 70ft by 70ft red banner – the colour of the day – was placed on Black Mountain in support of the protest.
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