Dear oh dear, things are very bad altogether in Northern Ireland, as everybody in the Republic knows.
That DUP lot are intractable, reactionary and delusional. What about gay marriage, against which the party is firmly set? And what about the Renewable Heat Incentive controversy, otherwise known as the “Cash For Ash” scheme, which Arlene Foster was involved in setting up? The DUP leader has said that she acted appropriately at all times, but the patently flawed initiative could end up costing UK taxpayers £700 million over 20 years.
Then there is the DUP swanning around at Westminster, where it is vital to the survival of Theresa May’s government and is making the most of its hour in the sun. And the fact that Foster is the most intractable leader in the history of Unionism in the modern era.
On the other side we have the nationalists and their antics. As months go by without a power-sharing deal, and all the consequences that go with that, what measures have this forward-looking, inclusive, non-sectarian outfit come up with? Well, they are demanding and insisting on an Acht na Gaeilge.
As if Irish hasn’t suffered enough. Obliterated not so much by successive evil British administrations as by the exigencies of modern life, it was snatched from its coffin in the late 19th century. Nationalists wanted it for a sunbeam, but it ended up as a fig-leaf, covering a multitude of their failures.
Along the way the Republic has been through its own Acht na Gaeilge, and with bells on. It’s rather strange then that with our extensive experience of concerted official attempts to promote the Irish language within a modern society, we have so little to say about Sinn Féin’s current attempts to do exactly that, north of the border.
There seems to be a tacit agreement in the South that whatever Sinn Féin wants to do about the Irish language in the North is automatically all right with us. Opponents of the DUP lump in the Irish Language Act with “progressive legislation” such as marriage equality proposals.
This is despite the fact that the act is very far from being progressive. It represents Irish nationalism at its most unyielding, unimaginative and conservative, and we in the Republic know that very well. We have grown up under the reality of similar initiatives and they were a disaster — not least for the wellbeing of the Irish language. It’s just that we don’t want to talk about it.
In the Republic almost a hundred years have been spent on a regime of compulsory Irish, bilingual road signs, civil servants who have to be able to limp through public business using a travesty of Irish, and a lot of politicians who can start and end a speech in Irish while being unable to answer a simple question in that language.
In the immortal words of the American writer Michael Lewis, Irish politicians speak Irish the way that stars of the US reality show The Real Housewives of Orange County (no relation) speak French. I think we can assume that this means, carefully, nervously and as little as possible. Reporting from the Dáil in 2011, Lewis couldn’t help noticing that everything had to be said twice, once in Irish and once in English. “A forced gesture that wastes a lot of time,” he wrote.
Talk about lip service. So few people willingly speak Irish in the Republic that the Bank of Ireland, which had introduced an Irish language option on its ATM machines, recently withdrew the service because less than 1 per cent of its customers availed of it — yes, that’s less than 1 per cent.
Real lovers of the language wept when they saw how it was hijacked and bowdlerised in the 20th century by political reactionaries who wanted to beat the joy out of it. This puritanical system has had such success that Sinn Féin is insisting on introducing an Irish Language Act in the North.
Even now there is a class bias within the Irish language. At many Irish language primary schools in Dublin the favoured form of transport is an expensive SUV. A recent survey demonstrated that people who use Irish language versions of their surnames hold better jobs than those who did not.
In the South Irish has been used to exclude non-Irish speakers from official jobs, and from feeling entirely Irish. It has also been used to construct republican territory. The Irish language has indeed been weaponised — by republicans, for generations. Yet Unionist suspicions and fear of the Irish language are treated with scorn.
It was not always so. Protestant scholars were among the best friends that the Irish language had and the Gaelic revival probably could not have happened without them. Before that, in the early 19th century, Protestant pastors routinely preached in Irish when Catholic priests, who did not speak Irish, could not.
Most shaming of all, the new governments of the Free State did nothing to help the dying communities of Irish speakers under their care. Muiris Ó Súilleabháin, who wrote the Irish language classic Fiche Bliain ag Fás (Twenty Years A’ Growing), was so disgusted at the Irish state not even providing his community on the Great Blasket with a two-way radio for use in times of calamity that he refused to meet Éamon de Valera when the then taoiseach came to call on him.
It is little wonder that nationalists North and South don’t want to revisit the catalogue of disasters that make up the history of the Irish language movement in this country.
Sinn Féin knows this perfectly well. It is more interested in the comfort of the old lies that we have told ourselves than in building a consensus for the future. It is a terrible pity. Not least for the Irish language.
* Published in The Times, 15/02/18, here.