Shibboleth and sibhialtacht

The Irish-language issue is back in the headlines again. Despite the best efforts of campaigners such as Linda Ervine, it is still the case that most ethnic-unionists define themselves at least in part by their rejection of the Irish language. Never mind that some of their ancestors must have spoken it, as evidenced in many cases by their own surnames. Unionists have abandoned the mother tongue of their ancestors in much the same way that German-descended Americans have abandoned theirs.

While other Americans cling proudly to their double-barrelled identities, German-Americans are now identifiable only by their names, and their culture is simply called “American”. Much of this was down to anti-German sentiment during the First World War, when “liberty sausages” were the original “freedom fries”. German-Americans were forced to choose between their past and their future, and their history became the price of their prosperity.

The Gaelic Irish ancestors of today’s unionists had a similar choice imposed upon them, and they too gave up their language (and religion) in order to secure their place in a hostile environment. The melting pot that eventually became unionism inherited not only the Planter’s disinterest in a language that held no cultural resonance, but also the ex-Gael’s conviction that the Irish language, like the Catholic church, was a prison from which they had been liberated.

Ethnic-unionists don’t just happen to not speak Irish. They are partly the descendants of those Gaels who intentionally left the language behind, and this active rejection, clouded by the passage of time, became part of the founding myth of unionism. When campaigners argue (correctly) that the Irish language is part of our shared heritage, they’re not being as persuasive as they think they are. Unionists know this already. It’s precisely what they’re afraid of.

One commonly-proposed “compromise”, that Irish should only be used or promoted in those areas where it is wanted, is merely another example of the shared-out future that has allowed politicians to evade the hard but necessary decisions. Instead of tattered flags flying from lampposts, ethnic ghettos would be identified by shiny, state-funded signage. It is hard to see how this would help to bring communities closer together.

Surely it would be better for Nationalists to compromise on the extent of any ILA in order to ensure that it comes free of any taint of segregation. Not every victory has to be achieved in the first campaign. An explicit commitment that English would remain the first language of NI would cost nothing. Campaigners should also be careful not to conflate cultural preservation with anti-discrimination. They may overlap, but they are not the same.

And it would be wise of Unionists to back down from their not-an-inch opposition and debate the legislation on its detail, rather than its symbolism. For the immediate future, the direction of change in NI is inevitably going to be away from Unionism’s comfort zone. The rebalancing of power between Unionism and Nationalism is not yet over, and political Unionism does not have a stellar track record of managing expectations.

Like all the rest of NI’s most intractable problems, the issue here is not some technicality that can be engineered around. It is a matter of face, perception, status and fear.

Andrew is a native Ulsterman and honorary Galwegian now living and working in Dublin. An IT manager by day and dilettante political hack by night, he has also been known to dabble in fundamental physics and musical theatre.

Twitter: @andrewgdotcom