As politicians bicker, Gaelic blossoms in Belfast

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Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) loyalist murals are pictured on Newtownards Road in Belfast, near to the Skainos Centre, where Irish language classes are taught

In the heart of a Protestant area of east Belfast, a group of students belt out a traditional Irish song as part of their weekly Gaelic language practice.

At the Skainos Community Centre, there is little sign of the bitter political dispute over a language associated more with Catholic Irish nationalism.

"It's massively growing," teacher Caoimhe Ni Chathail told AFP. She is part of the "Turas" (Journey) project which connects people from Protestant communities to their own history with the Irish language.

After the choral practice, the biggest class of beginners the 31-year-old has ever seen take their place at the centre, which is decorated with Gaelic-language posters such "Mionna Na Bliana" -- which depicts the months of the year.

The creation of an Irish Language Act is the main obstacle standing between Catholic Irish republicans Sinn Fein and the Protestant, pro-British Democratic Unionist Party in negotiations -- ongoing since March -- to form a power-sharing government in Belfast.

Enthusiastic vocalist and former English teacher Linda Ervine, director of the Turas programme, said Gaelic "has been used in a political sense to represent one particular viewpoint".

While Gaelic is the first official language of the Republic of Ireland, in Northern Ireland, part of the United Kingdom, it is only an officially-recognised minority language.

The last census in 2011 found that almost 11 percent claimed some familiarity with Gaelic; 3.7 percent claimed they could speak, read, write and understand it.

However, just 4,130 people, 0.2 percent of the population, said it was their main language -- fewer than those who said Polish and Lithuanian.

Paul Lynas, a retired public servant who has been attending classes for just over three years, said he did not care about any political associations.

"Protestants who came from Scotland, many of them would have spoken Scots Gaelic and Protestants have always been involved in Gaelic," he told AFP.

"I really don't see it as anything revolutionary."

- Gaelic revival -

The school provoked a mixed response from the Protestant Unionist community when it opened in a local Methodist church in 2011.

"Some people left the church... and we've had some verbal abuse on Facebook," Ervine said.

Since then, the project has flourished with classes mushrooming from one per week to 13.

More than 160 students ranging from beginners to experts, children to adults take part in the free singing lessons, group chats and classes.

A couple of pensioners set up near two friends in their 20s, while a young girl in a beige hooded sweater sits next to a distinguished-looking middle-aged man in a dark suit and red tie as he takes down notes.

The revival of interest in the Gaelic language is reflected in the education system.

In 2014/2015, some 5,256 primary school children were enrolled in an Irish-language curriculum, double the number of a decade earlier.

Ervine, said: "They expect this number to double within the next 15 years."