Why do some unionists fear the Irish language?

Jim Allister taunts that Mary Lou McDonald and Michelle O’Neill could not answer TG4

Ciarán Mac Giolla Bhéin, advocacy manager for Conradh na Gaeilge in Belfast was asked how many people in Northern Ireland speak Irish.

According to the last census, almost 11 per cent, he replied.

“And about half of them just know ‘tiochfaidh ar lá’,” interjected Brian from Glengormley on the outskirts of north Belfast.

Mr Mac Giolla Bhéin and Brian then had a little aside on the roots of the placename with the Glengormley man saying he knew well the word was of Irish origin.


The Conradh representative said he understood the name was from gorm and liath meaning blue-grey glen. It was all the one to Brian: he opposed Irish street signs in Glengormley whatever its derivation.

The point here is that if you wanted to get a notion of why some unionists are so viscerally antagonistic to the Irish language, the place to go to on Tuesday was BBC Radio Ulster – and more specifically its morning and noon programmes respectively, The Nolan Show and Talkback.

Earlier on the show, hosted by Stephen Nolan, former Ulster Unionist Assembly member, and later Ukip leader in Northern Ireland, David McNarry argued with Mr Mac Giolla Bhéin about the language. But first he took his opportunity to describe the new Sinn Féin president Mary Lou McDonald as a "foreigner", just to set the necessary dour tone that applies so often in Northern Ireland.


Mr McNarry said he was normally a law-abiding man, but if anyone erected an Irish language road sign in his neighbourhood he would take it down, irrespective of any Irish language act. And he couldn’t care less if the signs were trilingual to include Ulster Scots – there would be no Irish sign on his street. “What I am advocating is unionism taking a stand, saying that enough is enough; we don’t need Irish language signs at the bottom of my road. I know the name of my road.”

What could be offensive about a language, wondered Mr Mac Giolla Bhein.

“There are people in Northern Ireland who would walk out their front door to be offended, and that is just who we are,” said Mr McNarry with considerable accuracy.

On Monday, Conradh was looking forward to Irish street signs on the loyalist Shankill Road, but on Tuesday Mr Mac Giolla Bhéin clarified that local plebiscites with a 50 per cent plus one vote majority would be necessary before bilingual or trilingual signs were erected.

Later on Talkback, Mr Mac Giolla Bhéin, who has been the go-to man for the BBC and UTV over recent days, sparred with Jim Allister, leader of the Traditional Unionist Voice party. Mr Allister is a QC so he was hardly going to advocate breaking some prospective future law.

His theme was republicans “weaponising”, “militarising” and “politicising” the Irish language. He referred to the “dark side” of the language as evident in the IRA’s Green Book or training manual where, he said, it is stated: “Culturally we hope to restore Gaelic in a distinctive new Irish socialist state as a bulwark against imperialist encroachments from whatever quarter.”

‘Rabbits in the headlights’

Mr Allister also was around the great hall of Parliament Buildings on Stormont on Monday which led him to note that, during the press conference given by Sinn Féin's Mary Lou McDonald and Michelle O'Neill, when TG4 posed a question in Irish it was party chairman Declan Kearney who fielded it. "When asked a question in Irish they looked like rabbits in the headlights; they couldn't even answer it," he taunted.

Mr Mac Giolla Bhéin countered that, over the years, notwithstanding that in the past the Presbyterian Church promoted the language, some unionist politicians had sought to marginalise Irish and seek its extinction. He had two young children who spoke Irish and they weren’t waging any cultural war against unionism, he said.

Mr Allister's views are well known and his expression of them are part of his drive to spook ordinary DUP members and perhaps turn leader Arlene Foster away from doing a deal with Sinn Féin to reinstate the Northern Executive and Assembly.

His wasn't a lone voice, however. Some other non-politician unionists who rang Talkback expressed similar opinions. That was reflected in the comment from John from north Belfast. He said an Irish language act was part of the "endgame" of republicanism.

Such legislation would “diminish” his right as a British citizen. “This is a stepping stone into a world I don’t want to go to,” he quietly asserted.