Monday, 17 October 2011
Do Unionist politicians understand what British means?
There was a furore in the Northern Ireland Assembly last week when SDLP MLA Dominic Bradley was censured following a spat involving the Irish language.
Bradley was in the process of asking a question in Irish (which he was going to translate to English), when he was interrupted by David McNarry of the UUP (you can read the transcript here).
McNarry is an extremist when it comes to Irish, having tried to ban the language in the Assembly a number of years ago.
Bradley objected to being barracked by McNarry, but instead of being allowed to carry on he was asked to sit down by the Deputy Speaker, Roy Beggs. He refused and was later sent a letter by the main Speaker, Willie Hay, saying he would be denied speaking rights for an unspecified period.
The sorry episode is another example of hostility to the Irish language among Unionist politicians. It shows that they oppose the language even when spoken by peaceful constitutional nationalists like the SDLP.
All bases are covered in Stormont when it comes to the language. If it's a few words of Irish at the start of a speech it's tokenism, if it's half in Irish and half in English it wastes time and if simultaneous translation was proposed that would be waste of money. The message is clear - no Irish speakers about the place.
Antipathy to the Irish language has been a feature of British politicians in Ireland since the Middle Ages, so this is not something new.
Various reasons are given by today's Unionist parties for their hostility to Irish, one of which is that it is a threat to Northern Ireland's Britishness, an argument that has been made by people in the DUP, UUP and TUV.
These parties' entire world view is defined by being British. They are British in the same way that Americans are American or Danes are Danish, yet many of them don't seem to understand what 'British' actually means.
British, by definition, incorporates cultures and characteristics that are indigenous to or have developed in the United Kingdom. We are told that it is an inclusive, 'umbrella' term which covers English, Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish identities. It allows people to be English and British, Scottish and British, Welsh and British etc.
The Unionist parties say that Northern Ireland is British, which is why they often have images of the six counties covered in the Union Jack, so that means that cultures indigenous to Northern Ireland are also British (this also holds for the rest of Ireland for people who use the term 'British Isles').
Scots and Welsh people complain that many in England use the word 'British' when what they really mean is English. It seems that many Unionist politicians in the North think the same too.
If they believe Northern Ireland is British, they have to accept that the Irish is a British language in the same way as Unionists in Scotland and Wales say their indigenous languages are. In fact, compared to the respect shown to Scottish Gaelic and Welsh in Britain, Unionist opposition to the Irish language is downright anti-British.
Of course, the above definition of Britishness is the de jure one. The de facto definition has been different - culturally and politically, Great Britain can often seem like Greater England.
In terms of language, one thing is clear, the Union has been a complete and utter disaster. Manx, Cornish, Channel Island French and Irish (in the parts of Ireland that remained in the UK) have been wiped out as community languages, Scottish Gaelic is at death's door, Scots has been ridiculed and marginalised while even Welsh is under severe pressure from English in its heartland.
The de facto definition of Britishness promoted in Britain and Ireland until recent decades was Englishness, essentially. Things have changed in Scotland and Wales, and some people in Northern Ireland like the UUP's Basil McCrea have too , but it's about time other Unionist politicians realised that English and British are not the same thing.