Unionist party NI21 goes Gaelic in hunt for Euro election voters
Leader Basil McCrea defends decision to put up billboards in Irish
Northern Ireland's newest unionist party is taking the bold step of using the Irish language in an attempt to reach out to the electorate.
Five of NI21's total of 30 billboards for the European elections have been written in Irish as part of a campaign which will be the fledgling party's first test at the polls.
Featuring the party's Euro candidate Tina McKenzie, the posters are due to appear today around Lisburn, Belfast and Newtownards and will stay for a fortnight.
Party leader Basil McCrea denied the decision to put their slogan 'This is Fresh Politics' in Irish could backfire.
"As far as I know we are probably the first pro-UK party to use the Irish language in our election campaign," the Lagan Valley MLA said.
Ahead of the party's expected launch later this week of more than 50 candidates for the 11 new councils, he said: "We are taking a stand as conviction politicians.
"We are an inclusive party. We believe Northern Ireland should be a place where everybody can celebrate their own culture.
"Although we believe that NI is better off remaining part of the United Kingdom we do not see why we should not be pluralist and diverse."
The former Ulster Unionist, who resigned from the party along with South Down MLA John McCallister, said his party was not against the Irish Language Act which Sinn Fein is demanding at Stormont.
"But what we do not want to see is for the language to be politicised and that is where Sinn Fein has got it wrong in hijacking the language and attempting to have it imposed rather than agreed," Mr McCrea added. The party has already tweeted in Irish and was involved in a Stormont Christmas event at which carols were sung in Irish.
Mr McCrea added it was only because the still-fledgling party has limited resources that it did not also include some posters in Ulster Scots or other minority languages.
Ms McKenzie said, however: "Of course we are making a point. We have a simple message – the Irish language belongs to everyone in Northern Ireland and we should all celebrate it.
"We have to stop using the constitutional question to place people in divisive boxes of religion and culture – this is the politics of the past and it is the tribal politics which is stopping us from becoming the modern pluralist democracy we should be."
Ms McKenzie argued that in 1905 Douglas Hyde, the future president of the Republic of Ireland, said 'The Irish language, thank God, is neither Protestant nor Catholic, it is neither unionist nor separatist'.
She said: "Politicians of all hews and many others have abandoned those sentiments.
"We have politicised language, sport and culture in the most unsavoury manner, and the past year has proven that despite it being 16 years after the (Good Friday) Agreement the political establishment here is still bitterly divided.
"Northern Ireland needs more normal politics which will help deliver a more cohesive society.
"We hope in future campaigns to celebrate other minority languages, however, the Irish language has been used as such a political football of late; we thought this is the best way to send a clear message.
"For me our political establishment is asleep to the fact that we are in the 21st century – NI21 wants to wake it up," she added.
Unionists and th e Irish language:
1987 – DUP'S Sammy Wilson says Irish is a "leprechaun language".
1996 – Belfast Ulster Unionist Lord Mayor Ian Adamson gives a toast in Irish.
2009 – Irish radio station lands a scéal speisialta (scoop) – an interview with Ian Paisley.
2013 – NI21 begins to tweet in Irish.
2014 – Five NI21 election billboards in Irish.