Unionism needs to reclaim its Irishness…


Irish language legislation is coming. This is despite the protest of some unionist activists and politicians, who have objected due to the politicised nature of the language. That the Irish language has been politicised obscenely is hard to object to, however the response to simply shut any language legislation down is not proving to be an effective one. Nor, in my opinion, is it an appropriate response. However, what else is possible after the wholesale retreat from Irishness by most Unionists? In order to cope with today’s challenges – and those to come in the future – Unionism needs to be able to stand toe-to-toe with those seeking to use Irish culture as a weapon to push for unification. The only way it can do so is to claim that Irish culture as its own.

Over the past decades, the territory of Irishness has been steadily abandoned by many Unionists. Britishness and Irishness are widely seen as two mutually exclusive identities. Historically, this was not the unionist position – Edward Carson, one of the founders of modern unionism was proud to be both Irish and British. Even Paisley, the archetypical fervent unionist, considered himself Irish – stating on many occasions that he was an Irishman. Yet only 1.4% of DUP members consider themselves to be Irish. The retreat of Unionism from Irishness has been recent and near absolute. However, this idea is not a historical unionist idea. It is the idea that only Irish republicans can be true Irishmen and women – the sentiment behind terms such as “West Brit”- that has gripped Northern Irish society. There is an image of Irishness as belonging to Sinn Fein voting nationalists that dominates minds. This has been the result of a sustained campaign to promote this view of Irishness, one that inherently excludes Unionists from Irishness. A historical example of this can be found at the time of writing in Belfast city hall, with a poster giving the viewer an option between our island being Ireland or West Britain. And with more Unionists buying into this dichotomy, it is little wonder why Irishness and Britishness are seen as incompatible.

This gambit to isolate Unionists from Irishness is not new. It has been around for over a century, with my great-great-great-grandmother writing about it in her poetry. Below I have included The Rose and the Shamrock which was written as a response to the unionists being referred to as “aliens” by the nationalists of her time.

We are not aliens, true Irish folks are we,

Living where the verdant shamrock grows,

We love old England’s pow’r, we love England’s flow’r

So we twine our Shamrock with their Rose.

The Rose above, the Shamrock below,

We place them thus, Nature left them so.

For the Shamrock clings close to the land it loves,

Luxuriantly its trefoils grows,

Lowly and meek, as though shelter it would seek,

The shelter of the valiant Rose

The Rose above, the Shamrock below,

We place them thus, Nature left them so.

A true Queen by right, the Rose in beauty reigns,

Perfuming the air where’er it grows,

So we feel the good, as each Loyalist should

Of being Shamrock guided by the Rose.

The Rose above, the Shamrock below,

We place them thus, Nature left them so.

The Rose is matchless amongst every flow’r

As England is peerless in the world,

For Honour and pride go ever side by side

Where Union Jack is unfurl’d.

The Rose above, the Shamrock below,

We place them thus, Nature left them so.

O fair Rose! sweet Rose! God bless the English land,

Accursed the man where’re he goes

That tries to separate us from our happy state,

-Loyal Shamrock’s ‘neath the English Rose.

The Rose above, the Shamrock below,

Sweetly they entwine, thus forever may they grow.

By Katherine Elliot

The sentiment contained in the opening lines (“We are not aliens, true Irish folks are we”) is missing from modern Unionism. We have completely capitulated on this front, to the point where the Irish identity and language is almost alien. This alienation to one part of the populace has naturally lead to the politicisation of the Irish language. Gaelic street and road signs are as clear as a row of Union Jacks for territorial demarcation. This is not a criticism of either practise, just an observation of how political the language/identity has become. This is not accidental either. To quote from the late Dr Ian Adamson’s website:

“the Sinn Fein discussion booklet Learning Irish stated: “Now every phrase you learn is a bullet in a freedom struggle. Make no mistake about it, either you speak Irish or you speak English. Every minute you are speaking English you are contributing to the sum total of English culture/language in this island. There is no in between.””.

