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.
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.