The DUP have accused Sinn Féin of weaponising the Irish language. They have used this ‘weaponising’ of the language as one excuse for their refusal to accept the terms of the proposed Irish Language Act and therefore also the reinstating of Northern Ireland’s devolved government. If Sinn Fein have weaponised the Irish language, the DUP had the power to change that. Instead, it remains a Trojan horse that will continue to destroy unionism.
With the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, Sinn Féin took their seats in a Stormont assembly long associated with the Unionist State. There was perhaps no symbol that greater represented British rule in Northern Ireland and the dominance of unionism in the region. Rather than continue to oppose Stormont, Sinn Féin made the shrewd decision to reappropriate the unionist institution. Images of republicans walking its hallowed halls and Easter lilies at reception simultaneously empowered nationalism and diminished unionism’s affiliation with the location. No longer would Stormont, and the iconic statue of Edward Carson pointing demandingly down the hill that stands outside, hold the power over nationalists that it once had. The decision to hold concerts on the grounds also helped associate the area with something other than unionist dominated politics.
However, this was a big decision for Sinn Féin to make at the time and was met with much derision from within the nationalist community. Indeed, Sinn Féin still receive criticism from some quarters for the decision. It was a marked U-turn from the position that they held from their inception. For example, the belief that a devolved assembly should be embraced by republicanism was one of the issues that caused the Provisional IRA to split from the “Old IRA” in the late 1960s. Before the Good Friday Agreement, Sinn Féin were steadfast in their view that political institutions such as Stormont were illegitimate.
Recently, legislating for the Irish language has become one of the main stumbling blocks to restoring this devolved government. An agreement between Sinn Féin and the British government to introduce an Irish Language Act has been agreed in principle. However, an agreement with Northern Ireland’s largest political party, who also prop up the Conservative government at Westminster, has never been reached. The DUP fear an Irish language act would adversely impact on the unionist community and won’t support any act that excludes the Ulster Scots dialect.
This stance has been hardened due to comments from former Sinn Féin President, Gerry Adams, when he used a Trojan horse analogy to describe Sinn Féin’s wider equality strategy back in 2014 and stated, “The point is to actually break these bastards – that’s the point. And what’s going to break them is equality.”
The DUP could have learned from the success their nationalist counterparts had in reappropriating what they deemed powerful unionist weapons in the past and changed the perception of the Irish language. After all, unionist reappropriation of the Irish language was possible given the language’s historic association with Protestantism and how other national languages are embraced in other parts of the United Kingdom (and embraced in the form of the very same type of legislation opposed by the DUP).
As much as unionism may want to bury its head in the sand, this isn’t a problem that is going to go away and not a fight that will be won by those opposing Irish language legislation. The ancient and cherished Irish language is a weapon that Sinn Féin should not have at their disposal and it should not be a threat to the union, but it is, and this is thanks in part to political unionism. Acquiescing to the nationalist demand for an Irish Language Act may have been a hard sell for the DUP’s base but then again taking up seats in Stormont was a hard sell for Sinn Féin’s.
Whether it was a display of tolerance or calculatedness that brought about Sinn Féin’s U-turn over Stormont, it remains something that the DUP, and political unionism in general, sorely lacks.
Richard Gallagher is a PhD student at Queens University.