In 1981 the “reverend” Ian Paisley MP MEP, founder and chief of the Free Presbyterian Church of Ulster, the Democratic Unionist Party and several quasi-terrorist groupings (notably the Ulster Resistance), issued an infamous response to a speech by the Fianna Fáil leader Charles Haughey where he claimed on behalf of the British Unionist minority in Ireland that:
“Our ancestors cut a civilisation out of the bogs and meadows of this country while Mr Haughey’s ancestors were wearing pig skins and living in caves …”
Despite the passage of nearly forty years this partisan understanding of the colonisation of our island nation by armed settlers and “planters” from Britain remains central to the ideology of political Unionism. The violent displacement of native Irish communities went hand-in-hand with the suppression of our language and culture, these things being regarded as the foremost impediments to the establishment of what we might now term a “British state for a British people” on the island of Ireland (to rework that old phrase). Through the historic mechanisms of invasion, occupation and annexation a shared sense of an indigenous Irish identity amongst the country’s inhabitants was slowly eroded or replaced. As many scholars have subsequently observed, Ireland’s fate under the Elizabethans and Cromwellians was a mere precursor for what would later befall the peoples of North America during the era of European expansion; an expansion that of course featured many prominent “Scots-Irish”, the immediate descendants of those who brought renewed “troubles” to Ireland in the 16th and 17th centuries.
It is in this context of past struggles that we should view Unionist opposition to the establishment of legal equality between the two majority cultures in the north-east of the country, Irish Nationalist and British Unionist, represented most obviously by the Irish and English languages. Such obstructionism is simply the continuation of that ancient Anglo-British “culture war” which disfigured Ireland for so long and which was latterly fuelled by notions of racial superiority. Notions that the rest of Europe rejected in the aftermath of WWII and the defeat of Nazism, including most of the people on the island of Britain (bar the Far Right fringe of the BNP, EDL, National Front and UKIP; where of course many Unionist pols find a ready audience for their special pleading). Indeed similar supremacist thinking shapes the world-view of those who use violence against satirists and journalists because those individuals refuse to accept the cultural restrictions demanded by their attackers.
From the Newsletter:
“A consultation on a draft Irish language act has been branded a waste of time and money by former culture minister Nelson McCausland.
DUP MLA Mr McCausland said the announcement of the process, due to begin next month, is designed to “distract from Sinn Fein’s failure” to progress the issue.
His party colleague Gregory Campbell has already stated he would treat the demand for such legislation as no more than toilet paper.
The current culture minister, Caral Ni Chuilin, hopes to enshrine official protection for Irish speakers in law.
Mr McCausland said: “At a time when there are many pressing issues and challenges facing her department, the culture minister has announced that she intends to waste time, money and effort consulting on something she knows will not happen.
The chair of the Assembly’s culture, arts and leisure committee added: “The SDLP have been keen to embarrass Sinn Fein over recent days about their failure to secure any progress towards an act, and it would seem that the minister’s announcement is some crude attempt to give the impression that something can be achieved, when both she and her party are well aware that her chance of success is zero.””
Chance of equality? Zero.
However, lest we believe that our nation as a whole is free of the poisonous legacy of colonial-era racism, think again. It can manifest itself in many ways. From the Herald:
“A GOVERNMENT department is advising its staff not to use a fada in the spelling of their names, despite being a huge supporter of the Irish language.
The Department of Education sent an email recommending that its staff refrain from including the accent in the spelling of their name, as its finance systems will not recognise the accent and, therefore, employees risk delayed wage payments.
The email, sent last month by the department’s assistant finance principal asked finance system users not to include the sine fada when using the service.
A source told the Herald that there is anger among some staff within the department regarding the instruction to drop the fada and that several are threatening to make a complaint to the Irish Language Commissioner.”
In fact government departments in Ireland have been discouraging the use of the síneadh fada for decades, an essential element in most Irish words and terms. The last big scandal arising from this latent discrimination concerned obstacles being placed in the way of children with Irish names being registered by the Department of Social Welfare. We were promised technological and procedural reform then. Instead it seems that we are still waiting for some Irish-born men, women and children not to be regarded as “foreigners” in their own country.