You have to hand it to Sinn Fein, they do seem to understand narrative better than most of their rivals. They managed to dump democratic powersharing (and the Stormont institutions to boot) with one that too many nationalists cannot resist.
That is that whatever goes wrong, it’s always “the fault of the Unionists.” It’s genius is that its still plays very well in the most un-Provisional parts of Irish society, north and south. It even features in that 1994 memo with the enigmatic title TUAS.
In the Sunday Times, even Justine McCarthy includes the allegation that Arlene referenced Irish language activists here, when in fact, she was talking about SF’s by now tried and tested technique of crashing democracy to bargain for its return:
As DUP leader Arlene Foster has said: “If you feed a crocodile it will keep coming back for more.” Indulge the insults, and the insults will keep coming. These various incidents have been met with a muted ambivalence south of the border.
The continued silencing of Gaeilge in the institutional north, contrary to the St Andrews agreement 12 years ago, has in part been facilitated by the complex relationship we Irish have with our native tongue. So complex, it often leaves us tongue-tied.
For another southern view on this silencing of the Irish language it is well worth reading the whole of Eoghan Harris’ column from the Sunday Independent, but this particular part is worth reading on this supposed silencing of the language:
Sinn Fein is full of it when it claims the language is not respected in Northern Ireland. Let’s look at what has happened since the Good Friday Agreement.
First, the GFA imposed a statutory obligation on the NI Department of Education to ‘encourage and facilitate’ Irish language teaching.
Several gaelscoileanna successfully used this to beat the department in the NI High Court on things like permission to relocate schools and the provision of buses.
Second, the North recognised that children are the future. In 2014, the Helen O Murchu Advisory Group report showed Irish-speaking students comprised only 0.15pc of the NI school population.
O Murchu identified the big problem – there is only one proper Irish-speaking secondary school and it can’t absorb the 3,000 primary school kids.
If Sinn Fein was serious about Irish it would focus on expanding that tiny 0.15pc group of children. These children must be catered for. But they should not be used as cannon fodder.
Yep. Now you won’t hear or read this story in much of the Northern Irish press, because most journalists either haven’t the time or a precise enough interest in the language (from the very right of unionism to the very left of nationalism).
As it happens the campaign for bussing kids into the Meanscoil was not against a DUP Minister but Sinn Fein’s John O’Dowd. However the party’s indifference towards the language matches the majority of view Irish people in the early 21C.
Our relationship with the language is, as Justine rightly notes, complex. It’s not as though the DUP haven’t been deeply careless regarding the language, but I for one heard much worse than ‘curry my yoghurt’ nuair a bhi me ar scoil.
Harris upbraids his fellow southerners for serially failing to take on board the underlying complexities of the problem..
Historically, many Northern Presbyterians spoke, studied and loved the Irish language.
Northern Protestants are not pathologically hostile to the Irish language. They are just rationally hostile to Sinn Fein, and to its bloody IRA hinterland, and with good reason.
It’s not the what, it’s the who. It’s not the song they dislike, it’s the singer.
So when Northern Protestants see a smiling Sinn Fein face prating about respect for Irish they do not take them at face value as far too many RTE presenters do.
Because what Northern Protestants see is the political wing of the IRA murder gang.
They rightly believe that Sinn Fein is now using the Irish language as the latest instrument of tribal torture as part of a long war to force Irish unity on unionism.
The late Maurice Hayes, an Irish-speaking democrat, believed Sinn Fein had weaponised Irish. Noel Whelan in a recent well-argued piece in The Irish Times supported that view.
That Whelan piece contains an enlightening passage from an interview he conducted with Ian Paisley at the Kennedy Summer School in New Ross where he is director:
…while he did not seek to defend what Campbell had said he wished to explain it. He did so in terms which were revealing, at least to a Wexford audience, about how the Irish language currently plays out as a political issue on the unionist side in Northern Ireland.
“I know why he says it,” said Paisley. “I believe probably it is an expression of fear that is represented to us as unionists by our constituents.”
Paisley argued that while the Irish language in the Republic was “treated with the respect and dignity and cultural assertiveness that it should be entitled to”, in Northern Ireland “unfortunately the Irish language has been used as a weapon politically against and almost to insult Protestants, and that has had push-back”.
