Last April I wrote an article on Unionist attitudes to the Irish Language Act, specifically responding to comments made by Jim Allister (TUV) on the subject. The fact that ten months later the article in question is still entirely relevant is not an indictment of my skills as a writer but rather a reason as to why every man, woman, child and farmyard animal in Northern Ireland should form an orderly queue along the Mourne Wall and proceed to bang their heads against it in the hopes that the proceeding sound waves might cause some sort of sea change at Stormont. Or if not, then at the very least cause the island to break away from its coastal shelf and float nearer to China, as it would appear that our ability to act democratically is regressing further and further.
Ten months ago Jim Allister established his opposition to Acht na Gaeilge (the Irish Language Act) on the grounds that it was simply ‘another part of the de-Britishisation of Northern Ireland.’ This week on Talkback Allister intensified his view by warning the audience of the ‘dark side’ of as Gaeilge, evident in the Provisional IRA’s Green Book, which states that ‘culturally we hope to restore Gaelic in a distinctive new Irish socialist state as a bulwark against imperialist encroachments from whatever quarter.’
It should not need to be said that the Irish language predates the Provos by a fairly wide margin, and Allister’s stance only serves to reinforce the bubble into which Irish Protestants have spiritually herded the events and leaders of the last hundred years. Allister is the Ian Paisley for the present day and continues the mentality of ‘not an inch, and no surrender’. (Although, it has to be said, this has been attempted by Arlene Foster with her establishment of a cold-house for crocodiles around the time of last year’s Assembly election.)
The association of anything tinted green with militant Republicanism is an example of wilful historical ignorance and as such is most detrimental to the constituents Allister would claim to represent.
Also on Talkback was Ciarán Mac Giolla Bhéin, advocacy manager for Conradh na Gaeilge in Belfast. Among the founders of this organisation was the Quaker Thomas O’Neill Russell, who helped the preservation of the Irish language become one of the main objectives of the national movement through his ‘assiduous lobbying of Home Rule MPs’. Mac Giolla Bhéin also made the point that the Presbyterian Church (of which Allister is a member) has done more to promote the Irish language than the Catholic Church.
When one thinks of the Gaelic Revival, among the first names to spring to mind will be those of W.B. Yeats and Lady Gregory. Cultural nationalism was never bound by a significant shibboleth before partition and its surrounding events served to alienate Ulster Presbyterianism from its history. The border drawn through Ireland in the early twenties, as soft as it is for one watching the gentle rippling waters meet the mighty Mourne shore, seems to exist most prevalently in the minds of those a few miles away from it in Co. Antrim.
Also on the Talkback episode on question was David McNarry, UKIP’s Leader in the North, who said that although ‘he was normally a law-abiding man’, were he to see an Irish language road-sign in his neighbourhood he would take it down. Surely he is aware that 95% of all place names in Northern Ireland are anglicised forms of the Irish original anyway: there is no gargantuan leap of linguistics between ‘Belfast’ and ‘Beal Fiersté.’ Furthermore, a place will generally benefit from a clear understanding of where it came from and how it came to be; Ireland, north or south, has a proud oral tradition, and that is something worth protecting through simply writing it down.
The aggressive response by certain elements of unionism is not warranted and is not productive. Such fears of the ‘de-Britishisation’ of Northern Ireland seem to be inter-woven with opposition to Irish unity, and thus opposition to Irish culture seems largely based on Sinn Féin’s advocacy of it. However, there is neither virtue nor reason in allowing one’s fears of the future to blind one to the past.
The debate around the Irish Language Act has been framed in cultural terms by Republicans and Unionists alike. Yet that is a mistake; advocates of the preservation and celebration as Gaeilge, such as Linda Ervine and Turas, emphasise its mutuality across the country. Similarly, Unionist leaders should represent their constituents to the fullest possible extent rather than keep them within these stagnant bubbles of the Orange and the Green.
Cultural arguments get in the way of a full and mature policy debate over what is, after all, the proposal for law. What is needed are honest questions over how an Irish Language Act would work, how much it would cost, and precisely what good it would do.
Arlene Foster has, by and large, been blamed for the breakdown of the last deal. However it seems that she is far more moderate than she is given credit for: her maiden name is Kelly, she is Church of Ireland and from Fermanagh and thus outside the Antrim Presbyterian clique of the traditional DUP leadership. Furthermore she was an Ulster Unionist until it became evident that that party was dead. Yet she lacks the conviction and the bravery to risk her career for the sake of doing what she thinks is right.
There is no executive because, rather than true leaders, all we have is politicians leading from behind.