In an ever-changing world there are now few constants and certainties, however, in Northern Ireland some remain including the fact that Unionism will find itself on the wrong side of a debate and be forced into a massive climb-down. The second certainty is that a spokesman (it’s always a man) for the Loyal Orange Institution will awkwardly enter the political arena with an ill-informed and often inaccurate intervention which will usually oppose whatever is being proposed. Unfortunately, as both a Unionist and Orangeman, I have found myself by default on the wrong side of these debates down throughout the years, the most recent one being the topic I wanted to discuss in this article, the Irish language.
I fully support the rights of people to speak Irish and the need for Northern Ireland to protect, promote and preserve the language, this also marries up with the oath that all members of the Orange Institution take – “Civil and Religious Liberties for all, special privileges for none”. The difficulty is that in some ways Orangeism is being led by Unionism and conversely Unionism is driven by Orangeism and if both bodies took a step back, the bigger picture would become much clearer for all. The first issue is to correct the myth that the Irish language is a Nationalist language, it is not!! It is certainly a language that many Nationalists feel is very important to their culture and traditions, however by rebuking the language Orangeism is forgetting the makeup of its members and also what went before.
Some years ago at a Twelfth in Fermanagh I witnessed the late Bishhop Henry Richmond give an address from the Orange platform, the address was very much in the ethos of true Orangeism and part of his message was about reaching out – then it was to the parade’s commission and resident’s groups. His message was well-received by most, unfortunately, however, there was one heckler in the field who shouted “rubbish”. It was this one heckler who made the coverage in the local papers the next day whereas Bishop Richmond’s message was almost overlooked. However, a profile on the Bishop at the same time revealed a truly fascinating character, Bishop Richmond was an Orangeman originally from a lodge at Wattlebridge in Fermanagh, he learnt Irish at primary and secondary school and always prayed in Irish. He was a Bishop in the Church of England and long before it became mainstream realised that the church needed to reach out to the gay population. Bishop Richmond is just one of the many Orangemen from Fermanagh and further afield who hold views and live a life very different from the stereotypical image that Orangeism has. I know a number of Orangemen across Fermanagh who are fluent in Irish, many of whom are very open about this. Going back to 1982 in Belfast there was a lodge called “Ireland’s Heritage” LOL No 1303 and it existed within District 3, this had the Gaelic inscription “‘Oidhreacht Éireann’ on its banner, the banner still exists to this day and it resides in an Orange hall within Belfast but the lodge itself is now defunct. Every year during the live Twelfth broadcast on the BBC a reference is made to the Grand Master of Belfast (1885 to 1898), the Rev. Dr Richard Routledge Kane. Dr Kane not only promoted the Irish language but was a patron of the Belfast Gaelic League founded in 1895 and signed the lodge meeting minutes in Irish (if only this was in a museum). According to the book “Ulster and Ireland”, Dr Kane said “My Orangeism does not make me less proud to be an O’Cahan.’
There is much more to be said of Orangesim’s rich history that is interlinked with Irish, however, none of this sits easily when a spokesman for the Institution appears in the media (usually unbeknownst to members of the Orange) to oppose the Irish language. There are certain things to be taken into consideration when this happens that are not widely reported on:
– The statement is on behalf of the individual and not the institution. No internal vote has ever taken place on what members feel about the Irish language lest even a discussion. How on earth can the Grand Master or Grand Secretary speak on behalf of 35000 members across Northern Ireland when they haven’t even discussed the subject with its members?
– Recent messages have been more nuanced. The leadership of the Orange has had to row back on its complete opposition to the Irish language when it emerged that many members could speak the language with some being senior within the Institution. It may not be as noticeable to outsiders but the language has changed and even in a recent interview the Grand Master mentioned that there were Irish speaking members within the organisation.
– The Institution’s view is confused, it indicates there are concerns that the if the Irish language is expanded it could discriminate against English speakers and an example is given of someone walking into a post office and demanding to speak to an Irish speaker. Obviously, this is an outlier example which can easily be dealt with by using common sense. I certainly feel that if the Orange has genuine concerns about these types of issues they should get involved in developing the legislation that is going to be implemented. I actually argued in a previous article for Slugger that the Orange should get involved with helping to shape how the Irish language is developed, it is futile to be shouting from the sides.
The Orange has now found itself side-lined as both the DUP and UUP have entered the Executive and by default political Unionism has approved the introduction of legislation to promote and protect the Irish language and ignored the Orange. This is disappointing as in some ways the Orange was used by political Unionism but in many ways, the Orange was the author of its own downfall, it forgot its ethos, it forgot its history, it ignored its own Irish speaking members and found itself ill-informed and on the wrong side of the Irish language debate. The Orange still has an opportunity to salvage some self-respect from this debacle by getting involved with developing the legislation for the Irish language and if there are concerns then these should be voiced through the correct channels. It would also be a good time for some self-reflection on how the Institution has handled this entire process and in doing so they could show some maturity by re-examining the organisations strong and rich links with the Irish language.
If the Orange Intuition’s failure was shambolic, Unionism’s failure was hugely damaging. In what should have been an example of positive and progressive Unionism, comfortable with its place in the UK extending a gesture to those who cherish the Irish language. By doing so, they could illustrate to non-Unionists that Northern Ireland as part of the UK can work for everyone. Unfortunately what happened was that Unionism whipped up hysteria based on its latest bogeyman the Irish Language Act (ILA), all sorts of unfounded allegations were levelled against the language from how it would undermine English, make Unionists feel less British and that masses of the population faced discrimination if they did not speak the language. These fears were never expanded on as they were generally groundless but the ILA became such a big bogeyman that Lundy was in real danger of being temporarily replaced.
