With my odd contributions here on Slugger I’ve tried to steer away from the usual boring tribal political arguments that take up a lot of time in Northern Ireland – arguments about who gets what or who doesn’t; what is or is not fair; or about who did what in the past.
These arguments are always the same and involve healthy doses of recrimination and whataboutery, but seldom the introspection that is required to seriously progress the issues behind them. They’re old hat. Before they were debated in places like Slugger or other websites, we debated them across television studios; before there were television studios, within the letters pages of the local newspapers and among the crowds who stood to listen at the steps of the Customs House in Belfast or outside the GPO in Dublin.
(I found a fascinating letter in the News Letter from 1935 that included both whataboutery and an attack on the BBC for perceived bias – perhaps a basis for discussion another day).
But lately I’ve been hearing a small number of arguments, concerning the Irish Language Act – the issue that is supposedly holding up the re-establishment of the Executive – that are impossible to address without drawing some comparisons that would invite the “whataboutery” tag. This morning, I heard the quote in the title above, from the TUV spokesperson Sammy Morrison, describing what for him was an issue with an Act. Sammy’s perspective is typical of the three principal arguments I’ve heard. Paraphrased :
- it’s being “forced” on “us” against our will
- it’s going to cost a lot of money which could be spent on public services such as healthcare
- what’s the point in expending resources on a dead language ?
These arguments, in isolation and taken at face value, are legitimate, albeit debatable, positions. For some Irish republicans, the Irish language is an emblem which they want to use as a tribal marker, identifying neighbourhoods and spaces in the same way that flags and painted kerbstones are used. Their case is not helped by the fact that so many of them cannot even be bothered learning how to speak it. And of course, it is undoubtedly the case that people need doctors and access to medical care more than they need most other things, including the right to have their children educated in any language they don’t need for communication purposes. My Latin teachers back at school would certainly have strongly contested the third argument.
The problem, however, with these arguments is that, in context, they are fundamentally hypocritical. If the same criteria were applied to all of the controversial issues that arise in Northern Ireland we’d end up with a lot of unhappy people and a deeply unstable society. Arguably, many of our problems derive precisely from the perception that criteria are not applied consistently.
Let’s take, for example, the idea that something should be not be allowed when it is “forced” (whatever that means) on “us” (whomever that means) against “our” (whomever that means) will. The obvious point of comparison here is with the parades tradition.
Before I even go there, I want to be clear that I support the right to march, and would support any agreement that enshrined that right in law, subject to the rule of law and the need to preserve public order. I don’t want to see any more parades be restricted or rerouted. I think it’s important that people are permitted to continue celebrating a tradition that has been passed down from their ancestors for centuries. I would want no part of any political settlement, present or future, that did not enshrine these rights.
A person less charitable could take the perspective on parading that Sammy Morrison takes on Irish. That person could decide that they resent the way parades are “forced”. They could point out that they don’t agree with the values or faith of those parading and could argue that they should be restricted for that reason. They could claim that the presence of paramilitary figures or emblems in a small minority of parades is representative of the entire tradition. There are people who make all of these claims. You can still hear them being made here on Slugger in the comments section, especially during the marching season.
Or, let’s look at the question of public money. I’m a ratepayer and a taxpayer and, outside of healthcare, education and infrastructure, I’ve never directly benefited from public spending. I’ve no problem with this because I think public spending that benefits society, rather than me specifically, ultimately benefits everyone, not least when it comes to cultural and traditional matters. I’m happy that Orange halls benefit from rates relief, even though I’m not an Orangeman. I don’t mind public money being spent to provide band uniforms and instruments that would otherwise be unaffordable to small groups. I’ve no problem that churches benefit from relief, even though I’m not a believer. I’ve no problem with the substantial public spending on police, fire and general security that is associated with the parading season (although sometimes this exceeds reasonable justification – but that is a different debate).
An uncompromising person could take the same view that we’ve heard expressed against the idea of an Irish language act. What if the money spent policing the Twelfth, or funding band instruments, or providing rates relief were recovered and spent on upgrading hospitals and training nurses ? I’ve heard some republicans say that the policing costs of the marching season should be met by the bands. They make that proposal knowing that it is a backdoor way of shutting down parades, given that no bands could afford to pay for those costs.
Then, finally, there’s the argument that because Irish is “dead” there is no benefit to supporting it. This is closely coupled to the previous argument about public money, and is often seen in the wild alongside its close cousin, the argument that we should enshrine Polish and Chinese in law since those languages are spoken more often in a native capacity (which is undoubtedly true, despite what census figures may show).
This line is a rather cold, industrial, Gradgrind-esque one, which implies that we should strip funding from anything which is not commercially useful and from which we derive measurable economic utility. Again, this criteria, applied across the board, would eliminate many categories of public spending. The economic utility and usefulness of the marching season is open to question in this context. Once we’ve cut back on those, what would be next ? Why do we teach schoolkids Latin ? Or English literature ? Or sociology ? politics ? history ? or music ? What is the point of public parks, or art, or theatre ?
I’ve no particular side in this argument; I’m not an Irish language enthusiast, but there are others who are, and a large section of society here believes that support for the language ought to be enhanced. Given that this happens in other parts of the UK with no problems and no significant public spend I can see no good reason to oppose it. But the overall point I’m trying to make here is – be careful what you wish for. If you’re going to make the argument that money is generally better spent on training nurses or expanding hospitals, don’t be surprised if it someone turns it back upon you. If you’re going to say that you oppose something because you feel you are being compelled to adopt it against your will, expect that same argument to be used against you.
We all need to be doing much better than this. Can we break this century-old cycle of looking for ways to win votes by designing criteria to deny sections of our society access to resources relating to their myriad cultures and traditions ? Can we bring ourselves to support political leadership that takes us out of this zero-sum game, and which recognises the strength to be found in embracing cultural and traditional diversity in a balanced way which ensures that Northern Ireland is a place that everyone can call home ? The best way to preserve your way of life and your culture is to make sure everyone can benefit from the same framework that protects it. I look forward to the day when we can all accept this.
Software engineer living and working in greater Belfast. Pragmatic social democrat with the odd leaning towards capitalism. Political interests include economic policy, social and political reform.
Alliance Party member, but writing in a strictly personal capacity.