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Bosnia taught me how languages can be used to foster division ... I never want to see that here

By Doug Beattie MC

We live in a vibrant, eclectic and culturally rich part of the UK. My identity and culture are proudly represented by the Union flag, God Save the Queen, Ulster and Ireland rugby, Gaelic games, the shamrock, Guinness, St Patrick's Day, Derry and Londonderry, the sash my father wore, poets and authors, actors and artists, and Ulster-Scots and the Irish language.

I support all the home nations football teams (unless they are playing Northern Ireland) and I support the Republic of Ireland (unless they are playing the home nations).

I am an Ulsterman, I am Irish and I am British - I am made up of many things and I share many things with those who live in the same space as me, yet view themselves purely as Irish, British, or as an Ulster-Scot.

If I look at all those things that I believe define me, my identity and culture, I find it hard to accept anything that will divide me from those who view themselves differently, yet hold many of the same things dear to them.

The implementation of specific language acts would not, in my opinion, be good for Northern Ireland. The unintentional consequence would be to separate and divide by marking out community territories and boundaries.

That is not to say that I do not feel that indigenous languages aren't a part of my identity or culture, because they certainly are.

However, the price to be paid for a language act - be that an Irish Language Act, or an Ulster Scots Act - is too high, and I am not referring to monetary value.

It would be divisive, it would separate and it would alienate communities in the exactly the same way as flags or painted kerb-stones.

Language is often bound up with identity, and that is especially true of this society at this point in time.

It is, unfortunately, the case that language has been used by some as a political weapon and a tool to divide and exclude; to separate out one section of our society from another. The provisions of an Irish Language Act would see the likes of Portadown town centre festooned with dual English and Ulster-Scots signs, while areas such as the Garvaghy Road would be clearly delineated by English and Irish language signs.

This can only create division and tension, and I cannot see how this would be good for Northern Ireland in the short to medium-term.

I ask those who are promoting such a move, how do you intend to stop this clear and permanent marking of territory and the delineation between nationalist and unionist areas?

As a serving soldier in Bosnia, I saw what entrenched divisions along cultural, ethnic and linguistic lines can look like, and I would never wish that for Northern Ireland.

If any deal to get the Executive and Assembly up and running means our country will become more divided, more sectarian and more unstable, I cannot support it. Nor can I support an Ulster Scots Act as some kind of pay-off for an Irish Language Act.

The reality remains that we have spent years trying to bring communities together. I believe that what is proposed will merely reinforce division.

My views are not bigoted; they are not one-sided. They are not about denying anyone the ability to express their identity, or culture.

In fact, I want Northern Ireland to promote our culture - including languages - so that it enriches the whole of our society and is not used - as it has been - to denigrate, or exclude, certain sections of it.

Back in April 2017, I proposed that the Commission on Flags, Identity, Culture and Tradition, established by both Martin McGuinness and Arlene Foster, should be given time and space to come up with recommendations that could give the protection many so dearly want and, as a result, take the heat out of the language issue.

Why this opportunity was not seized, examined, or even debated, remains a mystery to me.

I believe that the Irish language and Ulster-Scots enrich our identity and culture. They should not be denigrated or abused - as they both have been - and they should not be used as a political tool with which to beat others.

Doug Beattie MC is Ulster Unionist MLA for Upper Bann

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