The North or Northern Ireland? Textual politics matter


To both communities, denial of their preferred term for the place they live in remains disrespectful, writes FIONNUALA O'CONNOR

TAKE THE long view, and you can see how all might yet be well. Take a snapshot instead, see the outlines of underlying dysfunction, and your hopes might be damp and dashed as the summer. As if stalemate on education reform and legal status for the Irish language had not imposed strain enough on an unpromising relationship, now one of the oldest sources of grievance has been tipped in - language of another kind.

Though it was going a bit far to call it "malevolent," surely. Writing "the North" rather than "Northern Ireland" and "Derry" instead of "Londonderry" - a demonstration of evil intent? After all, like such other august institutions as BBC Northern Ireland, this newspaper has been shuffling the terms for years.

But this was shuffling as "republican speak", according to the former DUP politician Jim Allister. He holds the European Parliament seat he won in the party's name, at least until next year's election, though he abominates the decision to share Stormont with "IRA/Sinn Féin". Peter Robinson says Sinn Féin should stop looking over their shoulder at dissident republicans and get rid of the IRA army council: Sinn Féin says he fears Allister's appeal to DUP voters.

Allister certainly enjoyed attacking Robinson about a strategy document by the department of Regional Development, headed by "IRA/Sinn Féin Minister" Conor Murphy. Offensive language had been "surreptitiously inserted". Civil servants, said Allister, "surely should have advised Murphy against this malevolent political action" and there must be "firm disciplinary action" against him for "apparent breach of the ministerial Code". Unionist Ministers had been "hoodwinked".

Proof, though Allister needs none, of the "unworkability of mandatory coalition". (The last is a reference to the Stormont system invented by the Belfast Agreement. Even for the purposes of denunciation, "powersharing" does not easily cross the lips of unionist politicians.) It would have been unthinkable to write to "Murphy". Allister published his letter of protest to the department's chief civil servant, his real target those still bemused that their beloved Ian Paisley walked them into such a fix. "I object to the import into these documents of republican speak for our country . . . The constant references to somewhere called 'the North' is a calculated slight upon both the name and constitutional entity and integrity of Northern Ireland . . . republican agenda . . . offensive and wrong . . . inaccurate and political language . . . Londonderry is constantly referred to as 'Derry', which is not its name . . . I really think it is quite shameful that Minister Murphy has imposed his grubby republican speak on planning documents." Will Minister Murphy have the document revised to rechristen that "somewhere called the North"? If not, will Peter Robinson reach for the law, as he suggested might be his intent? A dispute of breathtaking pettiness, said the Alliance party. Not to thousands of unionists and nationalists, some of whom would prefer to eat their votes rather than give them to Allister, Robinson, or Murphy, and who have respectable reasons for caring about language.

Allister's "grubby republican speak" is the everyday usage of constitutional nationalists. To both communities, denial of their preferred term for the place they live in is disrespect, an indicator that "the other" would still oppress them if they could. Many unionists hear "the north of Ireland" as denial of their existence. Many nationalists hear denial of theirs when Northern Ireland is termed "this country". Unionists who jeered at the self-consciousness with which the original deputy first minister Séamus Mallon occasionally mentioned "Northern Ireland" find it impossible to say "the North" and can not see that it might be sensitive to alternate the terms. By this stage, it would have been pleasant if the DUP and Sinn Féin had agreed to ignore the other's usage, if they could not bring themselves to use both. (It should hardly be necessary to point out that no matter how unpolitical, irreligious or diverse many citizens may be, "the South" is still effectively dominated by a single religious and political inheritance. A mono-cultural Republic is not best fitted to imagine the importance of names in a place as long divided as the North.) Since Allister opposes powersharing, it is pointless to bewail his lack of respect for political and cultural allegiance which is Irish, not British. But Robinson knows the essence of the Stormont arrangement is equality of respect, no matter how little he feels it, nor how he worries about Allister's appeal to the unsettled. Republican supporters are unsettled too. It has been a long disillusion after a short enchantment.

Sinn Féin pinned their new colours to a few flagships, like Irish, and the DUP have enjoyed blocking them. It would have been reasonable to hope that by this stage, as preliminary to making decisions together, both would have accepted the other's symbols, language - and at least some policies.