“A way of life they have no interest in forced upon them”

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.

  • MainlandUlsterman

    it’s says why you might judge ‘progress’ (i.e. positive change) in N Ireland according to how green it looks. And conversely see unionists as against progress because they are against further greening.

    It’s a false conflation but it is a deep, deep theme within nationalist discourse. Nationalists tend to associate the nationalist agenda with progressive politics and associate themselves with “the future”. But it ain’t necessarily so.

    It also patronises and devalues unionist people and negates their needs and wishes, which are actually of equal value to those of nationalists. You may have noticed that unionists not surprisingly get rather annoyed by being thus dismissed.

    So it’s an attitude that has caused and is still causing big problems really. And I think it’s what’s beneath the surface of the debate over Irish language legislation.

  • Nevin

    As only the strategy made it into the StAA Act then it would appear that SF was shafted by the Blair administration. Do you know what actions were taken by the then Irish government to have an ILA in the StAA Act? Inter-government exchanges are in secret so are not amenable to an FoI request.

  • Croiteir

    As I have said before – if unionis was smart the would want this place to be as British as Fenaghy

  • mickfealty

    I’m not sure what’s going on with them, or how seriously to take those nominations as an indication of anything, but no need to drive FF logoed armoured cars over the border, when no elected rep beyond the DUP is doing a hands turn.

    There’s a distinct moment of low resistance right now, if they were to choose take it. They’d end SF’s bragging rights in the upcoming election and open a second front with very little initial effort required.

  • mickfealty

    On the other hand, why would anyone choose to forgo living on a political earth
    – you know, where people actually want to be in government – for NI’s barren Moon like atmosphere where no nationalist seemingly does. ?

  • SeaanUiNeill

    Nevin, the mayhem was created by an intransigent Unionism utterly unwilling to even consider “conceding” what was normalcy over the water. I repeat:

    “Ah, “beyond criticism” it is then, as the re-routing clearly shows. “Rabble” indeed!!! Ho hummm…..”

    “Nevin, you should get out and actually meet some of the early activists for Civil Rights from the 1960s before the ox treads on all our tongues.”

    Oh, and sorry for the delay in response, moving about a lot at present.

  • Nevin

    The actions of Desmond Greaves, Sean Garland and Liam O Comain shed light on the bogus nature of the ‘rights’ campaign.

  • SeaanUiNeill

    Your reliance on these Republican claims of a primary directive role in support of, well, your perception of their primary directive role has always been my main point of critique in our exchanges on this matter, Nevin. especially as I was actually there and you were “a way away looking at (as here) text.” Have you ever heard the term “the inflating of personal importance”? I would hardly expect those with much kudos to gain from their camping up of their inceptive importance to say “it were complex, gov, and all the others chipped in, and submerged our wee plans”, but to accept their clams entirely at face value? Really? A little more critical analysis needed here still, Nev, rather than just slapping down Greaves and the others as some sort of “Trump” (is there a pun in there)?

  • Nevin

    I was here too apart from a short stint in London in 1966/7. I remember a batch of young naive students being lined up to march from Queens down to Belfast City Hall; it was the fashion of the age.

  • Nevin

    I was there too apart from a brief period in London in 1966/7. I witnessed naive students one Wednesday afternoon being lined up at Queens to march to Belfast City Hall; it was the fashion of the time.

    You’ll also recall that Eamonn McCann was a prominent campaigner. Here’s a snippet from the April 1969 New Left Review:


  • SeaanUiNeill

    You are characteristically quoting poor Eamonn out of context, to bolster up a general point you are attempting to make about what you perceive as the centrality of Republicanism. Oh, and still studiously ignoring my point about whether or not the six counties needed the Civil Rights issue addressed, I note. Its worth reading the entire article you are employing first, and weighing up the comments of each of the speakers against what the others are saying as this approach goes a long way to showing up just how evidently “tin foil hat” your perception of the Civil Rights movement actually is when directly related to what a broader spectrum of those involved were actually saying and how their views affected what actually occurred. Just over a hundred words above where Eamonn begins his response my old friend Cyril Toman is speaking about the PD refusing to support a march which was only likely to lead to “a sectarian balls up’ [I quote]. Other than the odd romantic flourish, most of what was actually being attempted was simple political pressure to highlight the differences between the political culture here and that of “over the water”, and how this disadvantaged a delineated part of our community politically and socially.

    I wonder if this snippet can actually be construed as “fair use” in the way you are employing it? Putting up photographs of work very much in copyright aside, selecting the odd comment entirely out of its proper modifying context may make it appear to you that the “Republican Illuminati” were wickedly plotting the ruin of a “perfect” six county entity, but for most of the rest of us, it was the rigidity of Unionism’s self interest which gave discredited and (at that time) very much minority theories of violence their big break. I repeat, you should talk with some of those who were really involved in the genuine Civil Rights movement rather than drawing your perceptions from the political equivalent of fantasy wish books.

  • Barneyt

    I’m not sure language recovery and marching can be compared. That’s the mistake being made. Culture for me is something that develops for various reasons, to mark territory and define the owners as different from others. It’s natural and also forced. The English look at the Americans as cultureless, which for me is lazy and inaccurate. In NI the British culture was viewed for many reasons as superior and more worthy than the Irish culture in Ireland. The Irish language should not be viewed as culture in many ways. It’s a means of communication that developed over many many years and as far as I am aware it was not designed to exclude, but developed as other languages have

    Take away the politicisation of the language that has occurred and the matter becomes very simple and can be isolated. It’s Irish language recovery and not much more than that. Just words and writing that formed in Ireland with all the normal influences you might expect from its ancestry. It perhaps needs the pool of custodians reduced to cast off any irrespectability that has been sadly attached to it.

