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How the two Michelles, feuding queens of Ulster, have plumbed the depths

Despite all the advances in community relations, we're still stuck in an 'Ussens and Themmuns' mindset

By Eilis O'Hanlon

Published 04/10/2016

Michelle McIlveen of the DUP
Michelle McIlveen of the DUP
Sinn Fein's Michelle Gildernew

The Kitchen Cabinet is a BBC radio show about food and drink. A few weeks ago it came from Northern Ireland and it was striking to hear the presenter alternate between the different names for the city from which the programme was being broadcast. First it would be Derry, then Londonderry, then back to Derry and so on.

It was almost as if there was a nervous producer sitting backstage, counting the number of times each name was used, then yelling in the presenter's earpiece: "Too many Derrys! Switch at once to Londonderry! This is not a drill!"

It was funny, but sad too, because it was a reminder that this is how those who live in Northern Ireland are seen - as people so quick to take offence where none is intended that it's better to tread carefully not to rouse our wrath.

And maybe they're right to think of us that way, when even the naming of a boat can provoke a row.

In Britain earlier this year when a name was needed for a new polar ship, the choice was put to a public vote. The runaway winner was Boaty McBoatface, though killjoys in Government eventually called it RRS Sir David Attenborough instead. So much for democracy.

We should be so lucky.

When a name was needed in 2010 for the fisheries protection vessel that patrols the seas between Lough Foyle and Anglesey, the-then Agriculture Minister, Michelle Gildernew of Sinn Fein, christened it Banrion Uladh.

Now that the equivalent position at Stormont is held by the DUP's Michelle McIlveen, the name has been changed to its English language version, Queen of Ulster.

Gildernew is furious with her fellow Michelle, branding the decision "petty in the extreme". And, of course, it was.

As one-time Culture Minister Gregory Campbell made plain, the DUP has little patience for all that "curry my yoghurt" business. They've clearly taken the first chance to replace it with one more acceptable to their tastes.

But to complain that this particular decision was petty is bizarre when the original decision was equally petty.

When Sinn Fein had the power to name the boat it used that power, without any consultation, to make a political point. When the DUP got the power, it used it, again without consultation, to make a political point.

That proves we're being ruled by children, but neither has any right to take the moral high ground. All they've done is show that, despite all the positive developments in community relations, we're still stuck in an "Ussens and Themmuns" mindset and that language remains one of the chief battlegrounds.

Gildernew even said in response to the DUP decision that "there were other names that were far more Irish that I could have went (sic) with, but I didn't".

How can one name be "far more Irish" than another? A word is either Irish or it isn't. That's like saying one woman can be "far more pregnant" than another. You're either having a baby, or you're not. Relativity doesn't come into it.

It was quite a revealing comment, though. Evidently, there was a process of consideration going on in Sinn Fein to see how much they could get away with and they now think they should be congratulated for not calling the ship something outrageously provocative, such as Tiocfaidh ar La, perhaps, or ordering it to set sail each day to the strains of Paul McCartney's Give Ireland Back To The Irish.

If so, then surely McIlveen should be applauded for not choosing a name that was "far more British" too?

This urge to get one over on the other side is the dark underbelly of local politics, the bit we don't really want to admit still exists.

It came to attention again last week with the survey from the Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency, which found that, compared to five years ago, fewer young people now believe that relations between Catholics and Protestants are getting better. It's not that they're bigots. The same surveys shows that more than 80% are tolerant these days of those with a different sense of identity. They just don't happen to think that the separate communities are mixing that much, or that successfully.

Instead, they're looking around and wondering why ancient divisions they had no part in creating and no interest in perpetuating cling on.

The fact that outwardly intelligent adults can fall out over a boat hardly helps. Ministers have a duty to rise above these ridiculous squabbles, but they rarely do.

If those who regard themselves as pure-blooded Irish really do want their British neighbours not to feel hostile towards Gaelic and to listen to Irish music and feel positively towards Irish culture in general, then they should stop using these markers of identity as weapons.

The same goes for unionists. Northern Ireland is unique in having a fusion of Britishness and Irishness. By trying to make one half of it invisible, they actually undermine what makes the place special, for good and, yes, bad, too, sometimes. You can't have one without the other.

In setting their faces so stubbornly against the Irish language, the DUP is being particularly foolish.

If anything, the best way to stop the Irish language being used more widely would be to make it compulsory in schools.

After decades of forcing the language down the throats of every child in the Republic, hardly anyone speaks it regularly. Most couldn't even pronounce "Banrion Uladh", let alone translate it. That's why there's so much importance attached to symbolic gestures, such as having Irish accepted as an official language of the EU, or putting up street signs, or hearing the odd "go raibh maith agat" ("thank you") or "dia dhuit" ("hello").

On one level, it seems silly, because what difference does a street sign make? On another, if these small tokens are all that those who see themselves as Irish are asking for - and evidence from south of the border suggests that it is - then why antagonise them needlessly by taking those symbols away?

Maybe the BBC had the right idea after all. Just call the ship Banrion Uladh/Queen of Ulster and let people choose which name they want to use at any given moment. It's only a boat, after all.

Northern Ireland has enough real problems without creating new ones where none need to be.

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