Throughout the 1980s and during the 1990s bilingualism hit both the main Universities Students’ Unions’ in Northern Ireland. Republicans’ led successful campaigns to have bilingual signs erected in both Irish and English at both Students’ Unions at Queen’s University Belfast and Ulster University. The signs were eventually removed, largely as a result of a complaint that it breached neutral working space, which was against Fair Employment Legislation. It was replaced by a general welcome sign in a range of languages.
Many Unionists, including the Leader of the DUP, Arlene Foster, were at University in and around this time, which were some of the most volatile since the civil rights period and emergence of People’s Democracy. In and around the same time Queen’s dropped the singing of the National Anthem from all Graduation Ceremonies. This led to protests from now senior DUP politicians, including Ian Paisley. Universities in Northern Ireland became an even colder house for Unionists.
Many of those within the Unionist community who traveled through third level education at that time will recall these incidents. It left a scar in the minds of future mothers and fathers, who were reluctant to send their children to a local University to experience what they experienced.
The same policy, some thirty years on, is effectively being pursed by that same generation of Republicans’. However, very few in Sinn Fein, other than Barry McElduff, were in actual fact University students at the time. The issue of an Irish Language Act must therefore be Déjà vu for people like Arlene Foster, Peter Weir and others within the DUP.
Republicans’ succeeded at both Queen’s and the Ulster University respective Students’ Unions to rub the noses of Unionists’ in the Irish Language. The same is being done again.
While Sinn Fein deny the accusation that they are seeking to gain cultural supremacy, they are most certainly engaging in a cultural war using ethnicity as the basis of ‘divide and rule’ (something they would accuse London of). It is also a realisation that Sinn Fein have not changed anything other than their tactics, with echos of reviving the ‘Irish’ Language after ‘800 years of being oppressed’. In fact, Sinn Fein’s John O’Dowd made much of this point on Monday’s Nolan Show when he said that:
“The rights and entitlements of Irish Language speakers have been denied for decades and centuries and that now has to be rectified.” (The Stephen Nolan Show, BBC Radio Ulster, 18th September 2017)
John O’Dowd’s point has also been reiterated by Declan Kearney, arguing:
“The reason we need an Irish Language Act with official recognition and protections, is the Irish language is an indigenous language, which has been persecuted and almost obliterated by the British state.” (Eamonn Mallie’s Blog, 19th September 2017)