This week the negotiations to re-establish an Executive between Sinn Féin and the Democratic Unionist Party failed. The reason why it failed was the unwillingness of the latter to accept an Irish-language act.
During the week I listened to the Stephen Nolan show on BBC Radio Ulster. Listening to the commentators, particularly unionist representatives such as David McNarry and Jim Allister, saddened me. They were very opposed to an Irish-language act. McNarry claimed that he would remove any roadsign in Irish if it was put up at the bottom of his road. What would annoy him so much about a road sign with the name of the area in its original form?
Sinn Féin agus an Ghaeilge?
Unionists believe that Sinn Féin is trying to impose the Irish language on them. They should be so lucky. Sinn Féin cannot be trusted with the Irish language. Neither the new president nor the vice-president of the party, Mary Lou McDonald and Michelle O’Neill respectively, speak Irish. Jim Allister was correct to point out that when a question was asked in Irish of them, neither of them could answer it. The late Martin McGuinness could not speak Irish. If the Irish language was so important to these figures they would have learned Irish a long time ago and they would speak and use the Irish language as often as possible. The Irish language is not a priority for Sinn Féin.
When the Irish Republican Army announced that its war was over in 2005, a video was released to announce it. The person in the video who read the statement declaring that the war was finished was Séanna Breathnach, a former prisoner and respected member of the IRA. But what language did he announce the declaration in? English! This is very surprising as Séanna Breathnach later became the director of An Roinn Chultúir of Sinn Féin. His task was to promote the Irish language in the party. He failed when issuing a very important statement.
An Irish-language act was promised in the St. Andrew’s Agreement back in 2006. Sinn Féin entered government with the DUP in 2007. The fact that it was in government for ten years until early 2017 and never pressed the British government nor the northern executive about making a reality of the promise for an Irish-language act shows that it was not a priority for Sinn Féin. It might have been expected that they would try to seek its introduction after one or two years of power-sharing. They never bothered.
These examples above say everything about what unionists need to know about Sinn Féin and their commitment to the Irish language.
That said Sinn Féin is the party that uses Irish the most along with Fianna Fáil and the Comhaontas Glas who also use the Irish language regularly. None of these parties have a monopoly on the Irish language. They use it as part of their vision for Ireland. It is nothing more than that.
The Irish language will supposedly erode the Britishness of Northern Ireland
One of the main complaints of unionists is that the Irish language would diminish the Britishness of Northern Ireland. There are a few things to be said about that.
Firstly the name of the state they are in is the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. The name says it all. The kingdom is not just British, but partially Irish as well, so why shouldn’t there be some reflection of Irish identity and culture in a British and Irish kingdom?
Secondly, the Irish language is never going to challenge the English language. The number of Irish speakers is tiny compared to the number of speakers of English around the world. They can’t be compared. The number of English speakers in Ireland is 6.4 million. That is about 1.5% of the total number of English speakers worldwide. If everyone in Ireland spoke Irish, the loss of six and half million speakers of English would not harm the English language in the slightest. Unionists seem to seriously overestimate the power of the Irish language.
Thirdly, in the past, unionists had no problem using the Irish language. The unionists of Bangor happily used the Irish name of the town on the crest for the town. Who stuck a gun to their head to force them to do that? Did they feel that they were eroding the Britishness of the town by using Beannchor on the town crest? Obviously not or otherwise they would not have done it.
Another thing to mention with regard to Britishness is that some people conflate Englishness with Britishness. England and its language is only one part of Britain, albeit the largest part of Britain. The other nations and language of Britain – Kernow (Cornwall) and its language, Cymru (Wales) and its language, and Alba (Scotland) with its two languages, Gaelic and Scots, are all equally British, but not English. At one point there were other identities in Britain including a Norse language spoken on the Shetland Islands. They were more Scandinavian than British. So why is it then that when a native language to Ireland is promoted, it is deemed to be a threat to the Britishness of Northern Ireland which is not British in the first place.
The Anglocentric approach to British-Irish relations smothers the other identities of Britain and Ireland. England’s power and language smothered the identities and power of its neighbours. Any talk of Britishness that speaks only of Englishness is nonsense.
What if someone else promoted the Irish language act?
Unionists are opposed to the Irish-language act as it is Sinn Féin demanding it in the bilateral negociations between Sinn Féin and the DUP. I have no doubt that if it was demanded by some other party their reaction would be different. If the British Queen said “I would like everyone in Northern Ireland to speak and use the Irish language”, I am sure that the unionists would be more relaxed about the Irish language.
