Gregory Campbell is one of the better known members of the DUP in Ireland, the once fringe British Unionist party which has dominated one half of the power-sharing regional administration in the north-east of the country since 2007. He currently serves as an MP in the Westminster parliament in London and an MLA in the Stormont assembly in Belfast. In the latter capacity he has led the local government departments for Regional Development and later Culture, Arts and Leisure. So he is no minor player, no isolated maverick. He is very much in the mainstream of Unionist politics. Yet below is an example of the respect he shows for the indigenous language and culture of the island nation he and his community inhabit, and in most cases call their own. This report from the Irish Times describes recent events in Stormont where a confrontational Campbell mocked the deputy-speaker or ceann comhairle of the legislature by addressing him in fake Irish:
“During a debate about the Irish and Ulster-Scots languages, Mr Campbell attempted to phonetically state “go raibh maith agat, Ceann Comhairle” but instead said “curry my yoghurt can coca coalyer”.
Sinn Féin’s culture minister Carál Ní Chuilín, a fluent Irish speaker, responded furiously to Mr Campbell’s effort, describing it as “pure ignorance”.
Afterwards, Ms Ní Chuilín tweeted: “Went to the Speakers Office to complain about Gregory Campbell’s mockery of the Irish Language. I feel he’s a racist…”
Sinn Féin MLA Rosie McCorley, who is the party’s Irish language spokeswoman, said: “Unfortunately this is nothing new from the DUP who have blocked the development on an Irish language act, and whose representatives have a long history of insults to the Irish speaking community.
“While this might be funny in Gregory’s little closed world, it is hugely insulting to all of those who promote the huge benefits of endorsing and enhancing bilingualism in our society especially in our children.””
Gregory has long been characterised by his critics as a promulgator of anti-Catholic sectarianism and anti-Irish racism, reflecting in part the militant prejudices of some working-class Unionist communities (not to mention the rather more discreet biases of their middle-class equivalents). So this latest publicity stunt comes as no surprise. He is no different than those on the extreme Right of the Republican Party in the United States, particularly politicians associated with the remnants of the Tea Party movement, who proudly promulgate petty hatreds and prejudices in state legislatures across the country, not to mention in Congress itself. Indeed if the DUP was a US party it would almost certainly be backed by the likes of the Koch brothers, billionaire puppet-masters behind several ultra-conservative organisations in the States. So in one way the controversy is little more than a storm in a teacup. Business as usual in the British Occupied North of Ireland.
However there are deeper forces at play here. Gregory Campbell and his DUP colleagues continually express a virulent form of anti-Irishness with old colonial roots on this island. It is a sort of “legacy racism” that manifests itself as an irrational hostility to anything that is perceived as being overtly “native”; language, literature, music, sports: even the very names of the landscape itself. It can be seen in this egregious commentary on the Stormont affair by Quincey Dougan, a British Unionist writer, published on the Irish news and current affairs blog Slugger O’Toole:
“Surely society has made its decision and we have moved on from the need for Irish to be any more than a hobby for amateur enthusiasts and promoters? Surely its ‘left’ the modern sphere of work and life and as such society has made its choice and has ‘evolved’? It isnt relevant to the modern working world.
Because it was once present (and of course embraced by a tiny section of Protestants/Unionists as we get bombarded with continually) surely does not give it an unalieable value that deserves reignition? No moreso than a thousand other lost ‘ways of the world’.
Why is it that many who campain for the evolution of society contradict their own philosphy and make an exception for Irish? Its gone. The world has moved on. Anyone who wants to practise or promote go for it- but dont expect public money and special favour. Irish is no different from latin (it has manufactured communities who speak it dotted over the place as well). Irish is a dead language. Let it rest in peace.”
Aside from the irony of an Anglophone supremacist attacking speakers of another language who can barely spell or string a grammatical sentence together in his own language (yes, that quote really is “as published“), the underlying sentiments here reveal the true nature of the argument being made. Thousands of people speak the Irish language across the island of Ireland as their native or adopted language. Many hundreds of thousands of others have some awareness of it, from a few words to partial fluency. It is – uniquely – both the national and the first official language of the nation state of Ireland. The Campbells and Dougans of this world do not hate or despise the Irish language for any other reason than it is the Irish language. In their anachronistic British colonial view that makes it dangerous – as dangerous as those who speak it.
That is the real argument here.