Mind your language






Ever since Irish Republicans realised they had lost their so-called ‘armed conflict’ there was no doubt that culture wars would emerge to take precedence. That became apparent in the development of residents’ groups and the demonization of parading – it was no coincidence that among the first targets were parades relating to Somme Commemoration.

The latest frontier is the Irish language – rather the specific Irish Language Act,  the latest campaign on the front line of Sinn Fein’s culture war; though forays have been taking place for many years locally.

So far the campaign promoting an Irish Language Act in Northern Ireland has been notable by its crude rhetorical bombardment on, and desperate frontal assaults against, logic and common sense.

The public absurdity of the strategy may seem obvious but, unfortunately as we know to our cost, logic and common sense may not prevail if good counter arguments are not deployed – all the more difficult where the issue impacts on many of genuine cultural affection for the Language at an emotional level.

In responding to the politicisation of the Irish language, there has been little obvious care afforded to consideration of engagement on the issue.

Here are some critical observations on language and nationalism.

Nationalism makes a particular political proposition: our society must be organised according to a distinctive culture. Language has traditionally been one of the key measures by which nationalists express their cultural authenticity.

One of the key theorists of nationalism, Ernest Gellner, argued that if communities share a language and culture it is possible to accommodate diverse groups into a common political allegiance or collective identity. If not, there will be conflicting claims to dominance.

Gellner’s influential – and persuasive – thesis was based on a close reading of central European experience, especially the history of the old Austro-Hungarian Empire, where language was the key fracture line of national discontent. Gellner was Czech – and the Czechs, of course, were one of the most disruptive nationalities in the old Monarchy.

If a population is mainly illiterate, of course, linguistic nationalism means very little. Since this was the condition of most peasants in the territorial expanses of the old Empire, language was a cultural marker not a national one. The two had not been fused. German as the official court language was the way public business was conducted and high culture expressed – while also helping to secure the dynastic supremacy of the Habsburg Monarchy.

According to Gellner, then, the need for public education was a consequence of economic modernisation and the cultural/national terms of trade changed. The significance of the language issue for nationalists was that it integrated culture, identity and social wellbeing. Why? Because denying the language, they claimed, served to limit social mobility, personal advancement and political power, either by reserving top jobs for those who spoke the ‘official language’ or by confining the ambitions of (what republicans here would call) a ‘risen people’.

Language was no longer cultural but political and it became national. Intertwining language, personal resentment and ethnic communalism was a toxic mix and the Habsburg experience shows how this toxic mix was. It made multi-ethnic compromise impossible, if it ever were possible in the early 20th century – indeed, if it is even possible today as the future of the EU will show at some point.

When – linguistically at least – majority and minority become rephrased as superior and inferior then any possibility of nationally mutual respect becomes difficult. Irrespective of one’s political viewpoint or historical sympathies, the experience of Austria-Hungary shows the consequences of that nationalistic rephrasing of linguistic relations.

Linguistic nationalism – and the legitimacy of its claims – assumes three things:

  • First, there is an indigenous language which is spoken by the people.
  • Second, this popular language is at odds with an official dominant language.
  • Third, restriction on the use of this popular language sets limits to social ambition, political expression and equal entitlement.

If there is evidence of all of these things in the history of modern Europe, there is no evidence of them in Northern Ireland today:

  • Irish is not widely spoken.
  • Consequently, the colloquial and the official language are almost everywhere and universally one and the same.
  • Language does not set limits to social ambition, political expression and equal entitlement.

As it is currently deployed in the culture war by Sinn Fein, the Irish language has become a non-negotiable communal demand. It is the political equivalent of vexatious litigation. Its purpose is to agitate the grievance of one side and to raise the anxiety of the other. In short, the object is communal antagonism.

In short, that is why it is true to point out that, in this particular culture war, the language has been ‘weaponised’.

This is so transparent as to be shameless. In another front of the cultural war – the demand to equate the Easter lily with the poppy, the Sinn Fein leader on Belfast City Council, Jim McVeigh denied that ‘the proposal was about antagonising those from the Protestant community’. He either has a good sense of humour or no sense of irony – for that is exactly what Sinn Fein is doing with the Irish language.

Here are some questions

  • Should Unionists respect the Irish language?

Yes they should. The use of ‘curry my yoghurt’ is another style of vexatious politics, as is demeaning use of ‘leprechaun language’. ‘Respect’ is the only legitimate claim which Sinn Fein makes. Unionists need to turn it to advantage and embrace it (as some seem to be doing belatedly).

  • Does respecting the language (esteem) entail conceding the legitimacy of the demand for an Irish Language Act (equality)?

No, it does not. That is only a convenient conflation of two very different things which suits only the agenda of antagonism (though accepted – remarkably – by some in Alliance and the Greens who should know the difference and who should know better.

  • What does respect mean in practice?

It means accommodating those who want to learn the language, funding its study where demand exists, in short being permissive rather than directive – much as public policy is today.

The remarkable thing about Sinn Fein’s argument is the refusal to acknowledge what is one of the (only) strategic advantages in this part of the world. It is of course, the English language, the use of which does not limit or confine social ambition but opens up the global market of opportunity for everyone on this island. As Chris Blackhurst puts it:

There is though, one jewel we possess that is often overlooked. English. Across the world, 2 billion people are using the English language. Of those, about a quarter, or 500 million, are native English speakers – those for whom English is their first language. The rest have to learn it. And learn it they do. There may be more native Mandarin speakers than there are native English speakers, but 350 million of the former are also learning English. No other tongue has the same draw, no other language has the same global positioning.

What we should be discussing in Northern Ireland is how to take advantage of this global positioning and not fighting irrelevant battles of the Habsburg Empire.

For the old Monarchy linguistic nationalism was a tragedy.

In Northern Ireland it has become a farce.