The debate over an Irish language act and the deadlock that it has caused to the political institutions in Northern Ireland made me reflect on the use of the Irish language in the Irish state and in a future All-Ireland republic.
Eliminate Irish language = impressing unionists
A prevailing school of thought in Ireland is that unionists despise the Irish language so that in reaching out to them, little or no effort should be made to use the Irish language as it will annoy them. The same viewpoint advocates removing the Irish language’s official status in a future all-Ireland state in order to convince unionists to accept that state and feel at home in it. The thinking is that the unionists will dislike the Irish language in the new state so therefore the Irish state should not use the Irish language. What is the point of there being an Irish state if there is nothing Irish about it?
While there is no doubt as to the deep hostility many unionists have towards the Irish language, not all do. Likewise their dislike of the Irish language is often based on who is associated with it (Sinn Féin and other republican parties) rather than a specific dislike of the language itself. That said, many unionists are unfamiliar with the Irish language so it is never clear how well-thought out the hostility to the Irish language is.
Linda Ervine’s Turas project in Skainos and Gordon McCoy in the Ultach Trust are doing capital work in promoting the Irish language amongst the unionist community. The runaway success of their projects is proof that unionists, when exposed to the Irish language, do not feel hostility to the language but feel a connection to it. The Irish language allows them to learn more of their history, their names, the placenames all around them and the connections between Ireland and Britain.
So then why do some people advance the idea that unionists can only be won over by Ireland eliminating the Irish language in a future all-Ireland state?
Let us thrash this out a bit:
People who identify themselves as British and actually live in the British state are never going to be convinced to vote to live in a wannabe British state.
Some people think that unionists will be won over and impressed by an Irish state that aims to be a wannabe British state. They claim that because English is the main language of Ireland, the Irish parliament is based on Westminister, that Ireland and the UK have the same legal system, common law, and still have some laws in common dating from British rule in Ireland, and the common travel area make it more appealing to unionists to want to be citizens of the Irish state.
The people who advocate this approach seem to be missing the point. They will never win unionists over as psychologically this does not work! People who identify themselves as British and who already live in the British state are not going to vote for a crappier version of the British state. Ireland will never match the UK in terms of its Britishness and its history, both good and bad. Unionists are not going to budge by offering them a poor version of their own state.
What needs to be offered is an Irish state that has its own distinct and confident identity. This can be done both by using the Irish language and by having a distinct political identity as a republic with a prospect of every citizen being able to participate in decision making. Unionists won’t want to live in a wannabe British state but they might find an Irish state with a strong identity and not trying to be a poor imitator of another state a more attractive prospect.
The reason why the Scottish independence referendum failed
I have a hunch that this is the reason why the Scottish independence referendum of 2014 failed. No doubt the independence campaign organisations (Yes Scotland etc.) had done much research to learn how best to sell the message of an independent Scotland to voters but I get the feeling that voters were not convinced that the change to become independent was worth the effort if the changes were going to be small. A minor independence is never as convincing as a full blast independence. The approach taken in 2014 was that Scotland would have the same queen as the UK and it would keep using sterling as its currency and the BBC would be still be available.
Perhaps if the independence campaigns had declared that they wanted Scotland to be an independent republic, that it was going to leave the Commonwealth, have its own currency, its own broadcasting services and that they didn’t care if people could not see Coronation Street or East Enders anymore as Scotland will make its own bloody soap operas, then people would have been convinced that the effort to become independent was worth it.
Offering people a crappier version of the state they live in is not a way to win them over.
Begging people to like you does not work
Begging people to like you by telling them that you will do whatever they want is a sure sign of a lack of confidence and respect. It is repulsive to people.
If Irish nationalists approach unionists with an attitude of “just tell us what you want and we will do it”, then they will lose respect and not inspire anyone.
A little bit of romance…
Imagine a man who likes a woman. He tries to be with her but she is not interested. Therefore he takes to begging to win her affections. “Please tell me what you want me to be like. Tell me how you want me to be. I will do whatever you like.”
His chances with the woman are slim and none. The reason is that he is displaying a lack of confidence and respect for himself. No one likes that. People are impressed by confidence.
So imagine nationalists saying to unionists “Tell us what you want us to be and we will do it. Tell us what you want us to do.” While this might seem logical or reasonable, the reptilian part of unionists’ brains would tell them that the Irish state’s leaders were cowards and had no confidence and respect for themselves. Why would a unionist want to live in a state that was cowardly and would throw away one of the most important parts of its identity, the Irish language? If the Irish state would do that, what else would it throw away? Political sovereignty? Economic sovereignty (which already happened in 2011)? Natural resources? Neutrality? Territory?
People like people with a backbone. If nationalists act like they do not have a backbone and would do anything to win unionists over by jettisoning all traces of Irishness, then unionists are not going to be impressed or attracted to an Irish state that has cowardly abondoned its main raison d’etre.
If all Ireland aims to be is to be a poorer imitation of England, Ireland will never achieve much.
Unionists might vote to be part of an Irish state but if so, they would want it to be a strong and wealthy state. Ireland will never achieve much if all it aims to be is a poorer version and imitator of England. It would be like claiming as an athlete that you only ever wanted to win a bronze medal at the Olympics. England and the UK can win golds but Ireland is happy to just get a bronze medal.
Unfortunately, this attitude influences many people in important areas of Irish life including in business, the media, academia and in politics. There is a feeling that Irish things should be based on how things are done in Britain. This means then that the Irish language is not allowed a place in television shows, in shops and other businesses, in political life, in academic conferences etc. The public service in Ireland often bases itself on how things are done in Britain. Why not do things in an original Irish way using the Irish language?
This would mean that Ireland would steer its own course in the world and would have a distinct identity with big ambitions rather than just being a pale shadow of Britain. Unionists would prefer an Irish state with such an identity rather than an Irish state trying to be a wannabe British state.
These three things are connected. Bending over backwards to eliminate the Irish language and other aspects of Irish identity and emphasising British features of the Irish state will never convince unionists to leave the British state they already live in. Lacking pride and confidence in Ireland’s identity would leave unionists unimpressed with sycophantic moves to win them over. Lastly, a country without a distinct identity and pride in their identity is going to find it difficult to do well. No one wants to live in such a state.
The Irish language is the key to unity
While the Irish language might be causing political problems at present, it could be the thing that brings unionists towards the idea of voting for an all-Ireland republic. This is a subject that should be studied by political leaders, political analysts, activists and civil servants.