Some unionist politicians worry me. Individually they are often pleasant people, good company even. But when a matter comes up which might be faintly linked with the constitutional question, they tend get shirty. Some of them, like my good friend Nelson McCausland, very shirty. This shirtiness could be either because the politician being shirty believes every word that s/he says, or it could be because while s/he does not really believe what s/he says, s/he thinks it’s the kind of thing that will go down well with his/her electorate.
Take Mid-Ulster council. They’ve devised a policy where, if someone approaches them and claims that the people in the street would like to have their street name in Irish as well as English, the matter can be put to a vote by the street, and if a majority are in favour, the bilingual sign goes up. You’d think that a fine example of street-level democracy, wouldn’t you?
But you’d be wrong. At least according to DUP councillor Clement Cuthbertson. Clement is fearful that his council is following “the route of non-inclusive politics” and Irish is being “forced on the minorities in Mid-Ulster.”
Now I don’t know Clement, but I feel confident he’s a pleasant man. Shouldn’t be surprised if he whistles on the way to work and is the life and soul of the DUP Christmas party. But on this matter he baffles me.
How could an addition to signage be “non-inclusive”? Is Clement saying that keeping the street-sign English-only, he would have felt more included? But listen, Clement: nothing’s being taken from you. You still have the street-sign in English. What you now have is an enrichment, not an exclusion. An opening-out, not a closing-down.
It upsets me to think that that the addition of a street’s name in Irish would cast a cloud over Clement’s day. Which raises the possibility I mentioned above: is Clement truly upset, or just saying he’s upset, because he thinks that’ll go down well with the people who elect him?
Both of these are appalling vistas. I recently did an interview with Senator George Mitchell in which he recalled the words of the late David Ervine: there are people in the north of Ireland (yes, Virginia, David probably said ‘Northern Ireland’ – maybe even ‘Ulster’) who would travel a hundred miles in order to take offence. In this particular case, Clement doesn’t have any more to do beyond amble down to his council chambers to be offended.
But can bi-lingual street-signs really provoke such angst? It’s not as if Mid-Ulster Irish speakers were to form a band, compose a song with repeated references to the bi-lingual sign, and march in a circle before Clement’s house, briskly playing and chanting in Irish. It’ll just be a sign stuck on a wall, probably beneath the English street-sign.
But as I say, there is another possibility: Clement doesn’t really feel excluded but believes claiming to feel excluded will go down well with his constituents. There is no evidence that this is so, but if it were, this would indeed be a depressing thought, because it’d mean Clement not only believed his constituency were fairly benighted, but that he was encouraging them to remain benighted.
Two final questions for Clement and the rest of us to ponder.
Has Clement noticed how many British signs and symbols surround us here on every side? War memorials honouring British soldiers, statues to the UDR and Queen Victoria, names like the King’s Hall and Queen’s Bridge and Royal Avenue and Prince William Way. Signs and symbols-wise, we all live in a society where the elephantine weight of British signage has pressed down on us for decades, centuries even.
What’s really amazing is that no nationalist/republican has so far called for the removal of these signs/symbols/names. Instead, an occasional council like Mid-Ulster will try to add a teensy bit of the culture with which they identify. Hardly draconian demands, you’d agree.
The second point is that I always thought leaders were supposed to lead. OK, theoretically a leader could lead his people in a backward direction; but I normally think of a leader as one who leads forward, who takes his/her people to new places, a better future, a more enlightened era.
So dear whistling Clement, here’s the thing: will getting hot and bothered about a street name in Irish lead your people towards enlightenment? Or will it march them backwards into a windowless fortress, where you’ll conduct a ceremonial swallowing of the key?