Belfast Telegraph

Friday 25 April 2014

DebateNI home of Northern Ireland politics

How to respond to Orangeman George Chittick's view Protestants should not learn Irish language? Faugh a Ballagh

George Chittick
George Chittick

What's the best way of responding to senior Belfast Orangeman George Chittick's view that Protestants should not learn the Irish language? Faugh a Ballagh.

That's the motto of the Royal Irish Regiment, previously that of the Royal Irish Fusiliers. Generations of Irishmen, north and south, have proudly served the Crown under this motto.

But, according to George Chittick, Protestants shouldn't learn the Irish language. It's ironic that his stance echoes those hardline republicans who want to use the language as a political weapon.

The story of the Irish language, however, contradicts them both. We could point to the Protestant scholars of late 18th century Belfast who laid the foundations for modern study of the language. Or the first Unionist Convention in Belfast, meeting under the banner 'Erin go Bragh' ('Ireland forever').

Or the Irish-speaking services held by the Presbyterian Church in Ireland and the Church of Ireland. What is also striking is how utterly out-of-touch the comments were with contemporary Northern Ireland. Behind the comments was an assumption, also shared by hardline republicans, that Northern Ireland is an apartheid society.

The basis of this apartheid is taken to be politics, faith and culture. There is, we are told, the PUL (Protestant-Unionist-Loyalist) community and the CNR (Catholic-Nationalist-Republican) community – separate, distinct, different.

The problem is this view is nonsense. Northern Ireland is much more diverse than the proponents of cultural apartheid imagine. That is why an Irish language course can flourish in overwhelmingly Protestant east Belfast.

No, we in Northern Ireland are not two opposing tribes. This is not to suggest that there are no challenges facing us in terms of integration and reconciliation – of course there are. But it is a journey we have long-since started as a society, with deep roots in a past as shared as it is divided. And, if we are looking for a bit of inspiration as we think about the remaining challenges, maybe we should reflect on the Royal Irish motto: Faugh a Ballagh (clear the way)!