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There’s more to the Irish language row than racism

This article is over 6 years, 3 months old
A row over the Irish language has shone a light on the conflict that lies at the heart of Stormont, writes Simon Basketter
Issue 2592
Northern Ireland first minister Arlene Foster (right) is embroiled in a financial scandal
Northern Ireland first minister Arlene Foster (right) is embroiled in a financial scandal (Pic: Northern Ireland Executive)

The Northern Irish Assembly collapsed more than a year ago under the pressure of a Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) financial scandal.

Last week Theresa May and Leo Varadkar, the Irish prime minister, went to Belfast hoping to announce a deal to reassemble the Assembly.

As befitted both politicians, their arrival speeded up the collapse of that deal.

One stumbling block was that the DUP was unwilling to sign up to an Irish Language Act. However they were also keen to point out their firm opposition to equal marriage.

Helpfully the Guardian newspaper pointed out that very few people speak Irish in Northern Ireland. It added, “The darker truth is that Sinn Fein has chosen to weaponise the language question for political ends.”

The Guardian deplores moves to revive a language as divisive, because the elimination of it has been so successful. The victims of oppression are dismissed as tribal.

It hasn’t noticed that the institution most likely to impose a hard border in Ireland is the European Union.

There is more to this than just the parochial racism of British liberalism. The lack of people speaking Irish in Northern Ireland is the product of brutality over centuries.

Division and rule in Ireland—how Unionism bolstered empire
Division and rule in Ireland—how Unionism bolstered empire
  Read More

That British-propped up prejudice runs deep. The DUP MP Gregory Campbell once began an address to the Assembly saying, “Curry my yoghurt.” He was mocking the Irish phrase used to say “Thank you”—“Go raibh maith agat.”

Campbell is currently a MP. As is the DUP’s Sammy Wilson, who refers to Irish as a “leprechaun language”.

The Tories rely on these people to stay in office.Nonetheless everyone is keen to implement the agreements and get the local parliament up and running again.

So why is this an issue now?

The ongoing and persistent nature of the crisis at Stormont is rooted in its creation. The peace settlement is not designed to resolve issues but to manage them. The Stormont Assembly came into existence in 1998.

Unionist parties supposedly represent one community and Nationalist or Republican parties represent the other.

One side effect is an acceptance that scandals must be tolerated for the sake of holding together power?sharing.

And whenever the Unionists are caught with their hands in the till—as they often are—they play the sectarian card.

DUP communities minister Paul Givan slashed funding for the Irish language in December 2016. It was a rather blatant attempt to distract from the Renewable Heat Incentive scandal.

DUP leader and first minister Arlene Foster is embroiled in that scandal, where businesses could earn more money the more fuel they burned.

But there will at some point be a deal. The last deal, the 2015 “Fresh Start Agreement”, did see parity of esteem on increasing privatisation and cutting both the public sector and tax on profits.

When Stormont was up and running the DUP used what’s called a “Petition of Concern” more than 80 times to veto equal marriage and other reforms. So progress means looking elsewhere.

It means investment in the Irish Language and LGBT+ rights. It also means dropping the myth that there is no abortion in Northern Ireland because women have to travel to Britain to access it.

As People Before Profit’s MLA Gerry Carroll said, “Fifty years ago a mass movement was put on the streets to demand basic rights. Now is the time to rediscover that spirit, and build a new civil rights movement.”

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