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.

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  • Barnshee

    How to lose any prospect of votes in one easy lesson

  • SeaanUiNeill

    Excellent! Most satisfactory. So we can expect NI21s legions of supporters out with the millions of PUP Irish speakers and blocking the streets for miles around the centre of Belfast next “Red Day” (An Lá Dearg”).

    By God and St Patrick,
    The Nations our own!

  • It’s easy to be cynical I suppose. Let’s wait and see what this initiative means to voters – rather than the hurlers on the ditch.

  • Reader

    Barnshee: How to lose any prospect of votes in one easy lesson
    I didn’t have you pegged as a prospective NI21 voter anyway.
    SeaanUiNeill’s scepticism is better targeted but irrelevant. NI21 may never present an Irish language activist or offer up anything more than cúpla focal themselves. The important point is that here is a pro-union party that is not hostile to this aspect of Irish culture. It’s a healthy position, and for every potential supporter who thinks it is ‘too much’ there are probably a few who think it is either ‘sensible enough’ or at least ‘a start’.

  • Its certainly interesting and NI21 have nothing to lose and can gain a few preferences.
    Tina could certainly do herself and party a power of good by actually learning a cupla focal over the next month. …just to throw iout there when she is asked to sum her position up…at the end of an Election Debate on UTV and BBC.
    Or a cupla focal in a Party Election Broadcast.
    For all of her much vaunted nationalism…and the Alliance Partys even more vaunted status as a party for nationalists and unionists….its hard to see the Alliance Party doing this.

    The thing is Alliance prefer “dont ask, dont say”
    For Ni21, it is certainly a (small) vote winner.
    For Alliance to do the same …is a vote loser.

  • As a point of information, I’ve already been contacted by a TG4 reporter looking to speak to somebody on this issue.

    I think the Alliance, despite being founded by a prominent Irish speaker’s brother Oliver Napier (a brother of Seamus), has become a wee unionist party with very little to offer Irish speakers….

  • SeaanUiNeill

    You are both absolutely right, Reader (“irrelevant”) and Concubhar (“easy”), thank you for calling me on this.

    I’m delighted that “a pro-union party that is not hostile to this aspect of Irish culture” and a taste for Gaeilge does not automatically brand someone from east Belfast as a Lundy. One down, only a few thousand issues to go….

  • Am Ghobsmacht

    I was delighted to hear of this development.

    No doubt they can expect some ‘NIRA21’ type abuse from the more detached elements of unionism but I welcome this move.

    Whether it backfires or not, well, we’ll see soon enough.

  • Tochais Síoraí

    It’ll get them a few net preferences – the vast bulk of those that it pisses off weren’t going near them anyway. (You going back to Alliance then, Barnshee?)

    It also makes them appear normal.

  • ForkHandles

    A cupla steps in the right direction! sorry…

    They need to work on their continuity though. Being supportive of Irish language and then saying they are ‘not against’ an Irish language act is a bit of a balls up. They should have stated they are ‘supportive of an Irish language act that gets the right balance of support for the language while not intruding on peoples lives who do not associate themselves with the language etc etc…’
    It should not be too difficult to always show support and and be pro all cultures while stating that the right balance is needed. This is how to appeal to all people in NI.

  • Charles_Gould

    Let’s be clear. They will not be talking votes from Alex Attwood.

  • boondock

    ‘Let’s be clear. They will not be talking votes from Alex Attwood’

    A number of predictions floating around, Nicholas Whyte gave us his thoughts on how the previous results would work with the new boundaries

    I myself have just had a little wager with Jude Collins on his site about the SF vote.

    Any chance we can get an actual prediction competition up and running for the Euro and Council elections

  • Red Lion

    Yes boondock, a predictions thread would be a bit of fun, Mick?….

    A good intelligent move from NI21.

    Their council candidates are to become known tomorrow.

    I think that leaving council candidates late and having ‘big bang’ initatives like this language one could actually work in a new party’s favour. A cluster of NI21 moves and publicity in a compressed time frame may filter into people’s consciousness better than being spread more thinly over an extended period.

  • Comrade Stalin


    Putting up a sign in Irish is not an “initiative” (that is a word which is in danger of being misused). Tina, like myself and 90% of the rest of the population, probably cannot string together more than a few sentences in Irish at best.

    It is a welcome thing to see a unionist party embrace Irish but such tokenism is little more than a poor substitute for policies and ideas to take the country forward.

  • Red Lion


    will Alliance now be embracing Irish now that NI21 have set an example.

    Just shows how a new political party can bring a fresh perspective to the way things are done, and how the big 5 have become stagnant.

    new initiatives are a good thing, and I welcome the effort in trying to breathe new life into the complacent self-serving NI political scene.

  • Am Ghobsmacht


    “The report in the Belfast Telegraph bizarrely has Basil McRea ‘defending’ his party’s decision to go with ‘Gaeilge’ on their billboards.

    Could you explain your use of the word ‘bizarrely’ here?


    Perhaps it is a token gesture, but it’s a much larger token than any other unionist party has been prepared to offer for quite some time.

    Hopefully we’ll see some follow through.


    As for the Ulster Scots aspect, well, I imagine that many of the people who would be outraged at the omission of an Ulster Scots notice would be unlikely to follow NI21 anyway.

    Incidentally, I feel that Ulster Scots has been hijacked too.

