Belfast Telegraph

Republicans talk a lot about equality - but what about showing some to the rest of us?

It is time to broaden the debate away from the narrow ground chosen by Sinn Fein, writes Nelson McCausland.

A lot of the current debate about an Irish Language Act is both futile and sterile.

Sinn Fein demands an Act and it is supported by the SDLP. On the other hand, the DUP is opposed to an Act and the UUP remains to be convinced. It becomes an issue that immediately divides unionists and nationalists.

The proponents of an Act are reluctant to set out the content in any detail and have no idea of the potential costs. This reluctance is probably influenced by a desire to avoid having to answer difficult questions. Meanwhile, opponents of an Act argue that it would be divisive, expensive, impractical and discriminatory.

Sinn Fein likes that situation, where its demands an Irish Language Act and unionists say no. Of course, unionists are right to say no, even though it can make them appear negative. Indeed, that is part of the Sinn Fein strategy. That’s why it is time to broaden the debate and take it beyond the narrow ground chosen by Sinn Fein’s cultural strategists.

Languages are primarily about communication, but here in Northern Ireland the Irish language is about much more than communication; it is also about the affirmation and expression of an Irish identity.

For Irish nationalists it is about affirming an Irish identity and building an affinity with an Irish nation that was founded on cultural nationalism.

It is important to grasp that fact if we hope to understand what Sinn Fein is about as regards its Irish language strategy.

We don’t hear much in Northern Ireland about the concept of “affirming identity”, but it is a fairly common concept in the field of cultural studies and central to any understanding of Irish language politics.

It happens when a culture is brought into the school classroom, on to the television screen, or when that culture receives financial support.

Another important idea, and one that is recognised in the field of good relations, is that of “equity, diversity and interdependence”.

There are a range of cultural identities in Northern Ireland and that is the diversity. Some people will have an affinity with Gaelic culture, including the Irish language and the GAA, while others will have an affinity with Ulster-Scots culture, or Orange culture, or whatever. That is the diversity.

When it comes to cultural identities, it is essential that all of these are affirmed in a way that meets the aspiration of “equity”, whether that be in the fields of broadcasting, education or academia.

So, is there any equity about the affirmation of our various and diverse cultural identities?

Certainly, there is not much equity in the field of broadcasting, when it comes to the cultural traditions and cultural identities of the indigenous communities that make up Northern Ireland.

How are those other traditions reflected in broadcasting if we use Irish language broadcasting as a benchmark? The answer is: not very well at all.

Moreover, the Belfast Agreement provided an enhanced status for the Irish language and preferential support for Irish-medium schools, which affirm a distinctively Irish Gaelic identity.

The Belfast Agreement actually increased the cultural imbalance in Northern Ireland and the architects of the Belfast Agreement left us a toxic legacy of cultural discrimination.

So, there is a conversation that needs to take place after the forthcoming election, not the narrow conversation about an Irish Language Act, as chosen by Sinn Fein, but a broader and inclusive conversation that embraces all our cultural traditions, cultural expressions and cultural identities.

However, I suspect it is a conversation that Sinn Fein will want to shy away from. That must not be allowed to happen.

For too long the equality and human rights industries have pandered to the demands of the Irish language lobby, while at the same time largely ignoring the cultural interests and cultural rights of those of us who embrace other cultural traditions.

Irish republicans and nationalists talk a lot about equality.

So what about some equality for the rest of us?

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