I have written before about unionists who adopt a default reaction of hostility towards the Irish language. It is a particularly unconstructive, counterproductive approach, which fosters a feeling, amongst nationalists, that unionism is unreceptive towards any manifestation of culture in Northern Ireland which it perceives as ‘Irish’.
The DUP in particular, but other unionist parties too, are accustomed to presenting any blow to the Irish language as a victory for unionism. Of course, it is not right that the language should always be accorded precedence, or allocated funds, which it does not merit but, whatever the political misuses it has been put to, it is patently ridiculous to subject an aspect of the United Kingdom’s cultural wealth to blanket animosity.
I am sceptical about the need for many of the things to which the various Irish language lobbies aspire and there are other suggestions, made by language enthusiasts, which I would categorically oppose. I am not convinced, for instance, that an Irish Language Act is required, although I would not necessarily oppose one which took the Scottish model as its basis.
I do, however, accept unreservedly Seymour Major’s contention that a recent Policing Board meeting, held in Londonderry, in Irish, was a welcome initiative. The reaction of Jim Allister, Ian Paisley Junior, Jimmy Spratt and others was entirely predictable and, in my opinion, unjustified.
Naturally there is a valid argument that the Irish language should not become a priority of the PSNI, in terms of resources. But we are talking here about a venture which carried a value, in terms of goodwill, that surely outweighed the cost in pounds and pence associated with a single Policing Board meeting.
Of course unionists’ attitudes to the Irish language are frequently shaped by its cooption to the cause of republicanism. And evidently Sinn Féin’s continued abuse of the language for political purposes distorts policy towards it pursued by unionist parties. But the truth is that Gaelige is only useful to republicans, as a political tool, whilst unionists continue to treat it is an affront to their British identity.
The United Kingdom is a state which draws together a multitude of cultures and traditions. That is its strength. The Kingdom’s proponents in Northern Ireland need to demonstrate that they understand the inclusive nature of the Union which they purport to promote and show some generosity towards one of its indigenous languages. Otherwise instinctive reactions to Irish will continue to undermine unionists’ arguments.