The (long) culture war






The emergence of an Irish Language Act as a ‘red line issue’ for Sinn Fein may be deemed to have its origins in the St. Andrew’s Agreement, indeed, under ‘Annex B’, it is stated that:

“The Government will introduce an Irish Language Act (ILA) reflecting on the experience of Wales and Ireland and work with the incoming Executive to enhance and protect the development of the Irish language.”

It should of course be pointed out that this was an agreement made under the Labour Government, and we know that it, namely Blair, were keen on making promises to Sinn Fein: indeed they made promises and commitments to everyone to some extent and with not an inconsiderable shot of constructive ambiguity. Something strongly suggested by Peter Robinson. 

The origins of all this goes back further. Jim Allister MLA suggests it is an essential tactic in the republican play book. 

In the history of the ‘peace process’, The Anglo-Irish Agreement, signed between the UK and Irish Government in November 1985, could be cited as a beginning of what was then termed the ‘Two Traditions Model’.

The ‘Two Traditions Model’ provided implicit acceptance of there being two (competing) cultures in Northern Ireland, effectively putting ‘Irishness’ on par with Britishness. It represented a move away from interpreting ‘the Troubles’ as being a security issue, to being more about identity. In effect, this gave militant Republicanism a new front by which it could effectively undermine the British State; by reducing its visible presence in Northern Ireland.

While the 1998 Agreement may be considered to have created circumstances for ‘peace’, building on the ‘ceasefires’ of 1994, it carved out future battle lines through the medium of culture. In truth, those lines were already being created by Sinn Fein, most particularly in the early to mid-1990s with republican opposition to ‘Orange’ parades (orchestrated by Sinn Fein, according to Gerry Adams at a 1995 Sinn Fein conference in Co. Meath).

Consequently, the model has found itself formal expression on the Statute Book, primarily being the Northern Ireland Act 1998, better known as the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement; within which ‘Irish’ is given a equivalent status with ‘Ulster-Scots’.

Prof. Richard English argued at the time that an acceptance by Government of the Two Traditions Model was a mistake:

“In Northern Ireland, where insecurity, ambiguity, and uncertainty continue to have fatally destructive and destabilising consequences, such an incoherent approach granting equal legitimacy to opposing sets of cultural/political loyalties – seems to me to be deeply unhelpful.”

(The Irish Review, Spring 1994 edition, p. 100)

His comments were made in the context of significant paramilitary activity, where he felt that it would unsettle loyalist paramilitaries and effectively make ‘peace’ more impossible. However, nearly twenty years on since the 1998 Agreement we do not have a ‘perfect’ peace. While violence is largely confined to the occasional murderous outburst, the battle lines are familiar to those upon which ‘war’ was fought, albeit within the political arena.

DUP MLA, Christopher Stalford, called for an end to what he termed a ‘Cultural War’ on last week’s edition of Any Questions?

There is nothing to suggest however that Sinn Fein is ready to end its culture war, when its base seems happy enough to accept further ‘poking the Prods’ regardless of the inevitable consequence inherent to this approach; further entrenchment of segregation and cultural apartheid.