The cultural change now required relates to Unionism’s leadership

In 1942, the principal of Strabane Technical College was a Catholic man by the name of Thomas Carroll. In that year, his name would feature prominently in the local newspaper headlines after he was sacked by the local education authority.

His crime was to introduce Irish as a subject in the technical college’s curriculum.

His dismissal was wholly illegal and led to large protest meetings in the town. Those speaking in his favour included both the parish priest and the local Church of Ireland minister. Whilst he was not reinstated as principal of the technical college, Carroll was later appointed principal of a college in Newry.

This was not the first incident of political unionism discriminating against the Irish language and nor was it the last.

What was clear, however, was that power in 1942 Northern Ireland resided firmly and exclusively in unionist hands.

Those days are gone.

It is an interesting historical footnote for a number of reasons, for which I will come on to in due course.

The talks process that collapsed during the week was a direct consequence of the failure of leadership within unionism.

That is nothing new.

The Irish Language Act is enshrined in the same St Andrews Agreement which provided the basis from which the DUP finally decided to buy into power-sharing at Stormont more than a decade ago. It is entirely spurious to maintain that, because the DUP did not publicly endorse that agreement, it should not be binding.

The DUP have never accepted the Good Friday Agreement either and yet they have operated its institutions for over a decade.

The St Andrews Agreement is an internationally recognised accord involving a sovereign British government and an Irish government.

The commitment by the British government to introduce an Irish Language Act was unequivocal. Indeed, the model of the act was even prescribed in the sense that the British government declared that the Act would “reflect on the experiences of Wales and Ireland.‘”

An Irish Language Act was always going to be the end result of this phase of our political process, regardless of how it was/is packaged.

The notion that a language act can not be sold to the unionist community is a fallacy.

The one thing that 20 years of a peace process has taught all of us is that deals can be made with compromises regardless of fixed positions from the past.

The DUP attempted the same stroke over the devolution of policing and justice, which apparently could not be sold to unionists until a political and personal tsunami hit Peter Robinson as DUP leader, forcing his hand.

In all of this, the key factor is the role played by political leaders.

It is not leadership to perpetually, and in a fraudulent manner, play the fear card as an excuse to avoid making tough policy decisions.

On that note, let us nail the idea that ‘fear’ is the pre-eminent factor determining opposition to an Irish Language Act.

That is a nonsense which I have addressed on Slugger in detail before, at an earlier juncture of political negotiations.

Fear is not a synonym for intolerance, and it is the latter which has guided the political leadership of Unionism in the past week.

Arlene Foster and her leadership team know the game is up over both an Irish Language Act and same sex marriage, but political cowardice has prevented them from beginning the process of conditioning their community for the arrival of both measures in the time ahead.

What political leadership requires is for leaders to play their part, prepare and condition their respective basis at both an activist and general public level, using language and actions to do so over time.

Unionism conceded an Irish Language Act at St Andrews, more than a decade ago.

The approach of the DUP leadership should have focused on the content of that agreement, as well as emphasising that such a legislative measure is merely consistent with what has happened already in Scotland and Wales.

Instead, Foster and her party have adopted the position that such a measure diminishes the Britishness of Northern Ireland.

At every level, that is a mistake.

Northern Ireland is now, and will continue to be, regardless of where sovereignty resides, reflective of the Britishness and Irishness of its people.

That will include embracing political and cultural manifestations of Irishness alongside those of Britishness.

The mistake consistently being made by Unionist leaders is in failing to recognise that, not only is it counterproductive to perpetuate the politics of domination, whether that relates to cultural issues of parading, flags, language or interpretations of our Past; it is actually beyond their capacity to deliver on these anyway in an era in which the Orange card has diminished currency (even allowing for Westminster arithmetic) and in which the numbers game is far from comforting.

The change that needs to happen is a cultural one relating to the political approaches of Unionism at a leadership level, both to their engagements with The Other (be it Catholic, Irish, Gay or Ethnic Minority) and with their own community.

Political leaders who lead need not worry about the mice.

Finally, with reference to the Thomas Carroll anecdote, I will share a personal story.

Whilst enjoying a Belfast Giants game at the SSE Arena last Friday evening with a Primary 6 class of boys as a reward for excellence in independent reading, I was made aware of a number of tweets about myself from the new Belfast DUP councillor, Dale Pankhurst.

Mr Pankhurst was apparently annoyed at my political commentary on BBC Radio Ulster and stated that he would be writing to CCMS about me as he was worried and disturbed that I hold “a position of influence” within a school in north Belfast.

Aware as I was of the Thomas Carroll story, the revelation brought a smile to my face.

Needless to say, my employing authority (CCMS), school governors and leadership are extremely happy with my professional conduct as vice principal of a primary school, something that was relayed to me during the past week in unequivocal form.

The new DUP councillor had something of a baptism of fire in recent days as he was forced to defend the presence of a convicted drug dealer in his company at a DUP gathering.

More disturbingly, the DUP councillor has refused to respond to questions posed via social media on numerous occasions about why he appears to have found the sectarian intimidation of girls attending their primary school in his constituency a laughing matter just a few months ago.

But the greatest irony is this.

In my capacity as a school leader in an extremely successful working class based primary school, I have spoken with, met and advised politicians and other interested parties from education, the media and beyond over many years, including elected representatives from his own party, who I have found to be sincere and dedicated about tackling educational underachievement and addressing other key educational issues.

Northern Ireland in 2018 is in a different place to where it was in 1942.

Those days are gone.


N.B. Thanks to Eamon Phoenix, whose ‘On This Day’ daily column in The Irish News made me aware of the plight of Thomas Carroll.

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