A Hollowed Out Britishness

The tender paranoia of Unionists in Northern Ireland towards the now imminent Irish Language Act is palpable. It mirrors some of the hostility and hysteria of those here in Scotland who oppose language diversity and equality.

As Brexit and the Irish border question converge in crisis, there are reports that the two sides are close to a potential breakthrough on the pivotal issue of an Irish language Act that would give Gaelic the same legal status as English throughout Northern Ireland.

This will be deeply embarrassing for Arlene Foster who has spoken out against the act in there past. As Theresa May and the Irish Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar meet in Belfast the internal disputes within the Tory party, the commitment to restoring power-sharing, as well as the principles of the Good Friday agreement are now resting on a cultural issue with threatens Unionists fragile sense of Britishness.

Downing Street said the prime minister would meet political parties in Stormont as crisis talks between the Democratic Unionist party (DUP) and Sinn Féin continue.

On one side of the language act debate is the SDLP, Sinn Fein, People Before Profit, the Green Party and the Alliance Party – on the other the DUP, Ulster Unionists, and the PUV.

The compromise may be for the DUP to agree to the legislation but, that there will now be three separate acts: one securing the rights of Irish language speakers, a second enforces the rights of Ulster Scots speakers and a third general cultural act deals with the promotion of Orange/Protestant culture.

Here Jim Allister is interviewed by Stephen Nolan. He complains that:

“It is going to be something which is going to be ever-expanded by constant publicly funded judicial reviews to the point where the entire Britishness of Northern Ireland is hollowed out.”

In this clip he complains that this issue is ‘about rights’:

Indeed ‘rights’ are an issue and the same forces that line up against the Irish language line up against access to abortion and equal marriage (in fact every poll shows that there is clear majority support for equal marriage in Northern Ireland.)

As Richard Angell writes this is an issue of class and economics:

“As it stands in Northern Ireland, women with the resources to travel to Britain to access an abortion can do so, while those who do not must carry on with an unwanted pregnancy or pursue an unsafe and unlawful procedure. Women in Northern Ireland should not have to cross the Irish Sea to access medical care that is their right.”

If language has become the symbolic pivot of the Irish question the same arguments we hear in Scotland are heard over and over: the biologically challenging notion that language would be “rammed down our throats”, the issue about resources (language is just too expensive) and the mild hysteria that road signs evoke. An idea that echoes across the North Channel from Larne to Stranraer is that such language equality would be ‘divisive’.

The former UUP leader Sir Reg Empey has urged the DUP not to sign up to such an agreement saying:

“This would only serve to destabilise Northern Ireland and further erode our position within the UK. Having our entire public sector geared toward dual languages is a huge change and people need to get their heads around the implications for what this could mean for Northern Ireland.”

Meanwhile Conradh na Gaeilge president Niall Comer has called on the British government to fulfil the obligations of the St Andrews Agreement and implement a standalone Irish language act. He said:

“The demands made by the Irish speaking community are both realistic and reasonable and they are consistent with the same rights afforded to Welsh and Gaidhlig speakers,” he said. “The Irish language is an integral part of this society and until that is recognised officially, and until the appropriate provisions are in place, provisions recognised internationally by experts, the efforts to secure an independent Irish language act will not cease.”

The reality is that whether we are talking about or Irish language it is about the right to be treated equally under the law. It is about control of public space, of institutions and of cultural hegemony. Control of language is about power.

Comments (17)

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  1. Clive Scott says:

    Language diversity seems to really upset the Britnats so let all who are Yes inclined cheer it on.

    1. Alastair McIntosh says:

      Why do something in a way that is calculated to provoke those with whom we disagree? Pushing a community into a corner for the sake of it only makes them come out fighting, and cuts away the roots of peace.

      1. Calum MacKintosh says:

        “Why do something in a way that is calculated to provoke those with whom we disagree?”

        So Irish people wanting the Irish language is something to provoke – has it occured to you it may be something they want for themselves and future generations and has nothing to do with umionists?