Arlene Foster alluded that any gesture towards the Irish language would be akin to feeding a crocodile in that those Irish speakers would come back for more and more and more. Gregory Campbell during his time as an MLA infamously mocked the language (curry my yogurt) and then at the DUP party conference said they would treat Sinn Fein’s wish list on the Irish language like toilet paper. The key mistake here apart from the insults was to align the language to Sinn Fein rather than treating the language as an independent entity. Steve Aiken surprisingly said that the UUP were further to the right on the Irish language than even the DUP were. Lord Kilclooney on Twitter has been firing out accusation followed by accusation about the evils of the Irish language and even insinuated that Northern Ireland would have to have all of its street signs in Irish. Ironically I found a wonderful short documentary on Youtube about John Taylor and his newspaper group Alpha. In the snippet on Youtube he discusses how his company bought some rundown houses and upgraded them for single people and small families, at the time (1970’s) there was a campaign to introduce Irish into street names and John Taylor said he would get in ahead of this trend and name the first one in Armagh city. So he named the street where the houses were upgraded “Faugh-A-Ballagh-Court” which means “clear the way” and this Irish slogan is the motto of the Royal Irish Rangers whose barracks was close to the street and thus the street was named in Irish. The maturity from the John Taylor of the 1970’s does not chime with Lord Kilclooney of 2020 and his anti-Irish language scaremongering.
Much of what the leaders of Unionism have said regarding the Irish language was bluster, playing to the gallery is some respects but it also represented a misconstruing of the facts, building up the threat of an Irish language act into something that defied logic. It goes back to the age-old problem within Unionism, the fear of the unknown, building the unknown into something worse than what it is and ironically in trying to stop Irish language legislation they were undermining Northern Ireland’s position within the UK. The challenge now for Unionism is to reach out to its base that it has whipped up with anti-Irish hysteria and ultimately deserted in its desire to get back into government.
For me, I would like Unionism and Protestantism to better understand its history and natural connections with the Irish language. The Presbyterian church made it compulsory for its ministers to be able to preach in Irish within the south and west of Ireland and Scottish Reformer John Knox wrote “Book of Common Order” in Irish and Scottish Gaelic. The Rev William Neilson, Presbyterian minister of Dundalk, was skilled in various languages, and in 1808 he produced the work for which he is remembered, “An Introduction to the Irish Language”, and the next year an Irish spelling book. Presbyterian Robert Shipboy McAdam, a collector of Irish literature and advocate of the Irish language gives his name to Cultúrlann McAdam Ó Fiaich on the Falls Road.
Currently, the wonderful Lynda Ervine, openly Unionist and Protestant is promoting the Irish language in East Belfast and runs Irish language classes that are availed of mainly by Protestants. Lynda Ervine seems to have come to the language later in life and really illustrates the importance of education. One key example of this was a silly tirade by Jim Wells in which he claimed that there were no words in Irish for “United Kingdom”, “queen” or “Northern Ireland”. Lynda responded with “I was taught these words & phrases in a language class on the Falls Rd. For Jim’s info here they are. UK – An Ríocht Aontaithe, Queen – Banríon, Northern Ireland – Tuaisceart Éireann”. Unfortunately, Jim Wells didn’t have the grace to admit that what he had said was incorrect – another example of poor Unionist leadership.
Irish should not be made a compulsory language to learn and nobody is asking for such but I would like to see Protestant/Controlled schools introduce an introductory course of perhaps 2-3 classes to introduce young minds to the language, its cultural significance and how the language is part of our everyday vocabulary. Pupils and students can then determine if this is something they would like to learn more about or not. I know a number of Catholics who wish they didn’t have to learn Irish at school and a number of non-Catholics who would have liked the opportunity to at least explore the language.
I do think that all of us have a responsibility to call out bad behaviour in relation to the language, “curry my yogurt” references, “Every word of Irish spoken is like another bullet being fired in the struggle for Irish freedom”. In addition to this, whilst I would never want to dictate when the Irish language should and should not be spoken, is it necessary to speak it briefly during every debate, is this respecting the language? Conversely, it might be nice to hear the First Minister speak a little Irish within the chamber as a sign of maturity and respect.
For those from my community genuinely not interested in Irish, what I think Unionism and the Loyal Orange Institution should be doing is pursuing an education strategy. There is evidently an educational problem within Unionism and Protestantism and developing an effective strategy to deal with this would be more apt than opposing the Irish language. Surely the Orange Institution could roll out courses in English and introduce its members to the literature of Shakespeare and Dickens whilst Unionism should be looking at how it can improve the educational standards of all within NI particularly those from historically low achieving backgrounds.
Opposing the Irish language was a futile and damaging project for Unionism to embark on. It was a failure in generosity, it was a failure in outreach, it damaged relations both with Nationalists/Others but now with grassroots’ Unionism. By not accommodating those from a Non-Unionist persuasion political Unionism has damaged Northern Ireland’s position within the UK. Political Unionism has not prepared its base for the current political transition, it has failed to provide a vision, failed to face up to reality until it was put under duress and failed thus far to play a constructive and positive role on what the Irish language legislation will look like. Unfortunately, I still fear that political Unionism is not in a position to have an honest internal debate about its past failures and how to address them, the Irish language debacle has been a failure for political Unionism and the next debacle for Unionism is probably just around the corner.
We are fortunate to have a unique second language on this island that is culturally rich and it has played such an important part of our shared history. Northern Ireland is not better off with the eradication of this language, Unionism is not enhanced if the Irish language disappears and nor will Sinn Fein grow if Irish is properly protected here in Northern Ireland. We have a unique opportunity to embrace this language and learn about its importance and cherish it within the context of our rich cultural fabric, in five years’ time people will wonder what all the fuss was about?
Choyaa is a Fermanagh Orangeman