NI21’s ‘tús maith’ !

One swallow doesn’t make a Summer and one bilingual billboard can’t erase the generations of anti Irish language unionist politics – but the bold initiative by NI21 to include the Irish language in its election campaign has to be hailed as a breakthrough of sorts. Look at any of the unionist party websites and you will note the absence of any Irish language content and, on top of that, any reference to the Irish language is invariably hostile.   The UUP website, for instance, has a section on culture which doesn’t include any reference to the Irish language.  This is surprising given that Michael McGimpsey, the party’s culture spokesman, was viewed to be reasonably disposed to the language and his brother, Chris, was a member of the board of ULTACH Trust, a body soon to be culled by Foras na Gaeilge, which carried out a thankless task of promoting Irish within the Protestant community. The DUP website has a similar section on Culture and, again, there’s no mention of the Irish language, just a token nod to Ulster Scots.    If either main unionist party aspires to garner the votes of Catholics – or the North’s growing Irish identity minority – it needs to acknowledge that their/our culture exists and is as worthy of policy at least as Ulster Scots culture. There’s no specific mention of the Irish language on NI21’s website though Cultural Identity leads the policy section. This statement is of interest – though I find it difficult to see that it will appeal to many Irish speakers i know in the north – many of whom have given up on a Northern state which refuses doggedly to acknowledge their Irish identity.   It does this by refusing to allow Irish to be used in the courts in line with 18th century legislation and by other refusals – for instance the recent decision by the Northern Ireland Tourist Board to insist on English only tourism signage in Down.

Northern Ireland needs a sense of ‘We’ to replace ‘Them and Us’. In the absence of such a shared identity, the emotional ‘pull’ of ‘Them and Us’ politics will almost certainly be stronger and more compelling than that of a progressive politics which flees from any sense of identity.A shared Northern Ireland identity – with appropriate symbols – is not an artificial product, the result of abstract social engineering. It reflects the unique interplay of Irish, Scotch-Irish and Anglo-Irish cultures in this part of these Islands. It flows from a shared space, a shared geography – the sense that Belfast, Derry-Londonderry, Armagh, and Enniskillen belong to us. The cultural figures and achievements produced by this region should not – cannot – be neatly divided into ‘Them and Us’: they reflect that sense of ‘We’.

That statement appears to require its own translation.   The best and most meaningful translation, however, has been provided by the decision by NI21 to feature the Irish language in some of their billboards.   The report in the Belfast Telegraph bizarrely has Basil McRea ‘defending’ his party’s decision to go with ‘Gaeilge’ on their billboards.   The quotes attributed to the NI 21 candidate, Tina McKenzie, and the party leader, Basil McCrea, are very encouraging:

Party leader Basil McCrea denied the decision to put their slogan ‘This is Fresh Politics’ in Irish could backfire.

“As far as I know we are probably the first pro-UK party to use the Irish language in our election campaign,” the Lagan Valley MLA said.

Ahead of the party’s expected launch later this week of more than 50 candidates for the 11 new councils, he said: “We are taking a stand as conviction politicians.

“We are an inclusive party. We believe Northern Ireland should be a place where everybody can celebrate their own culture.

“Although we believe that NI is better off remaining part of the United Kingdom we do not see why we should not be pluralist and diverse.”

The former Ulster Unionist, who resigned from the party along with South Down MLA John McCallister, said his party was not against the Irish Language Act which Sinn Fein is demanding at Stormont.

“But what we do not want to see is for the language to be politicised and that is where Sinn Fein has got it wrong in hijacking the language and attempting to have it imposed rather than agreed,” Mr McCrea added. The party has already tweeted in Irish and was involved in a Stormont Christmas event at which carols were sung in Irish.

Mr McCrea added it was only because the still-fledgling party has limited resources that it did not also include some posters in Ulster Scots or other minority languages.

Ms McKenzie said, however: “Of course we are making a point. We have a simple message – the Irish language belongs to everyone in Northern Ireland and we should all celebrate it.

“We have to stop using the constitutional question to place people in divisive boxes of religion and culture – this is the politics of the past and it is the tribal politics which is stopping us from becoming the modern pluralist democracy we should be.”

Ms McKenzie argued that in 1905 Douglas Hyde, the future president of the Republic of Ireland, said ‘The Irish language, thank God, is neither Protestant nor Catholic, it is neither unionist nor separatist’. She said: “Politicians of all hews and many others have abandoned those sentiments. “We have politicised language, sport and culture in the most unsavoury manner, and the past year has proven that despite it being 16 years after the (Good Friday) Agreement the political establishment here is still bitterly divided. “Northern Ireland needs more normal politics which will help deliver a more cohesive society. “We hope in future campaigns to celebrate other minority languages, however, the Irish language has been used as such a political football of late; we thought this is the best way to send a clear message. “For me our political establishment is asleep to the fact that we are in the 21st century – NI21 wants to wake it up,” she added.
I’m not sure whether the reference to Irish being used ‘as such a political football of late’ includes the Lá Dearg march and Sinn Féin’s participation therein but what this initiative indicates is that there is a new team on the field of play and that has to be welcomed because now Irish speakers have a wider choice about which party they should support.   Previously it was a choice of Sinn Féin and the SDLP and as the latter party was eclipsed by SF it became  less and less of a choice as people flocked to the party which became ever more powerful. NI21 faces a difficult task in attracting both nationalist and unionist voters at a time when tribal politics appears to be becoming an ever more powerful force.
This isn’t likely to abate this side of the upcoming elections.  At the same there’s a growing disaffection among people with the traditional politics of NI – and this is a gap into which NI21 may fit.   There’s no indication yet that NI 21 is attracting significant support – but it’s early days yet. I see this latest move boosting NI21 from an also ran as far as Irish speakers are concerned to among the top three preferences.   This is unlikely to result in an MEP seat for Tina McKenzie but it may be enough for the party to make a better than expected showing which could ensure its survival until the next electoral battle.   The widely reported internal problems of NI 21, however, will also be a factor and if voters get a sense that their preference will be wasted, then the party could be over for Ni21 and for this potential breakthrough in identity politics in NI. But, as we say in Irish, tús math, leath na h-oibre.  A good start is half the work.