I’ve argued previously on Three Thousand Versts that unionists must adopt a more subtle approach to the Irish Language. Although I recognise the difficulties that its politicisation has precipitated for unionism, I believe that a more constructive strategy can minimise the political capital extracted from the language by Sinn Féin and locate unionist argument on a more tenable footing as regards the diversity of cultures encompassed within the UK, and their protection.
Perhaps this position might be gaining a little currency in some quarters. Dawn Purvis suggested to the Progressive Unionist annual conference, held on Saturday, that it is counterproductive for unionists to continue to treat the Irish Language as a cultural battleground. She would like to see the DUP ‘wrest control of the debate’ from nationalism by bringing forward proposals for Irish Language legislation. Her view is endorsed by an unlikely source on Slugger O’Toole.
Whether it is necessary for unionists to shape an Irish Language Act, in order to seize initiative on this issue, or take less dramatic steps, I am not quite sure (although I can certainly see the attractions of Purvis’ argument). What I can state with absolute conviction, is that it would be entirely beneficial for unionism if its main parties drastically rethought their attitude to Irish.
Openly celebrating any perceived reversal which is inflicted on the Irish Language lobby is simply not good enough (and I will admit that both main unionist parties have at times been guilty of this). It exacerbates a vicious circle whereby Sinn Féin is seen to be advancing the language’s interests against the intractable opposition of unionism.
Unionists can draw poison from this debate by forming constructive suggestions to help the Irish Language to flourish, whilst simultaneously imposing more appropriate parameters than its fundamentalists would be inclined to draw. Whether the means to achieve this is an Irish Language Act or not, unionists can propose initiatives to boost Gaelige (and other minority tongues) within the cultural sphere, whilst ensuring that expensive and discriminatory initiatives to impose its provision in public life, the courts, local government and private business, are not included.
In so doing, the language will become less politicised, and that can only be to the benefit of those who truly hold its interests to be of paramount importance. Unionism will benefit too.