Language and politics in Northern Ireland


Sir, – I do not think there has been an adequate explanation in the Irish press and media of why the DUP and its followers were not able to accept an Irish Language Act, thus precipitating this week’s collapse of the Stormont talks. I imagine there is utter bafflement south of the Border, with the likely conclusion that this is another example of unionist bigotry and anti-Irishness. That is a part of the explanation, but I would suggest that there is a lot more to it than that.

Here is an explanation to help your readers understand this impasse – and I offer it as somebody who has an Irish-speaking wife and daughters, and who is currently learning the language himself. Clearly Arlene Foster could not sell this proposal to the unionist grass roots. A discussion between an Irish language lobby representative and Jim Allister of the Traditional Unionist Voice party on the Stephen Nolan Show on BBC Radio Ulster last week afforded some insights into why. The language spokesman was asked if the proposed Act would require that a person would have the right to receive a service in Irish every time he or she visited a GP or a motor tax office.The Irish language spokesman said that was the eventual aim. If he had made the common sense demand that in every large public sector organisation there would be one or two Irish speakers to deal with the occasional request in Irish from a population which is 100 per cent English speaking (with just 6 per cent speaking Irish), that would have been reasonable and moderate. But, as so often happens in the North, he went for the maximalist demand instead.

This is evidence of what most unionists believe: that there is a “culture war” going on, led by Sinn Féin, aimed at belittling and undermining everything British in Northern Ireland. First it was the flying of the Union flag, now it’s the required use of Irish. What will be next, they ask. This is not just the belief of the News Letter, Jim Allister and the Orange Order – the sources quoted by your Northern editor (“Unionists refuse to cross language barrier”, February 15th) – but of every unionist I have talked to in the North in recent months. – Yours, etc,



Dublin 6.

A chara, – Noel Whelan appears to have a slack grasp on logic (“Sinn Fééin is using Irish as a weapon”, Opinion & Analysis, February 16th). He notes that when a TG4 reporter asked a question in Irish at Stormont recently, neither Mary Lou McDonald nor Michelle O’Neill could respond, and it was left to Sinn Féin’s party chairman Declan Kearney to answer as Gaeilge. This, he concludes, “illustrates how for the Sinn Féin leadership this [the pursuit of an Irish language Act] is about a political win rather than being grounded in any personal commitment to the language itself”.

The logical extension of that would be that I cannot be genuinely concerned that Black Lives Matter because I am not black, I should be silent about the housing shortage since I have a house, and I am hypocritical if I speak up for Travellers, immigrants or the gay community, since I am not a committed member of any of these groups. Come to think of it, maybe Noel Whelan shouldn’t be commenting on Northern matters since he’s not a Northerner. – Is mise,



Sir, – The breakdown of the Northern talks is further evidence, if needed, that Arlene Foster and her DUP colleagues continue to suffer from severe short-sightedness.The Irish language issue was a trap set for those of dimmed vision, given the apathy and the lip-service shown to it on this side of the Border and the dubious level of proficiency in the language among many Sinn Féiners, whose vocabulary scarcely extends little further than “Tiocfaidh ár lá”. – Yours, etc,