Harris also takes aim at Denis Bradley’s latest column in the Irish Times for what is a common and popular trait within the discourse: which is to hold that the Unionist is suffering some class of false consciousness, in his opening lines of that oped:
How do you solve a problem like unionism? How do you negotiate with people who can’t do a deal even when they have got by far the most out of the negotiations? How do you stop a people from committing self-harm?
This (very) late inability even for a committed civic republican like Denis (who has suffered for his strongly anti violence beliefs) to advance a reasonable answer to his own question tells us more than might care to know about the current state of affairs.
Harris again, provides a meet retort:
You can imagine the loud nationalist indignation and charges of racism if a former Protestant minister wrote an article called “how do you solve a problem like Northern nationalism?”.
Actually that article would make a lot more sense. Because northern nationalism has one big nasty side that Northern unionism has lacked so far.
Northern nationalists mostly vote for Sinn Fein, a party they know is linked to the IRA – which butchered their Protestant neighbours for nearly 25 years.
In contrast, Northern Protestants have refused to vote for mass loyalist parties linked to sectarian murders.
Alas the Bradley article traverses well-worn paths in nationalist mythology. One is the myth that nationalists are what Prof Liam Kennedy calls MOPE, the most oppressed people ever, living an enduring nightmare which can only be solved by Irish unity.
Another myth is that unionists are collectively a suitable case for treatment simply because they won’t do a deal with Sinn Fein – that is with a party linked to the IRA that targeted Northern Protestants.
The third Bradley theme recycles an old nationalist delusion – the notion of unionist “false consciousness”, the belief that deep down they really want a united Ireland.
Bradley’s star witness is the familiar figure, a pro- unity unionist businessman. In short, a unionist who is really a nationalist.
This is reminiscent of Enda Kenny’s anecdotes about his encounters with people who are eager to ask him things that he agrees with them about.
Unlike me, nationalist pundits seem to meet an amazing number of unionists suffering from false consciousness who are really nationalists.
Garret FitzGerald must have met them, too. In his Towards A New Ireland (1973), he latched on to some of Paisley’s wackier speeches to come to this conclusion:
“Even today, the deep- rooted but rarely admitted belief that ultimately Irish unity must prevail, lies at the heart of many Northern Protestant attitudes.”
The fact that a 25-year IRA campaign failed to shock Northern Protestants into recognising they were really nationalists seems to be of no account.
What incredible method actors these unionists are. Imagine staying in character as unionists for well over 100 years. How Daniel Day-Lewis must envy them.
Ms McCarthy usefully quotes Ireland’s future first President making a speech in New York, where Hyde declared: “The Irish language, thank God, is neither Protestant nor Catholic, it is neither a unionist nor a separatist.”
It wasn’t then, and it isn’t now. The renaissance of Irish north of the border, puts many in the Republic to shame. Its pioneers did not wait for someone else to confer rights upon them, they got on and purposefully did what need to be done.
The contemporary work of Linda Ervine in Protestant East Belfast is contiguous with that of Mac Seain’s, the Mac Aindreasa’s the Mac Polins, the Misteails who helped build and shape that renaissance in Catholic West Belfast.
Both are committed to modest, sequential building of the health of the language: with or without the help of the state.
But at the heel of it all, we now have no government. Much as laid out in the TUAS document Sinn Fein will take every opportunity “to expose the British government and the unionists as the intransigent parties”.
Attractive and comforting as this narrartive may be, the TUAS approach is of little help when in pursuit of democratic self determination for all the people of Northern Ireland.
That approach is predicated on uniting just one faction (nationalism), rather than, as per the Irish constitution:
…to unite all the people who share the territory of the island of Ireland, in all the diversity of their identities and traditions, recognising that a united Ireland shall be brought about only by peaceful means with the consent of a majority of the people, democratically expressed, in both jurisdictions in the island.
Last word to Harris…
Sinn Fein cares nothing for the Irish language. Neither its northern or southern leader can speak it even passably.
The Irish language is just the latest in a list of tribal provocations by the Pied Piper of Sinn Fein that will take our children to the dark place called Tiocfaidh Ar La.
Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty