Two ways of looking at the Irish language

I’m still not open to guest blogs except in very rare cases from blood relatives (hello, Clever Cousin Daniel), but I thought that, on a stinker-pissing day like today, you could do worse than compare and contrast these two pieces. The first is from my old chum Nelson  McCausland.  The second is a response from Dr Fearghal Mac Bhioscaidh.  Have a read and then make up your own mind.


Nelson McCausland has done a great service to the Irish language revival, by providing the opportunity to reply to his piece (Belfast Telegraph, 22/02/2018) linking it to political reconquest. He finishes his article, which largely focuses on one person, Feargal Mac Ionnrachtaigh, with some advice: ‘If you don’t believe me, you can read his book yourself.’ Unfortunately, Nelson clearly failed to take his own advice and his characterisation of both activist and community appears to rely on an ill-informed trawl of the internet.

The article amounts to a classic red smear, perhaps coincidentally appearing the same week as the Tory press attempted to link Jeremy Corbyn to the Czechoslovakian secret police. The motive is twofold. Firstly, McCausland portrays the language movement as a Sinn Féin plot, through a spurious comparison of Mac Ionnrachtaigh and Gerry Adams and by noting that the head of an organisation,now unconnected with Máirtín Ó Muilleoir, helped launch his book. Having erroneously linked two prominent activists, Mac Ionnrachtaigh and then Ciarán Mac Giolla Bhein, to Sinn Féin, McCausland then characterises the issue as a Marxist republican plot to destroy Northern Ireland. This may appear absurd, but Nelson, we must remember, believes Ulster Protestants represent one of the lost tribes of Israel and that the universe was created in six days, the seventh set aside for tying up swings.

McCausland’s research on Google has, however, been highly selective. He happily informs readers that Mac Ionnrachtaigh’s father was interned, but the late Terry Enright’s decades of community and non-sectarian activism don’t make copy. Neither does the fact that both activists’ families suffered at the hands of loyalists. In 1998, Feargal lost his brother Terry Óg, a community activist across West Belfast, who helped shape the lives of Catholic, Protestant and young people of no religion. ‘Marxist’ and ‘Terrorist’ both appear twice in an article from a man who courageously applauded Twaddell’s loyalists below his waist so the TV cameras didn’t pick it up. The fact that the de Silva report noted that 85% of UDA intelligence came from British security forces and, of the 210 loyalist suspectsarrested by Lord Stevens, 207 were state agents suggests that ‘terrorist’ constitutes a label to be applied universally, or not at all.

Despite the insinuations in McCausland’s piece, neither Mac Ionnrachtaigh or Mac Giolla Bhein have any association with Sinn Féin and neither advocate political violence. Yet, Nelson is correct in some respects; despite the tragedy of their own family history, both activists share a vision of an egalitarian and non-sectarian future devoid of bitterness or recrimination. Furthermore, whatNelson’s conspiracy theory ignores is that pressure from independent grassroots groups essentially obliged Sinn Féin to take a firmer stand across a range of issues, including the language. Similarly, the fifteen thousand Irish speakers who filled Belfast city centre on 20 May 2017 represented anautonomous movement for change. Few were ever associated with the provisional movement, with the majority not even born during the Troubles. The language represents one manifestation of a wider social and political phenomenon, wherein young people champion progressive issues, not content to follow any party line, but to affect change through their own agency.

Furthermore, McCausland’s reading of Mac Ionnrachtaigh’s position is deliberately reductionist and wilfully ignorant: ‘It is a strategy based on the republican view that Northern Ireland is a colony that has to be decolonised and that this will be accomplished through culture’ or ‘to Gaelicise Northern Ireland’. The current language movement emerged, in part, from the Whiterock area [which includes the North’s two most socially deprived electoral wards] among a generation who learnt Irish to both attain consciousness and challenge the neo-liberal consensus. Had Nelson read the book, he would know that while, inside prison, hundreds learned the language; outside, a politically non-aligned movement spent the sixties and seventies striving to create employment and education based on democratic and cooperative principles. This inheritance inspires the twenty-first century revival, challenging a dominant narrative that demonises working-class communities as benefit-dependent miscreants. I advise McCausland (and his North Belfast constituents) to read another recent publication, Angela Davis’ Freedom is a Constant Struggle (2015), to better challenge the obsceneausterity directed against disadvantaged communities by a government of Tory millionaires kept in power by the DUP.

McCausland also patently misunderstood the reference to the Reconquest of Ireland. James Connolly’s 1915 pamphlet opens with the quote: ‘The conquest of Ireland had meant the social and political servitude of the Irish masses, and therefore the re-conquest of Ireland must mean the social as well as the political independence from servitude of every man, woman and child in Ireland.’ A few paragraphs later Connolly quoted Belfast Protestants who understood the concept, the United Irishmen: ‘We wish that our animosities were buried with the bones of our ancestors, and that we could unite as Citizens and claim the Rights of Man.’ This was the vision of Sam Kyle, who topped the poll on the Shankill Road in the 1920 Belfast Corporation elections. Later, in 1932, the Catholic and Protestant unemployed shared this vision during the Outdoor Relief Strikes. On both occasions, unionist politicians, including James Craig, provoked and retrospectively justified vicious sectarian violence to maintain their hegemony over northern politics.

Here is the rub. Nelson will never understand this because his world-view emerged from the reactionary forces of Orangeism that sought to subvert the demands of Henry Joy McCracken and have stood squarely against democratic progress ever since. Such conservativism is rooted in the rejection of the ideas of the Enlightenment, that society can be transformed through the exercise of reason. Its contemporary supporters range from the Tory right, UKIP and their DUP bed-fellows to the coterie of populists, evangelical Christians and racist extremists that form large opposition groups across much of western and are in government across large swathes of central and easter  Europe, as well as in the USA of course.

Ireland was a colony. Indeed, the Ulster unionists and their Tory allies who created Northern Ireland unashamedly celebrated this in the era of high British imperialism. They also celebrated the sectarian nature of the new government, for while James Craig famously said that theirs was a Protestant parliament for a Protestant people, he also said publicly, on several occasions, that he was an Orangeman first and a member of parliament after. This does an enormous disservice to any concept of Britishness and its progressive tradition, the cradle of trade unionism, the home of the post-war welfare state, or indeed, to a Scotch identity whose greatest bard, Burns, promoted egalitarianism and radicalism through verse and song.

Working-class Protestants and Catholics face the same austerity and deprivation. The Irish-language community of the Whiterock has chosen to face these challenges through democratic activism and community empowerment. They promote a republicanism inclusive of and established by northern Protestants, who realised that the only way to transcend our colonial past was to establish a republicbased on universal rights and concepts of civic virtue. This also constitutes a rich tradition founded by the British settler community, just like many within that community’s long support for the Irish language. The DUP offers a populist and sectarian silo, while supporting the austerity that destroys the cohesion of working-class areas and championing a Brexit strategy that will destroy many of the few remaining jobs. Instead of viewing the language as a distraction or a waste of money, we should ask who is responsible for the destruction of public services and generations of economic stagnation.

The questions asked of Sinn Féin by many within the nationalist working class at least forced that party to reconsider its position or lose significant support. The DUP’s anti-Irish tropes seek to blind working-class Protestants to generations of social deprivation and ten-years of Tory austerity through populist bile that blames these problems on migrants, Muslims or Fenians. This explains Nelson’s reactionary fantasies about Marxist cultural conspiracies. Yet the DUP have arguably damaged the Union more than any potential Irish Language Act. Their bigotry and intransigence have alienated large swathes of moderate Catholics, their flirtation with David Cameron and, now, relationship with Teresa May has underpinned ten years of austerity, while they currently facilitate a hard Brexit that the majority of people did not vote for.

The Dream Dearg campaign for an Irish Language Act re-emerged in late 2016 in response to a lack of progress on rights for Irish speakers generally (as indicated by a draft programme for Government which airbrushed Irish out of existence) coupled with brazen and openly biased decisions against the language; see Líofa grants, the renaming of boats and countless attacks on Irish-medium schools as examples.

The attempts to dismiss a wide cross-section of citizens and young people as mere ‘political activists’ (Arlene Foster, April 2017) or as tools in a ‘republican plot’ fails when faced by the reality of an organic community-led campaign, the largest for many years. Rather than a Machiavellian strategy, Sinn Féin with the SDLP, Alliance, GPNI and PBP (a majority of MLA’s) supported legislation partly in response to this campaign. Attempts to hide this movement behind reductionist narratives about Sinn Féin Red Lines, won’t alter the fact that systematic change is required, nor make those campaigning for such change disappear. No amount of propaganda will deflect autonomous grassroots movements from the task of creating a more progressive and equitable future.

Dr Fearghal Mac Bhioscaidh

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