A claim by unionists is that Sinn Féin politicised the language. This is incorrect – it was politicised long before that. The Irish language was banned by the English rulers of Ireland for the best part of the last millenium. The real fear was that if the Irish language was used or allowed to be used, it would make Irish the English settlers in Ireland. That is exactly what happened so the English had to ban it. Support for the Irish language was removed by the unionist government of the north from 1922 onwards. It is nonsense therefore to talk about one party politicising the Irish language. It would never have become a political issue had measures not been taken to suppress it. Do unionists complain about the British Conservative party politicising the Welsh language as they were the party that introduced the Welsh Language Act in 1993?
Ulster Scots is spoken by all
There is an idea abroad that if the Irish language is given official support well then the Ulster-Scots language should also be supported. The idea is that the Irish language is the domain of nationalists and Ulster-Scots is the language of unionists. Again this is a silly reading of the situation. Everyone in the north speaks Ulster Scots. It is wrong to associate it with unionists alone. I know from living and studying in Béal Feirste in 2005 that everyone spoke English in a particular kind of way. The pronunciation and vocabulary was different to mine. I heard words such as scundered, afeared, aye, weans etc. that I never heard before. It was clear that everyone, nationalists and unionists spoke in this way. Would unionists oppose an Ulster-Scots Act if it was also demanded by Sinn Féin? Gerry Adams is an Ulster-Scot as Adams is a Scottish name. He grew up speaking Ulster-Scots in his native city of Béal Feirste. Would unionists oppose Ulster-Scots if a native Ulster-Scot like Gerry Adams supported it? I think that they would rue the day that they started making arguments for the support of Ulster-Scots if Gerry Adams became a champion of his dialect.
Advocates of the Irish-language act may win the battle but lose the war
My fear is that those who advocate for an Irish-language act will win the battle, but lose the war. An act might be passed by the Northern Assembly but it would mean that many unionists will be furious about it. Would it not be better to reach out to unionists about the Irish language and let them approach it on their own terms? I have no doubt that unionists would take to the Irish language like a duck to water. If unionists were neutral or in favour of the Irish language, then an Irish-language act would be more successful.
We should allow unionists to approach the Irish language on their own terms rather than impose it upon them. They would have plenty of reasons to like the Irish language and feel connected to it. For example, many unionists feel an affinity to the British royal family. They say that they are loyal to the British crown. Perhaps they would be delighted to learn that Queen Elizabeth I of England created the Gaelic font for the books in the Irish language. I cannot think of anything more British than the British royal family.
If David McNarry says that he would take down signs in Irish on his road, would unionists in Bangor, one of the most unionist towns in Ireland, take down the Bangor town crest? The unionists of the area used the Irish name of town, Beannchor, on the town crest. It seems strange to me that such a unionist area would do so – unless they felt some affinity to the Irish language. Mr. McNarry might have second thoughts about Irish-language signs when he realises that unionists like him have gladly used the language for signs for their towns.
The Red Hand Commando, an unionist terror organisation, uses the Irish language in its motto – An Lamh Dearg Abu. Properly it should be spelled An Lámh Dhearg Abú but I won’t complain. Why did an unionist terror organisation chose to use an Irish symbol, the red hand, and a motto in the Irish language as their symbols and name? This would seem a bit odd. Perhaps not when we know from history that unionists like the Irish language when they can approach the language on their own terms.
It would be better for the Irish language to have more supporters rather than more enemies. It would be better if at worst unionists were neutral about the Irish language and at best that they would love the Irish language.
Linda Ervine and Gordon McCoy are doing sterling work in promoting the Irish language in east Béal Feirste. They are unionists but they are not so narrow-minded to despise the Irish language. They see the value of the language in helping them understand their area and the links between Ireland and Britain, Scotland in particular.
It is going to happen
There will be some kind of Irish-language act. Perhaps it might not be a single act but in a range of legislation to produce the same result. As commentators such as Éamonn Mallie has said, nationalists in the north will not accept anything less. The reason is not because there is a sudden surge in the number of Irish speakers but because nationalists want to respected and have their Irish identity recognized. There is nothing more Irish than the Irish language, so if the unionists can’t accept the Irish language being used by the state, they are sending a message to nationalists that they are neither equal nor welcome in the British and Irish kingdom.
Another thing to indicate why an Irish-language act is that the Irish language is alive in every part of Ireland. There are currently two jurisdictions in Ireland. There is legislation for the Irish language in place in the republic. There are currently efforts underway to bring in legislation for the Irish language in the north. If each of the 32 counties were different jurisdictions in Ireland, there would have to be Irish-language acts in each of these county jurisdictions. In some counties the legislation would be very strong such as in counties Galway and Donegal, whereas in other it would be weaker, county Laois for example. It is ironic that the most unionist county in Ireland, county Antrim, is also the county in Ulster, after Donegal, with the second-largest amount of Irish speakers. So unionists in Antrim would have to legislate for the Irish language in the bastion of unionism. That shows how much the Irish language is part of Irish life.