‘One of my fears would be that such was the DUP’s desire that they would pay a price that shouldn’t be paid,’ said Jim Allister, leader of the Traditional Unionist Voice Party (TUV), to the Belfast News Letter, ‘It could be that we’d end up with something called the Language Act rather than the Irish Language Act. It might make some meaningless nod to Ulster-Scots.’ This is a very rare occasion, where I actually think that Jim Allister has had a good idea.
He argued that the ultimate goal of Sinn Féin in pushing for the Irish Language Act was ‘another part of the de-Britishisation of Northern Ireland.’ I don’t think Sinn Féin could be any clearer on the policy of ‘de-Britishing’ Northern Ireland; however this highlights the main problem with the entire discourse around the issue.
Firstly, to conflate the Irish language movement with Sinn Féin in one sweep, as Allister does, is a gross generalisation. There are many members of the Social Democratic Labour Party (SDLP), as well as non-aligned parties and people, who wish to see the Irish language protected and appreciated by a wider audience.
The simple fact of the matter is that language is not political, at least, it shouldn’t be. But in Northern Ireland so much of what shouldn’t be political is made political.
Secondly, by claiming that the Irish language is in some way an infringement on his British identity, Allister is revealing his ignorance of the place in which he lives.
It is impossible to read Irish history in a way that easily conforms to simple political narratives. Who could expect to find simplicity in a place where driving north takes you to the South? As a Presbyterian man, Allister’s conflation of an Gaeilge as merely a part of the ‘radical Republican agenda’ is a disservice to his own history and contribution that men and women of his faith made to the language.
Roger Blaney wrote that ‘the origins of the Gaelic league are as likely to be found in Presbyterian Belfast as they are in Catholic Dublin'. He attributes the failure of the Reformation in Ireland to a communication barrier with the Irish-speaking natives - a failure Presbyterians avoided since they came from a Scots Gaelic background, and thus found little difficulty when it came to preaching in Irish.
It was the events of the 20th century which did the most to decimate the common name of Irishman. The irony of this being that it was the ‘assiduous lobbying of Home Rule MPs’ by Thomas O’Neill Russell, a Quaker, and a founding member of Conradh na Gaeilge, which, in 1878, led to the preservation of the Irish language becoming one of the main objectives of the nationalist movement. Despite the ‘hijacking’of Irish by radical nationalists, there were still many Protestants of all shades and stripes who managed to continue their love of the language, and even combine it with their unionism; and not nearly enough recognition is paid to Protestant nationalists, such as Douglas Hyde, the first President of both the Gaelic League and, later on, Ireland.
The Irish language is inescapable in Northern Ireland as all one has to do to speak it is to read aloud a road map. From the Rivermouth of the Sandbanks to the Wood of Trevor, most place names are either one degree or less away from their Irish equivalent.
There is no shibboleth to appreciating culture and identifying with it. Thomas Davis believed that the only prerequisite to being Irish was a ‘willingness to be a part of the Irish nation'.
To falsify divisions for short-term political gain does nothing but a disservice to people desperately in need of representation to the fullest and most active extent. An awful lot of people have devoted an awful lot of time to the subjects of ‘The Past’ and the ‘Shared Future’ as diametrically opposed entities, but not nearly enough energy nor resource has been devoted to the shared past which is a rich tapestry, an understanding of which quite often leads to much clearer understanding of the present.
Allister’s notion of the Language Act is actually quite a good idea: these languages belong to everyone on this island, and everyone can benefit from appreciating them, and the dialect of Irish most spoken in this province has evolved alongside Ulster-Scots; one cannot be divorced from the other.
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