How to best serve the Irish language in Northern Ireland without falling into tribalist traps?

One of my first big political rows about Northern Ireland with an ex pat NIer, was with a guy from Newry, and it was about the divisive nature of the Irish language, as he saw it. Needless to say, I didn’t agree.

Malachi O’Doherty is coming from a similar place on recent proposals to start putting Irish on council signage [Has the 80s and 90s vintage QUB students union has finally come through the system? – Ed]

Parity with the assertion of Irishness in council signage would be the use of the Union flag in council signage in predominantly British areas. But if that was introduced, Sinn Fein and the SDLP would go boogaloo (which may be an Irish word, for all I know).

The big councils now want people to be able to conduct business with them in Irish. Again, this is not because there are some Irish speakers who don’t speak English but because all Irish speakers are to have a right to assert their Irish identity in all their dealings with institutions. This is nuts.

Why are we encouraging people to amplify their sense of identity? We should be encouraging them to tone it down, to reconcile and interact rather than to draw boundaries between each other.

For me this is a tough one. The visibility of the language for Irish speakers is a small ‘p’ political matter: one of affirmation for the language they use daily. But it is also true that it is also being used in a big ‘P’ political way to underwrite and reinforce the sectarian geography (which gets on for ‘racial’ in nature) of Ulster.

I think many Irish speakers would settle for a bolstering of practical support for the language, rather than another series of signal bids which might easily have been purposefully designed to fail, both in terms of necessary equality measures, and the felt need to bring the language to communities beyond those who traditionally have embraced and spoken it..


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