  • Brendan Heading

    I’m not a lawyer or a linguist so I can’t.

    But what I can do is point to the fact that the Irish constitution specifies that the Irish translation of the constitution takes precedence. This wouldn’t be necessary if the Irish version was a precise and undisputed translation of the English text. The issue has come up, eg in article 13; the English text says he may refuse to dissolve the Dáil “at his absolute discretion, but the Irish says “as a chomhairle féin” which I understand literally means “under his own counsel” which is not quite the same.

  • Brendan Heading

    SF did bring a draft to the Executive.

    No they didn’t.

    If you think they did, then where is it ? Why don’t they publish it ? Doesn’t it strike you as being strange at all that SF, nearly a year on from all this kicking off, still can’t specify what should actually be in a bill despite, based on your version of events, bringing a draft one to the executive ?

    It had to get through the Executive before it could be discussed on the floor of the Assembly. DUP refused that to happen.

    A similar scenario was faced by the Alliance justice minister over the issue of fatal fetal abnormality. He was refused permission to bring an executive bill to amend the relevant law. Instead, other Alliance MLAs brought forward a similar measure as private members. Why didn’t SF do this ?

    They talked about it but did not issue a members bill on an Irish Language Act.

    My recollection is that the Speaker’s office denied it.

    Sinn Fein had a consultation paper drafted in February 2016 and set aside 12 weeks for discussions. The DUP blocked it at Executive level.

    Given that this is a priority issue for Sinn Féin why did it take them 9 years to publish a consultation ?

  • Brendan Heading

    You’re getting into defining what is or is not culture there.

    The comparison for me is simpler. Marching and the Irish language are two more or less parallel examples of things that the major parties on either side regard as very important.

  • Nevin

    Too much smoke, too little fire, Seaan.

    I referred to naive students but most of the folk in that article are about my age ie born in the mid 40s. Here’s another snippet which shows their interest in a 32-county socialist republic; the sweeping away of the middle class administrations in Belfast and Dublin; not reform in either:

    Whatever the differences between you on the immediate potential of the Catholic working class, you all seem to agree that the road to socialism in Ireland must pass via the Protestant working class. Is that so?

    Toman. I would answer that by saying bluntly, yes. It may seem rather unfortunate if one puts it like that, but if we are going to have a socialist workers’ republic then we have got to have Protestants in it. They are the section of the people who support us least, but they are a decisive part of the urban proletariat. Therefore everything depends on winning them over.

    Baxter. It’s not even a question of their being in the majority in Ulster. You can’t have a revolution in Ulster alone, and our aim must be to create a socialist republic, something on the lines of Cuba, without waiting for a British workers’ republic—or we might have to wait a very long time.

    This socialist rabble rousing was always going to end in tears in a place like Northern Ireland, yet no apology, not even an indication of remorse.

  • Skibo

    The Beltel report lists the areas the ILA would cover.
    The issue is it is not up to SF to impose an ILA but propose areas for discussion.
    I believe the CA&L was originally held by DUP.

  • Skibo

    Well I would prefer Irish and English on the directional sign and the three on road, street and town name plates.

  • james

    What would you say to English on the directional sign and the three on road, street and town name plates?

  • Skibo

    The same as i said seven hours ago!

  • Barneyt

    Why not grade items that we regard as possibly culture related and those that we potentially inherit naturally. Lighting bonfires for example. We see the loyal beacon connection but they do we light fires for internment? You can argue that bonfires within the loyalist community are now cultural but ill fitted to nationalist camps, unless it’s Halloween of course. Happy to be educated on

    The first tongue for most is English. This language is really something we pick up without any notion of a culture being installed or the language being part of that. Clearly Irish will never be picked up in the same way until it is widely
    used and presented through various mediums. Early and continued focus is key. If we do create an environment where Irish is naturally picked up again, this will not represent an absorption of culture. I would separate that type of learning from the learning that attaches an importance to commemorating internment, marching on the 12th etc…

    You can grow up and avoid cultures, however if immersed in a particular language, you cannot avoid it. There are many in both camps that have little knowledge of their own culture and what it means but they both speak English.
    This shows you can truly absorb or avoid “culture” as you see fit or are influenced. You might regard there to be a fine line between learning a language from birth and learning a culture from birth, but I believe you can
    separate them.

    This is dodgy territory I know, but you cannot argue that marching and language are truly parallel, despite their respective importance. It is therefore possible, if not to define a culture, but to rule something out of the said

    On the basis of language alone (English interspersed with Ulster scots and some Irish) you could argue we share a common culture. We don’t have a shared culture however despite sharing the same language.

    The introduction of Irish will never replace English and will never influence any culture, quite rightly. The left made a mistake pitching Irish language as cultural. It’s an important language that needs to be recovered for many reasons,
    with the priority being its understanding, positive communication and learning. English and Irish can in the distant future operate alongside each other, but
    cultures will take their own path. Let’s hope we wake up and take Irish in isolation and extract it from this perilous culture v culture stranglehold.