A good friend of mine and I were ruminating over the changes that have taken place in Northern Ireland over the past decade when our conversation turned to the always thorny question of language and more specifically what this place is or is not called.
You will all remember the Conor Murphy ‘here’ and ‘there’ debate last year and Nigel Dodds insistence that the North does not exist!
Paul McErlean, the friend in question, is an Ulsterman man. An accomplished inter-county footballer and Sigerson Cup winner he is one of a growing number of people who consider themselves Northern Irish. Id say Paul considers himself Irish too but his regional identity is important to him and he will defend it with passion.
Hes not alone. The more nationalists and unionists I meet under the age of 40, the more Northern Irish I know. They will defend their opinions on the national question to the hilt and demand equality and parity of esteem for their politics and culture. But they also share an allegiance to this region without prejudice to their wider national identity. They are quiet happily Northern Irish and Irish, Northern Irish and British or simply Northern Irish.
This brings me to Pauls issue with language and how the media in particular use it.
He finds ‘The North’ (particularly with a capital N) a bit lazy and more than a bit incorrect – and it still annoys him that the Irish Times and RTE use it. Phrases like Northern Secretary and The North are not accurate he argues. My dad a lifelong republican used to find this term equally annoying. Is the real North not Donegal? was his favourite retort.
Whatever about the technical accuracy or the legal niceties I do agree with Paul that never seeing Northern Ireland written by an Irish Times scribe or officially uttered on RTE is a bit strange and well out of touch with the events of the past decade.
Mr McErlean also points out that ‘The Republic’ doesn’t exist either – Ireland or The Republic of Ireland are the names of the state. Indeed I remember a significant issue emerging during the drafting of the Good Friday Agreement because southern officials were insistent that the Republic of Ireland be referred to as Ireland. Something that went down like a lead balloon with the SDLP who argued, like Paul does that it refers to the geographic entity that is the island and that it’s lazy and somewhat insulting to Irish people in Northern Ireland. The same argument applies to unionists who use the word Ulster as if Cavan, Monaghan and Donegal had been airbrushed out of existence.
So, whatever your preferred colloquial name for Northern Ireland, and we all have our alternatives Im partial to the North, fact is the overwhelming majority on this island have signed up to making this region work. Northern Ireland is a region of Ireland, a region within the United Kingdom and a region of Europe. It has a power sharing government, is one half of the North South Ministerial Council and plays a full role in the British Irish Council.
Maybe the time has come for our great papers of record to recognise this and use language which reflects the growing sense of region without prejudice to its inhabitants differing national allegiances and their right to self determination as guaranteed by the principle of consent and the Good Friday Agreement.