Disgust with the Guardian

I had a pretty idyllic childhood and one major influence was my father, Kevin Danaher, (Guardian obituary here) who was a major figure on the Irish cultural scene with interests in folklore, vernacular architecture and military history. I grew up valuing the indigenous cultures and languages, not just of my native Ireland, but also these islands as a whole and further afield such as Scandinavia and Germany. We had what seemed streams of academics staying at our Dublin house and visits to folklore conferences; one which stands in my mind was at Sabhal Mòr Ostaig in Skye and trying to comprehend Scottish Gaelic which has it roots in middle Irish. Instilled in me was a belief that the ancient languages of these islands are something to be valued and treasured; cultural diversity is beyond price. One of my father’s proudest achievements was to capture the first recording of the last native Manx speakers.

Sadly the value of native languages and culture is not universally shared and particularly in Northern Ireland deliberate efforts have been made to stamp out the language. As Prof. Caoimhín De Barra explains:

When Northern Ireland was formed, there were still Gaeltacht communities within its boundaries. But unionists were determined to kill the language off quickly. A scheme set up by the British government to give students the option of studying Irish after school was cut once Stormont took control of education.

This contempt for Irish manifested itself in the pettiest of ways. Starting in 1922, the Northern Irish government interned about 700 people, mostly nationalists, as threats to public order. The teaching of Irish in these internment camps was forbidden, and those who tried were moved to a different location and placed in solitary confinement. Like carriers of some horrible disease, they were effectively quarantined.

Tragically there are no longer any original native speakers of the Ulster dialect in Northern Ireland but fortunately there are many in Donegal where a very different attitude is taken. Nevertheless Irish is very strongly valued by the Nationalist Community in Northern Ireland who are bitterly resentful of the efforts made to stamp it out.There are growing numbers of people taking evening classes and although few speak it fluently there is great pride in the language and culture.

It had been hoped that an agreement had been reached last week and that the NI Executive could be up and running. Indeed both PM May and Taoiseach Varadkar went to NI last Monday. However the deal fell apart over grass root DUP rejection of the Irish Language Act.

Among some Unionists there is a deep rooted hatred for the Irish language. These still have a 17th Century siege mentality and are terrified by being swamped by savage Gaels such as myself. This feeling is probably strongest amongst the Free Presbyterians who form the bedrock of the DUP. Nevertheless the DUP signed the St Andrews Agreement (2006) which contains the statement:

The Government will introduce an Irish Language Act reflecting on the experience of Wales and Ireland and work with the incoming Executive to enhance and protect the development of the Irish language.

We are now in 2018 and still no sign of an Irish language act. The Nationalist Community is getting very fed up and feel that the can has been kicked down the road for long enough. There is strong support for an Irish Language act not just in the Nationalist community but amongst many broader minded Unionists, who understand that if Northern Ireland is to survive the majority of the voting population need to support its continued existence. (The Good Friday Agreement states that a simple majority 50%+1 is all that is needed in a referendum for NI to cease to exist as an independent entity and to merge with the Republic). The Irish Language act has strong support not just from SF but also the SDLP, The Alliance Party, the Greens and the PBP. If SF back down on the Irish Language Act after waiting over decade it will be electoral suicide, as it seen as a proxy for overall esteem and a will go a long way to make Nationalists feel that they are valued and not treated as second class citizens.

In classic Northern Irish tradition of course the DUP can’t directly state that they hate the Irish Language and anything to do with Irish Culture so need to come up with an excuse. This is essentially that, as SF support the Irish language act, it must be driven by the IRA and associated with terrorism. This is a logical fallacy so hollow that I would have thought a 3 year old child would see through it, but I was horrified to see this in a Guardian Editorial:

The darker truth here is that Sinn Féin has chosen to weaponise the language question for political ends, less to protect a minority than to antagonise unionists. Unionists have duly been antagonised. The Gaelic language is the main tongue of a mere 0.2% of the Northern Ireland population. Around 10% claim to understand it to some degree (perhaps just a few phrases). But Sinn Féin does not do things accidentally. Its proposals have become a weapon of tribalism in communities where identity politics always looms large and divisively.