    There’s a fair whack of people in Ulster with Scottish ancestry whether it be Galloglass, lowlander or Gaelic planter and it’s ridiculous to assume that they should all be Protestant unionists yet a fair whack of Ulster Scots movers and shakers are just that.


    On that Scottish-Irish note , I recommend a book by Mr Joe’s brother:

    Immensely readable and informative.

  • I think it ‘a bizarre the Ni21 leader would be asked to ‘defend’ using Irish on a poster, as if he was doing something illegal or somehow wrong.

  • Am Ghobsmacht

    Ah, I see.

    Well yes, on planet Sensible you’d be quite right.

    But this act is (for the time being) a form of Lundyism in the eyes of some.

    But it’s quite encouraging for others too.

    First Skainos now this.

    Baby steps.

  • I’m encouraged that some find it encouraging. I just think it’s odd that a newspaper would operate under the Lundyist delusion.
    The irony is that, at present, Foras na Gaeilge have decided to dispense with the services of Iontaobhas ULTACH and other northern based Irish language organisations. While I contend that each of the four organisations represents a loss to the Irish language effort on the island – ULTACH’s work in promoting Irish among Protestants in particular will be a loss and I don’t believe the organisations selected to do the work – which are southern based will get up to speed anytime soon. So the work to promote the Irish language among Protestants appears to be under attack from both the unionist political wing and the authorities.

  • Am Ghobsmacht

    I’m afraid it’s just how it is, there is a great deal of suspicion regarding the language.

    In addition to your points about ULTACH, selling Gaelic to Northern Protestants will be that little bit harder if everything is ‘run by Dublin’.

    These southern organisations will probably find this out the hard way.

    Does this leave Linda Ervine and Co on their own?

  • Mc Slaggart

    Comrade Stalin

    “such {tokenism}1 is little more than a poor substitute for policies and ideas ”

    It is possible to have policies and ideas and then do something with them.

  • IJP

    Alliance has embraced Irish for a lot longer than NI21 has. Indeed Irish has been used at Party Council meetings.

    The point made above is that the party has never felt the need to defend such things, or make a fuss about them.

    By the way, I really like the billboards (in either language). The branding is professional and they look fresh. No substitute for hard slog on the doors though.

  • Reader

    Comrade Stalin: …but such tokenism is little more than a poor substitute for policies and ideas to take the country forward.
    And yet Slugger has been buzzing for the last month over a dinner party. Sometimes gestures and tokenism count as real politics in a sense; whereas wrangling over town centre car parks isn’t actually getting anyone anywhere.
    However, to be a little bit cynical for a moment: the notion that an Irish Language Act could actually be on the table after all these years *is* real politics.

  • Mc Slaggart


    “Alliance has embraced Irish for a lot longer than NI21 has. Indeed Irish has been used at Party Council meetings.”

    Is CS wrong?1 How much Irish was used?

    “Tina, like myself and 90% of the rest of the population, probably cannot string together more than a few sentences in Irish at best.”

  • GoldenFleece

    Looking at NI21 Candidate List, I see NI21 have put up 2 candidates in some DEA’s – big mistake!!!

  • RyanAdams

    “Looking at NI21 Candidate List, I see NI21 have put up 2 candidates in some DEA’s – big mistake!!!”

    No harm at all – This is an STV election.

    Balmoral looks an interesting contest – Mairtin O’Muilleoir and McKenzie both very big profiles in a DEA were both their parties are relatively weak.

  • JR

    In my opinion while it is definately a positive thing and continues the “normalisation” process. Shame as it is that such a process needs to take place.

    It is a pity that she couldn’t have got someone to word it better “do eoraip” doesn’t read well and doesn’t seem right to me. “don Eoraip” would be my humble way of saying this. As an Irish speaker I think that a little more effort would seem less tokenistic and more of a genuine effort.

    Tús maith ach leath na hoibre.

  • IJP


    CS’s point was that it wasn’t tokenism. It was some members who genuinely spoke Irish and saw Council as the place to do it!


    It is a problem, because votes don’t all transfer in practice. The classic case was the SDLP actually achieving over a quota in West Tyrone in 2007 and not having anyone elected (losing out to an Independent who started nowhere near a quota).

  • Ulidian

    Where can I find the NI21 candidate list?

  • GoldenFleece
  • RyanAdams


    Agreed, I had forgot about that example. But remember this is a local election and a different context. The size of ones local network can have a proportionate impact (ie Church, OO, Sporting clubs etc), and different people may appeal to different backgrounds. Especially in my very small DEA – Downshire East, which is has an extremely parochial feel to it. This is one of the great balls ups of the whole RPA process. The old Downshire had five representatives and an electorate in excess of 13,000. Downshire East has 11,000 voters and still five seats!


  • mjh

    9 candidates in Basil’s seat – Lagan Valley.

    2 candidates in John’s seat – South Down.

    Even if the electoral figures did not tell the story that McCallister had little to no chance of retaining his Assembly seat, this shows that NI21 does not have the local electoral machine it would need to fight for it.

  • RyanAdams


    I think the machine is there but it could well be a case of lack of people wanting to contest for themselves? In any case the two candidates are well based in John’s stronger areas – South Banbridge & The Mournes. In any case … Strangford switch on the cards?

    Back to the list though. I think they’d be happy to get ten elected. Surprised they have so few candidates in and around East Antrim. On the other hand they are contesting seats in West Belfast – where Alliance have pulled out might I add.