From this, it is quite clear that the Irish language has been used for ends other than its own. It has been assimilated into the political divide of our country- nationalist or loyalist, Gaelic or English. In this framework, learning the Irish language was therefore part of an alternative to British rule in Northern Ireland. The language has thus been conflated with the republican movement- similarly to Irishness itself. And many Unionists, when rejecting Sinn Fein, made the mistake of rejecting Irishness alongside them.

This is not to disown the work of the many that are passionate about the Irish language, and who are working to try to preserve the language. However as mentioned above, the Irish language is now seen by almost all to be the purview of the nationalist community – look at the Identity and Language (Northern Ireland) Bill and how the tit-for-tat nature of Northern Ireland politics has manifested itself in the legislation; Irish for the nationalists, Ulster-British for the Unionists. This has led to a real hostility towards Irish language legislation amongst wide sections of the Unionist community. To take a story from one Irish Time article:

“Chatting to people it is clear this antipathy or suspicion about Irish isn’t just a loyalist working-class fixation. There is a real concern among the different strands of unionism, including its middle class, that Sinn Féin is exploiting Irish as a “Trojan horse” to fracture unionism.

This was exemplified by a senior DUP figure who was button-holed by one such middle class man on the Belmont Road in east Belfast last week. The man voted for Alliance’s Naomi Long when she took former DUP leader Peter Robinson’s seat in 2010. But when he saw the rise of Sinn Féin in the March Assembly election he shifted his allegiance to Gavin Robinson to ensure he won back East Belfast for the DUP in the June Westminster poll.

His spiel to the DUP man went like this: “Sinn Féin talk about respect. Well, I’ll tell you about respect. I voted yes on the Good Friday agreement in 1998. That meant the release of prisoners who murdered friends of mine. Then they took the ‘royal’ out of the police force, but I just had to swallow that because I suppose some in the RUC didn’t cover themselves in glory. Then they wanted the [British] army off the streets.

Then they didn’t want the union flag about the place, and in the interests of peace I was told I must tolerate the flag just flying on a designated number of days. Then they said they didn’t want the flag flying at all. And they don’t want Orangemen marching where they always marched.

Sinn Féin actively works to undermine my Britishness. They talk about disrespect but they have disrespected me for 20 years. And I’ll tell you something: if you give them their standalone Irish language Act you need never come back to me looking for a vote.”

This view of Irishness and Britishness as mutually exclusive makes it harder for those who are proud of their Irishness to support the Union – preventing Unionism from recruiting new acolytes. It also is a rather unique perception of Britishness. In England, Wales and Scotland, Britishness is an addition to Englishness, Welshness and Scottishness respectively. It is a higher level, unifying identity which comes after the national identity. Thus, just being British, with no underlying national attachment, is not the experience for most British people. Being Irish and British is consistent: it is the unification of a national identity within the overarching British identity. This was the historical feeling (see Carson or Katherine’s poem above). Rediscovering, and communicating. this unity of identities is needed when the core, staunch Unionist demographic is in decline. A new generation of Irish Brits is needed to secure the Union into the future. This position would increase the proselytising power of Unionism, as it is not alienating to those with strong Irish attachments.

In spite of what I have said above, it is not for political expediency that I advocate for Unionism to re-embrace it’s Irishness; it is an inherent part of Unionist tradition and heritage. We have a responsibility to future generations to maintain our native languages and the rich, Irish culture traditionally at the heart of both Unionism and Ulster. The north was historically a Gaelic stronghold, sitting at the crossroads of the Gaelic world between Scotland and Ireland. Those who were brought over during the plantations have introgressed into the pre-plantation population. Thus, that Gaelic Ulster Irish tradition belongs to Unionism by right of the continuity of descent, just as the Ulster-Scots tradition has been felt to be inherited. And with that right of heritage comes a responsibility to protect it, for those who come after us to enjoy and engage with. It would be utterly shameful to lose the heritage of hundreds of years, a heritage that many northern protestants were active defenders of, to a moment of political madness. Some of the most influential Gaelic language advocates were northern Presbyterians. John St. Clair Boyd, a staunch unionist, was the first President of the Belfast Gaelic League. Supporting the Irish language is a historically consistent position for Unionism; the fear of all that be Gaelic is not inherent in traditional Unionist thought.

