Why is the Irish language choking up politics in the North?

Some in SF say row is really about unionists needing to show respect to nationalists

It started with small things. A fishery protection vessel underwent a name change. Banríon Uladh became Queen of Ulster back in September 2016. The move by the then DUP agriculture minister Michelle McIlveen to change the Irish name given to the vessel by former Sinn Féin agriculture minister Michelle Gildernew did not go down well among nationalists.

Petty for sure, but two days before Christmas that year former DUP communities minister Paul Givan went one better when his department announced the scrapping of a £55,000 grant to the Líofa Gaeltacht bursary scheme. Adding to the Scrooge-like element of that decision was the fact that the money was used to give people from disadvantaged backgrounds the opportunity to travel to Donegal to learn Irish.

Then in February of this year, ahead of the March Assembly election, DUP leader Arlene Foster stated, in relation to Sinn Féin's demand for an Irish language Act, that "if you feed a crocodile it will keep coming back and looking for more".

The crocodiles remark, exploited mercilessly by Sinn Féin, together with the Banríon Uladh and the Líofa issues, provoked a visceral and angry response from nationalism. It was such that at the end of the election the DUP was lucky to be one seat ahead of Sinn Féin – having been in front by 10 in the previous Assembly.


Other issues such as how Foster and DUP colleagues and advisers so mishandled the botched Renewable Heat Incentive scheme contributed to the late Martin McGuinness walking away from Stormont last January, which precipitated the current almost year-long powersharing impasse.

Fierce spat

It is hard to get your head around it. But let's try. Why is Irish, a language that not many speak in Northern Ireland, choking up politics in the jurisdiction?

While there was a fierce spat recently over why a weekend of talks didn’t lead to a breakthrough as expected – with the Irish and British governments believing Sinn Féin’s leader in the north Michelle O’Neill was on the brink of doing a deal until this was scuppered by senior party figures (something vociferously denied by party leader and president Gerry Adams) – the serious consequence of it all is that Stormont remains mothballed.

Politics isn’t happening, and this at a time when the DUP has extracted an additional £1 billion from the Tories to prop up Theresa May’s government.

It seems extraordinary that a return to a powersharing administration dealing with health, education, jobs, infrastructure and a range of other important issues should be held up over the Irish language.

Some Sinn Féiners argue that while it is primarily about the Irish language, the row really is a synonym for unionists needing to show respect to nationalists. And there is merit in that contention, but as a man on the Belmont Road in east Belfast recently told a DUP figure: "Respect is a two-way street."

‘Leprechaun’ language

Sinn Féin and nationalists more widely have a genuine grievance in the DUP's approach to the language. Way back the DUP's Sammy Wilson used to describe it as a "Leprechaun" language, while more recently Gregory Campbell made the headlines with his peculiar "Curry my yogurt, a can coca colyer" phonetic take on "Go raibh maith agat, a cheann comhairle".

More recently the anglicising of the name of the fishing vessel, the Gaeltacht grant and the crocodile remarks kept the tensions going.

Sinn Féin actively works to undermine my Britishness. They talk about disrespect but they have disrespected me for 20 years

There is a phrase that some republicans like to use when referring to the DUP’s unwillingness to concede a free-standing Irish language Act: “They just don’t get it.”

It’s a loaded statement which translates as the DUP and other unionists needing to get to grips with the fact that demographics are changing, Sinn Féin’s political reach is growing and “nationalism will no longer tolerate being disrespected”.

But why are so many unionists antagonistic to the idea of an Irish language Act? After all Wales and Scotland have Welsh and Scots Gaelic legislation, and normal devolved politics carries on regardless.

You hear a variety of answers from different unionists. A main one is that “Sinn Féin has weaponised the language” while in Scotland and Wales language is not being used to destroy the UK.

Irish freedom

A quote attributed to former Sinn Féin director of publicity Danny Morrison is frequently cited: "Every word of Irish spoken is like another bullet being fired in the struggle for Irish freedom."

Adams’s more recent quote that equality must be used to “break these bastards”, as in unionists, is also regularly referenced as indicative of Sinn Féin’s true agenda. Adams did later apologise for these comments.

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.

Union flag

“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.

You have deep and emotional conflicting unionist and nationalist feelings about an innocent language. And absolute political deadlock.

“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.”

And there it is: one issue that should be eminently capable of compromise, but instead you have deep and emotional conflicting unionist and nationalist feelings about an innocent language. And absolute political deadlock.

A deal was almost done a couple of weekends ago but it seems in the end both Sinn Féin and the DUP got spooked and just couldn’t make that great leap of political faith to restore Stormont.

The two parties have their annual conferences shortly, which is never a good time for doing a deal. Therefore unless progress is made in the next couple of weeks it could be into next year before another realistic attempt is made to get Northern politics working again. Or we could be in for another round of Christmas negotiations.

There is also the suspicion that Sinn Féin isn’t really interested in reinstating the Executive because it wants to exploit the uncertainty of Brexit in order to further its united Ireland ambitions.

Current gloom

All of this has contributed to the current gloom. But surprisingly the DUP man accosted on the Belmont Road offered a glimmer of hope. “I don’t think it is totally busted,” he said.

Despite the mutual distrust he said Foster and O’Neill over recent weeks of close-quarter talks have been developing some form of a political relationship.

It is far from the “chuckle sisters” but with more time, he said, they just might build up the confidence to make the bold moves necessary to end the stalemate.

He insisted that on the Irish language the only hope was to conjure a win-win situation rather than a win-lose result in favour of Sinn Féin.

“But if it is to happen Arlene and Michelle will have to be quite brave; they will have to provide sufficient space where both sides can respect each other.”