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Nelson McCausland: Irish Language Act not about rights, it’s about identity... and an Irish republican identity at that

Earlier concessions over Gaelic were made in the face of IRA violence; now it’s SF’s electoral clout, says Nelson McCausland


Sinn Fein’s Michelle O’Neill during an Irish Language Act protest held at Stormont

Sinn Fein’s Michelle O’Neill during an Irish Language Act protest held at Stormont

Sinn Fein’s Michelle O’Neill during an Irish Language Act protest held at Stormont

On Wednesday morning I expected the news to be dominated by electoral politics — the count is still under way in the Republic, the Conservatives are looking for a new leader, Labour is in turmoil over Brexit and even greater turmoil over anti-Semitism and Sinn Fein are trying to work out what went wrong for them south of the border.

However, here in Northern Ireland, the first item on the Radio Ulster news and the main item on the Nolan Show was none of these.

It wasn’t about electoral politics but rather cultural politics and the demand for an Irish Language Act, with around 200 people signing an open letter to Theresa May and Leo Varadkar.

The letter was published as a full-page advertisement in the Irish News, and was similar in format to two earlier letters which were also published in that newspaper.

They were organised by a group of nationalist activists, and the most recent, published in November 2018, highlighted an Irish Language Act as one of the demands.

I don’t know what prompted the timing of the current letter, but Mary Lou McDonald must be grateful for the fact that it has moved media attention on from her party’s poor performance in the Republic.

However, the letter is there and demands some consideration, even though it is disingenuous.

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For example, it claims that “we are the anomaly”, because there is no Irish Language Act in Northern Ireland. That is a fake argument.

There is no Scots Language Act in Scotland and there is no Cornish Language Act in England, even though these are two of the six minority languages recognised by the UK Government.

Surely, it is time for Irish language activists to admit that, ultimately, this is not simply about a language and not even primarily about a language. Fundamentally, it is about an identity, in this case an Irish identity.

In his book The Politics of Irish Freedom, Gerry Adams has a chapter about Irish culture and especially the Irish language.

It is there, along with chapters on revolution, that the IRA and Sinn Fein and Adams set the Irish language in the context of “the politics of Irish freedom”.

He writes: “The Irish language ... is a badge of our identity and part of what we are.”

Later in the book, Adams adds: “My own conviction is that the restoration of our culture must be a crucial part of our political struggle and that the restoration of the Irish language must be a central part of the cultural struggle... the Irish language is the reconquest of Ireland and the reconquest of Ireland is the Irish language.”

That was written in 1986, when Sinn Fein were starting to implement their cultural strategy, and it was the Sinn Fein president giving his public imprimatur and expression to that strategy.

Adams was right when he said that it was really about a “badge of our identity”, but today, for tactical reasons, republicans prefer to present this, at least externally, as a rights issue.

They also prefer to separate out the Irish language from other identity issues, and that is why unionists must demand that this cultural identity issue be considered in the wider context of all cultural identity issues.

Until that is accepted, there can be no meaningful negotiation.

In a divided society, cultural traditions must be addressed in a holistic way, in accordance with the promotion of good relations and a shared future.

Unfortunately, the advocates of an Irish Language Act are demanding special and preferential treatment for Gaelic culture over other cultural traditions.

Sinn Fein have an Irish language strategy that was formulated around the time of the IRA hunger strikes, and they have devoted more than three decades to implementing that strategy.

In the early years, from the time of the Anglo-Irish Agreement, almost every concession or commitment to the Irish language was achieved as a result of the firepower of the IRA; now it has to come from the bargaining power of Sinn Fein.

That is why Sinn Fein collapsed Stormont and why they made this a ‘red-line’ issue for any restoration of Stormont.

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