‘Irish language is the nationalists’ weapon of choice’

Irish language is the nationalists’ weapon of choice *

Sinn Féin’s insistence on Acht na Gaeilge is a step backwards and the South needs to say so.

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.


Its Right to Say No#4

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Online Petition

Sign the Petition Online now: https://www.change.org/p/arlene-foster-no-irish-language-act

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Bilingualism and Déjà vu

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)

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Unionists’ Must Unite Against an Irish Language Act

An excellent letter in the News Letter today by TUV Leader Jim Allister where he states:

“However it is dressed up, it would be the vehicle to hollow out our Britishness and make the public service a cold house for unionists. 

“Promoting Ulster Scots must not be abused as a figleaf to placate Sinn Fein’s insatiable demands on the Irish language.” (News Letter, Letters, 12th September 2017)

Unionists must unite against an Irish Language Act and Ulster Scots should not be used as an excuse of a fig leaf to cover up for one, by any piece of legislation, be called a Cultural Act, or whatever.

Ulster Scots has its place, as does Irish (or Free State Gaelic), but Unionists’ must not stoop to the level of Sinn Fein and use it as a negotiating tool. Nor does Ulster Scots have universal acceptance within the Unionist community and will therefore not gain ‘acceptability’ should any deal emerge.

Unionists must not allow Sinn Fein to hollow out Ulster’s Britishness. By trading Irish for Ulster Scots, Ulster Scots for Irish, Unionism and Britishness is being weakened. In addition to this education and health will lose out on much needed funding, decisions Sinn Fein were not willing or prepared to take in the last Assembly. Instead they would rather have funding taken from universal services (accessible to all) in order to push their ethnic agenda. Does that sound like a party for everyone?

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The Irish Language as a Cultural Weapon

With less than 5 percent of those living in Northern Ireland possessing any level of knowledge, understanding or being able to read and write in Irish it seems unjust to permit an Irish Language Act to protect what is a dying language.
Of course, Republicans will argue that Irish was spoken here long before English. This is the anti-imperialist side of Republicanism which is rarely on public view. Instead Sinn Fein are pushing their narrow, ethnic and sectarian agenda under the banner of ‘equality’. They are equating it was issues like same-sex marriage. These are two different issues.

Sinn Fein have an agenda which is to eradicate Britishness in NI. They deem it ‘imagined’, ‘fake’ and ‘imposed’ by London as part of their imperialist agenda. Unionists, are believe they are British, to Sinn Fein, are living in a state of false consciousness. They are not in fact British, but Irish.

The IRA Terrorist campaign entrenched identity and drove a wedge between the two most prominent communities in Northern Ireland. The Irish Language Act is part of a cultural war, as politics is war by other means.

Orange Parades were a focus for Sinn Fein in the 1990s. Now Britishness is in the sight of Republicanism as young Unionists will be force fed the myths and legends associated with Republicanism.
Yes, Irish was spoken by Presbyterians. It even featured at the 1892 Unionist Convention. However, it was not a political weapon as it is being used by Sinn Fein.

The Irishness felt by Unionists once upon a time was not the one created for unity, solidarity and state building in the early days of the Irish Free State. It was one represented in the flag of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and (now) Northern Ireland.

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