I would have expected such nonsense from the Mail and Telegraph but the Guardian normally has higher standards and I was quite frankly stunned. The use of the term “weaponise” is straight out of the DUP playbook. I am not alone in this and Adam Ramsey has written a piece called The Guardian view on… cultural genocide. The piece is worth reading but the small number of people speaking Irish in Northern Ireland is explained:

The lack of people speaking Irish in Northern Ireland isn’t just the result of the inevitable supremacy of English. It’s the product of brutality over centuries – from the plantations to Cromwell’s mass murder to the 1831 Education Act, with which British colonists forced Irish people to learn in English rather than their native tongue; to the violence of the famine and the vast exodus it triggered; to the oppression of Catholic communities which triggered the civil rights movement in the 1960s.

The Nationalist community is already very spooked over Brexit and very worried about a hard border being reintroduced on the island of Ireland. Up till recently many middle class Catholics were happy with the status quo and were not pressing for a United Ireland but the mood is changing. The blocking of the Irish Language Act could be the last straw.

As Conchubar in Slugger O’Toole states regarding the introduction of an Irish Language Act:

It would actually strengthen the Union by the very fact of comforting those in the nationalist community for whom identity is important that the North is not still a cold house for the Irish.

I believe that so strongly that I’ve said to Sinn Féin representatives that it is they who should be arguing against an Irish Language Act and the Unionists proposing it.

It is often said of the DUP that they are very good at tactics but useless at strategy. One might think the Northern Ireland Electorate was as polarised as the election results indicate as discussed by Claire Mitchell and Katy Hayward and shown in Fig. 1.

Fig. 1 Lack of Polarisation in Northern Ireland

It is clear that the centre ground is much larger than the election results would indicate and also if a Unionist majority exists then it is the over 55s who support the Union. There appears no chance that the NI Executive will be restored soon as it is quite impossible for SF to back down. Indeed they are possibly secretly pleased as they understand full well the strength of feeling in the Nationalist community. Whereas the DUP have had a very short term victory they have alienated so many in the middle ground that a United Ireland seems more and more likely in the near future.


  1. Peter May -

    Interesting that under 44 there’s a clear majority not in favour of identity politics, which is progress.
    Interesting too that the DUP seemed happy for the PM to think she had the ‘heads up’ for an agreement – only to find she didn’t after all. That did that for the EU negs too. Leads me more and more to think if ever we do actually leave the EU it will be in name only because of the Irish border.
    As for the Guardian they’ve made a blatant error of fact. I suppose they’re too poor to employ editorial writers who have finished the day release classes…
    I see D Hannan is now saying (in the Telegraph, without, of course, offering any evidence other than presumably the DUP won’t accept the Irish language) that the Good Friday Agreement has failed. Let’s hope for all our sakes that the real IRA don’t agree with him and start bombing their way into fresh negotiaitons.

    1. Sean Danaher -


      it is indeed good news that the younger generation is less polarised, progress indeed.

      The DUP must be a pain to work with and my feelers say that are very much disliked and mistrusted by the vast majority of the Tory party. I understand also that outside a small Unionist section of the Tory party about 30 in number (Gove is the most well known) the rest would ditch NI in the morning if they felt they could get away with it. This government won’t last forever.

      It seems that Owen Paterson and Kate Hoey have added their voices regarding the failure of the GFA. Given that as it is an international treaty lodged with the UN and was backed by a super-majority (71%) of the NI electorate, I think it is pretty safe.

      I’m not sure what is happening with the real IRA but I suspect they will lay low unless a hard border is reintroduced. It seems that the UK government remains fully committed to the GFA http://www.irishnews.com/news/politicalnews/2018/02/19/news/british-government-fully-committed-to-good-friday-agreement-1258876/

  2. Peter May -

    I certainly hope you’re right. The linked article worries me – have the UK govt made a press release to Ireland whilst staying silent in the UK? Or are the perfidious British press directing the BBC?

    1. Sean Danaher -

      The GFA is co-guaranteed by both the British and Irish Governments. The Irish seem to have the full backing of the EU and in particular Barnier was quite heavily involved and feels I understand considerable ownership. I think even if the UK government wished to scrap the GFA the backlash from the EU would be so strong that it would back down very rapidly.