        “Pushing a community into a corner for the sake of it only makes them come out fighting, and cuts away the roots of peace.”

        The unionist community have put themselves where thay are, no one else. They have adopted a no surrender policy to a policy that does not impact them purely because it gives statisfaction to others.

        unionists in Scotland have and are adopting a similar out look in Scotland, they would see the country burn rather than be free.

        I have reprised my view of Northern Ireland post troubles. Sinn Fein have moved with the times, others have not. The DUP would rather see Northern Ireland suffer than get a brexit deal that benefited Northern Ireland over other nations and regions of uk, how backward is that?

        unionism this very day in Scotland is rejoicing at the visit of a man to a homeless centre in Edinburgh whose family has numerous palaces and castles. They are also rejoicing at the possible failure of BiFab as this they hope to portray as a SNP failure.

        unionism is being seen for what it is, colonialism by any other name!

        1. John O'Dowd says:

          There is another dimension to this Calum. That’s a mighty small piece of land for warring tribes to occupy – and they are going to have to do so for many further generations. Better they do not war?

          They may not realise this, but despite the posturing and defiance, the Unionist people of the North of Ireland are themselves victims of British imperialism. Used when it suited their masters to subdue the indigenous people; abandoned now that they are no longer of use (although temporarily re-engaged by a disreputable and temporary Tory prime minister with no majority, authority or scruples).

          They need to be gently won round to their inevitable future as Irish people -or perhaps people of Ireland – not goaded as cornered animals. Their customs, religion and culture – and Scots Irish language – need also to be respected, since they are part of their identity.

          And they have nowhere else to go.

          The lessons of history need to be learned – and those of us – all of us – who are trying to shed the legacies and burdens of imperialism need to come together in sufficient amity to make this possible.

          We must do things because they are right, not because they the upset one side or another.

          One more thought – the ordinary people of England have been denied THEIR national identity, by a ruling class imperative that invented an overarching and false “Britishness” as a class aim that attempted to dissolve all of our national identities in pursuit of their class interests – including a genuine separate ENGLISH identity (hence the use of England/Britain interchangeably).

          In a post-imperial, post Britain, new and respectful relationships will need to be built among and between the many different peoples of this archipelago

        2. William Davison says:

          An Irish Language Act won’t make much practical difference to the status of the language within N. Ireland. Currently anyone who wishes to speak, learn, read/write Irish can do so and even after the passage of an act Irish speakers will remain a small minority in the north, as they do in the south. Currently Irish language schools, even if they are established with very small numbers, are fully funded and Irish street/road names can be used if the majority in the area want them, so it is hard to make a case for the language being discriminated against. The demand for an Act is more about politics than culture and the very fact that Sinn Fein are its chief cheerleaders is enough for some to resist, bearing in mind the latter Party’s unfortunate legacy. Sinn Fein have moved with the times in some respects, but where they have not moved, even under new leadership, is their continued uncritical support for the I.R.A.’s campaign. I fancy the attitude of many in Scotland to the promotion of Gaelic there might have been different if the Party promoting the language continued to justify a campaign which killed almost 2,000 people, injured many more and bombed the commercial hearts of the main cities and towns, while portraying the perpetrators of this activity as patriots. In addition, Sinn Fein’s demand for an Irish Language Act seems somewhat belated, bearing in mind that they have shared power with the D.U.P. for 10 years and for all of that period it didn’t seem to be a priority.
          My personal feeling is that Irish and Ulster-Scots for that matter, are part of our shared cultural heritage over here, but that both have been hopelessly politicized, often by people with little intrinsic interest in either. It would have been much better if they had remained the sole domain of genuine linguistic and cultural enthusiasts.

      2. seonaidh says:

        Am not sure I get you. Could you elaborate?

