Conservatives and Unionists should show some generosity to the Irish language.
Over at Forth (subs required) I argue that the New Force should take a fresh look at Irish and re-evaluate received unionist wisdom.
Traditionally unionism has a fractious relationship with Irish, and understandably so: it has historically been used to advance nationalism’s political ends.
Today Sinn Féin is frequently accused of exploiting language issues, and not just by its political opponents. The Irish language lobby itself has become more vocal, voicing its disquiet with a party whose rhetorical support is not always matched by practical assistance.
Unionist anxiety has allowed the language to become an important emotional symbol for nationalism. The truth is that Irish only remains a useful tool for republicans whilst unionists continue to treat its very existence as an affront to British identity. It is a situation exacerbated by the current system at Stormont.
In the Northern Ireland Assembly the DUP and Sinn Féin act as champions of their respective communities. They contest an endless succession of cultural tugs of war which masquerade as the genuine business of government. However, David Cameron’s Conservatives, and the Ulster Unionist party, have promised to appeal for support across Northern Ireland’s divisions.
Ucunf has a perfect opportunity to emphasise its credentials by listening carefully to Irish language enthusiasts and developing generous policies which take into account their concerns. The Conservatives will point to the pluralist nature of the United Kingdom, which encompasses a variety of languages and traditions, both indigenous and imported.
Pro-Union politics need not reject everything which is considered Irish. Unionism can take a flexible attitude to issues of nationality and identity. Over time the Conservatives and Unionists hope that their unionism can ‘go without saying’ and that they can concentrate on ordinary, every day issues.
The important message is that Irishness is thoroughly compatible with unionism, Britishness and membership of the United Kingdom. Unionists have to make an effort to demonstrate the permeability of British identity, as well as expounding it in theory. Although unionism will not necessarily reach the same conclusions as nationalism, it should address Irish language concerns.
As yet there is no sign that unionists will rise to the challenge. The DUP continues to celebrate every reverse it delivers the Irish language with glee.
Unionists from both mainstream parties have adopted the questionable cause of ’Ulster Scots’ in order to compete for a share of minority language funding. Even the Ulster Scots Agency has admitted, in a leaked document, that this guttural patois is ’wrongly [promoted] as a language distinct from Scots’.
However, Ucunf offers hope. Perhaps unionists can learn to love the Irish language. If they can manage to do so, they will strengthen their own arguments for Union.