The Irish language project in the South was focused on producing a unitary language for a unitary nation. As the majority of Ulster is still part of the UK, the West Ulster dialect of the language (the only surviving Ulster dialect) has had a lesser influence on “standard” Irish than other major dialects. Irish language promotion in Northern Ireland has the chance to therefore preserve overall linguistic diversity by teaching West Ulster as the standard. Moreover, this would allow Unionists to go on the offense: just look at the state of the language in the South. More cultural conscientiousness by Unionists in the North would allow for the argument that for those that care about traditional Irish culture, a devolved Northern administration would be the better choice than an increasingly globalised and Dublinised Ireland, where the ruling politicians pay but lip service to the language.

Onto the proposed legislation itself. To be clear, I have no training in either law or politics (I read biology), therefore I may be liable to have missed something in my reading of the bill. It appears to provide a broad framework for the promotion of the Irish language and Ulster-Scots tradition, while leaving the application up to our local politicians. Both the First and Deputy First Minister are needed to agree anything: meaning that Sinn Fein and the DUP will have a veto over everything. The cynical part of myself suspects that this means nothing will come of this legislation; however the Secretary of State does have the ability to overrule this and act themselves. This broad framework is a good start and gives Unionism the chance to re-engage with Irishness. Ultimately, it will only be as good or bad as how our local representatives let it be; an engaged Unionism can help promote policies and practices to develop the language at the grassroots level. Irishness needs rebuilt in the local culture – funding being directed to pre-established Irish language groups would be ideal, along with providing more whole community opportunities to allow active engagement in Irish culture and local traditions e.g., cultural festivals and community centre events. Pumping money into slapping up thousands of street signs in a language which few speak, and more feel is foreign, surely cannot be a productive use of the funding. Neither will paying for every government document and form to be translated into Irish while very few speak the language. That is not to say that these should never be pursued, however placing importance on increasing the number of fluent speakers needs to come first. To truly re-establish Gaelic in the North, it must come the language of home. Universal multi-lingual education is the only way that I can see to do this. However, a huge amount of work will be needed to allow this to be acceptable to wide swaths of the community. Thus, for those who want to see Irish- particularly Ulster Irish- used as an everyday language, this surely must be the priority over street signage, or translating documents from a language which everyone can already speak.

The abandonment of the Irish identity by Unionism is a symptom of the political divide over the constitutional future of the North. However, the establishment of two mutually exclusive national identities within the country has been a disaster for democratic governance. It is also a common issue in divided nations- Belgium and Lebanon are two further examples of democracies where political crises emerge from a lack of a prominent shared identity (nationalistic and religious respectively). Embracing a shared identity in the North would go a long way to normalising politics. Unionism finding its Irish roots would be a necessary step in building this identity. However, this is not something that can be done by Unionism alone. It would require Republican co-operation and vision, with an acceptance of unique Northern cultural aspects- including the Ulster British tradition. The construction of this Irish identity, linked to a Northern Irish state within the UK, would both help to open Unionism for converts and protect Ulster Irish and Ulster British culture well into the future.

The perception that Unionism is a dying force is another republican idea that modern Unionism has capitulated to. The idea that the Union is on borrowed time – an idea admittingly fuelled by religious demographic shifts- has seeped into the minds of Unionists, causing an existential fear. Unionism, in both its politics and psyche, is defensive. There is a feeling of being under siege, locked behind Derry’s walls, but this time there is no Anglo-Dutch fleet to save it. Despite my great-great-great-grandmother’s beliefs, the Rose has largely abandoned the Shamrock. Apathy in England towards Northern Ireland and the Union is great. To illustrate this, the Cambridge Union recently voted, in a debate featuring Sir Jeffery Donaldson, in favour of a united Ireland. The audience was mostly English. Scotland is under the control of the SNP. Welsh nationalists form a non-insignificant block in the Senedd. The only ones left to defend the Union are the Irish; us. Unionism needs to take up the offensive (on the idea front) and challenge the narrative I have just laid out, the narrative of a Union in retreat. To do this, it must regain the proud confidence of my great-great-great-grandmother. It must have a clear vision of what it want the nation to look like- a vision that includes detailed policy proposals. Above all, it must reclaim its roots, traditions, and heritage. May true Irish folk we be once more.



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