        Certainly, I agree with the comment about celebrating diversity – be it linguistic, cultural or sexual. And if some can’t stomach it, then stuff them. My children speak three languages, one of them Gaelic and the other an ‘immigrant’ tongue from their mother. If this diversity ‘provokes’ people then does the problem really lie with us? Or did I understand you wrong?

    2. Crubag says:

      Actually, the only Gaelic bumper sticker I saw during the campaign was a better together one, in the Black Isle…

  2. Willie says:

    Nobody is asking the Unionist Brit Nats to speak Gaelic. If they don’t want to speak it, then that is their choice.

    If the Gaelic supporting community want to speak Gaelic then that is their choice.

    Broken down like that you realise how utterly fascist the Unionist in Ireland actually is.

    But we have exact the same. E here is Sotlland and they ain’t no democrats either.

  3. Crubag says:

    It’d be interesting if by a process of muddling through, Northern Ireland ended up with stronger protections for Gaelic (in Scotland, only “equal respect” not equal status) or Scots (no Scots Language Act) than is the case in Scotland.

    Though it has become a very politicised issue – “Irish” instead of Gaelic, though it’s the same language on both sides of the north channel.

    And there’s a question of how much law can dictate culture. The Gaelicisation of Ireland under De Valera failed.

  4. Wullie says:

    Incredible that this is happening in Ireland, these so-called Loyalists are Irish, their ancestors were not British, Britain never existed when they left England & Scotland. They’ve never been British, it’s a joke. Britain is Scotland & Ireland & they belong to Ireland, a different island entirely!

  5. Calum MacKintosh says:

    Sinn Fein should hold out for the next three weeks to weaken Mrs May as she prepares for her brexit stance.

    Stating a definitive stance on the border will be all the more difficult where it is evident a vacum of democracy exists in the north!

    unionists have no scruples in playing dirty, play them at their own game!

  6. Liz says:

    Unionists are having to realise as time moves on and Brexit appears to throw up sharp divisions within the U.K that they actually live on a piece of land that is known as the island of Ireland. That realisation comes with inevitable acceptance that they can’t pretend any more that Ireland both North and South contain a Majority of Irish people. People naturally enough who want to speak their own language and have it recognized as Irish by Ireland. What could be more naturally.

  7. Wullie says:

    Correction, Scotland & England!

    The anti-Gaelic stance is a pit peculiar considering that Belfast, Derry, Shankill, Comber etc’ etc, are all Gaelic names!

  8. esQuisses says:

    Assuming that the anti-independence side would win easily, Unionists wanted a No vote to be a clear rejection of any meaningful constitutional reform.

  9. Crubag says:

    Also worth remarking that some of the planters were Gaels themselves, and that the Presbyterian church recruited Gaelic-speaking ministers to minister to both Scots and Irish communicants.

    1. Wullie says:

      Indeed they were Crubag, particularly those from Galloway & South Ayrshire!

  10. Neil Potter says:

    Have to say this is one area I disagree with prevailing Nationalist views. I have enormous respect and envy for the multilingual, which has shaped my opinion here.

    The point of language to me is not as a feature of a fragile culture needing to be preserved, like an endangered animal for the interest and amusement of the outside world. It is to be able to communicate with as much of the rest of humanity as possible. Far better folks with that rare aptitude learn to speak Spanish or Mandarin than, I’m sorry to say, a regional language which will naturally die out in due course.

    Far better to espouse the virtues of a people in a language the world may understand than self-justify in a strange language it finds quaint.

    By all means respect those who speak it, but do not keep it alive for a misplaced sense of identity.

  11. Rafe Worden says:

    Neil Potter, you confuse the usefulness of a ‘lingua franca’ to enable different cultures and nationalities to communicate with one another and that language itself is an essential aspect of and vessel for a culture and that it reflects the influences of geography and history and many other things that create the special view of the world that help to make humanity so rich. The difficulties experienced by translators in expressing these cultural differences from one language to another is testimony to this. When a language is ‘lost’ a unique part the human knowledge is lost with it.

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