The Irish Language, a story of non-communication

The running sore of Irish language policy needs attention on its merits. Across the party divide, it seems to be arousing more bad feeling than any other single subject. Policing and Justice may be devolved sooner than the language policy is settled. Gerry Adams put it at the top of his recent speech in London.

The outstanding issues from St. Andrews including the Irish Language Act can be sorted out if there is the necessary political leadership and resolve. But let me be very clear.

The rights and entitlements of citizens cannot and will not be subject to the whims of the most right wing or reactionary elements within political unionism. We will simply not allow it.

Jeering like this from the DUP’s Nelson McCausland represents at best a Pyhrric victory and a shorter-lived one than he thought.

Adams’ success in outflanking the DUP by winning a major point and £6 million from the British government, naturally infuriated the DUP, as Sammy Wilson made all too clear yesterday.

On the language and all that it signifies, the new political system blatantly isn’t working. Yet as far as I can make out, nobody’s doing any fresh thinking. How can this be?

A basic problem is that the language isn’t the kind of issue that naturally compels cross community support. Everyone needs schools and hospitals. The language is a less quantifiable issue about cultural and political rights and values, the politics of identity, in this case desired mainly by one side.

It has long been over-politicised for the reasons of history we know. Yet it would be naive to think it can be settled other than through politics. Yet again, appeals to the equality agenda, however valid, are not enough.

Let’s suggest an appeal to self interest. It is in the interests of unionism to allow nationalists things unionists don’t particularly like, provided they present no realistic threat. Deny them all gains on the language, and they will opt more and more for Irish unity rather than stick with devolution. Deny them translations of some more official documentation, and they will rely more on the Republic’s, thus enhancing their all-Ireland sensibility at northern expense.

More broadly, the issue goes to the heart of what sort of society and politics we wish to create.

It is not hopelessly idealistic to feel that the voluntary apartheid of an “Ulster British” and “Irish Irish” society is bleak and unattractive.

A strategy of carve -up won’t work on the big issues, if the budget is merely divvied up and each side goes off and does its own thing. Sooner or later, there will be a serious clash.

Nor is a grudging deal involving the language and something else good enough.

We need to hear more again from the wise, who have contributed in the past towards articulating a cultural proposition we all can live with, like Maurice Hayes and Michael and Edna Longley in the Cultural Traditions venture. I don’t want to land anybody in it and I’m sure there are others too, who are qualified to lift the tone of this debate.

A new effort is overdue here, with a political rationale added. The last exercise I’m aware of ( and I admit my limitations in this field) was made before power sharing.
A descent from their high horses from the politicians would also be in order.

To begin with, from republicans and nationalists should come an admission that it is unaffordable and unnecessary to translate all official publications at public expense. Start making priorities.

And from unionists, that Ulster Scots has been over-promoted as a counter to Irish in a mutually insensitive political campaign.

If the politics of constructive ambiguity has run its course, so has the politics of tit-for-tat.

Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London

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