      The interesting development tonight is that whereas formerly the UK government would have implemented direct rule on NI after the failure of the executive Dublin appears to be blocking it https://www.irishtimes.com/news/politics/varadkar-tells-may-he-does-not-want-direct-rule-in-north-1.3397977

  3. SeaanUiNeill -

    The situation regarding the Irish Language in the northern counties of Ireland has always been complex. One of the earliest branches of Conradh na Gaeilge was founded in Belfast in 1895 from a existent class run by the Belfast Naturalist Field Club at the old Museum. It was very much a whole community project with the national Chaplin of the Loyal Orange Institution as a patron alongside representatives of every shade of political opinion. Three years after at the Oireachtas or conference of Conradh na Gaeilge in 1898 over sixty percent of the delegates were from the north. Several local dialects were common in Donegal, but in the area which is now Northern Ireland there were distinct area dialects in the Antrim Glynnes, where a Scots Isles Gaelic was profoundly influential and a strong Presbyterian/ Catholic body of native Irish speakers in Tyrone in the Sperrin mountains. In 1911 a Feis or festival of the language took place at Greencastle near Omagh, which attracted some of the most significant names in the Irish culture of that time. The following year the Ulster Covenant was signed by half a million local Unionists and the hard polarisation of our northern politics had been set in motion with the Unionist recourse to violence when bested in Parliament over Home Rule.

    I’ve described this at some length to perhaps show that even a few generations ago the current hard political polarisation over they Irish Language would have been unbelievable. A much wider view of the Irish Language is still not absent from parts of Unionism itself. Linda Ervine, a wonderful woman with strong leftist links in the trade unionism of East Belfast has set up groups of learners in Irish at the east Belfast mission, where her Turas classes (the word means a pilgrimage) offer a friendly environment where the PUL community can approach what she recognised to be a common cultural inheritance.

    The idea that the language has been somehow “weaponised” by Sinn Féin is part of a zero sum game of intensive politicisation by the DUP of every aspect of life in Northern Ireland where the original intention of a shared cross party responsibility through Consociational government which the Belfast Agreement attempted to build is turned into the sort of deadlock over the most innocuous of issues. Irish has fallen foul to this mendacious dividing up of assets where anything cultural is regarding as worryingly suspect. If it offers the possibility of a shared experience which echos the single community thinking of earlier times, it is doubly suspect in the minds of the DUP. As you say, it is a most worryingly turn of events that their ill thought out propaganda should be accepted uncritically by a serious newspaper!

  4. Sean Danaher -


    thanks very much for the fascinating background. It has puzzled me also that the narrative is that the planters were exclusively “English” speaking lowlanders whereas some of the names would indicate a more highland origin and would have been Scottish Gaelic speakers. Do you have any thoughts as to what percentage would have been Galic speakers?

    1. SeaanUiNeill -

      The plantation is not one of my specialist areas. However, from what I’ve gleaned, there are two strong areas of Scots Gaelic where the planters were Gaelic speaking highlanders, the Antrim Glynnes and Donegal during the early years of the plantation. Significantly there continued to be a cultural continuium between the highlands and Gaelic Ireland for centuries after the plantation. There is also constant movement with members the cultural elite passing through the wider Gaelic world up to the mid/late eighteenth century, as is well attested in the “Life” of Arthur O’Neill, a blind Harper whose autobiography is reproduced in Charlotte Milligan Fox’s “Annals of the Irish Harpers”. The best modern edition of this important work is the Ardrigh Books edition edited by Dr Sara Lanier. The picture O’Neill gives of a commonality of culture and of Planter involvement in that culture offers a compelling underpinning of just how vital a reality the Irish language culture was to everyone in these early centuries of the plantation.

  5. Bill Hughes -

    Yes it is a pity about the Guardian editorial on the Irish language in the North,as their editorials are usually quite thoughtful and helpful. Also such a pity that Martin Mcguiiness died as the DUP and SF seemed to be able to work well together before..

  6. Graham -

    Language and identity and culture are inextricably linked. The colonial mind has understood that and has always sought impose their own language and hence culture etc on the colonised, often through the education system. It happened in Scotland and in many or the more recent colonies. Apparently Rajoy is planning to stop the Catalan language being used in schools in Catalunya.

  7. Richard Murphy -


    I have only just got to this: it’s been quite a week.

    But my thanks for writing it. Your disgust is wholly appropriate.


  8. Andrew (Andy) Crow -

    The Guardian increasingly reads like the ‘Daily Mail for the Literate’.

    I’ve stopped buying it. I find I can live without a crossword puzzle.

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