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.