Northern Ireland’s current language crisis

Northern Ireland language crisis

13 months of talks over power-sharing in Northern Ireland has come to a standstill over language.

The current cultural conflict in Northern Ireland, and, in particular, the argument over the status of its languages, is at the core of a political crisis regarding restoring the power-sharing assembly. The prospect of direct British rule from Westminster is returning after a decade.

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Northern Ireland’s devolved government collapsed a year ago when the then Deputy First Minister, the late Martin McGuinness of Sinn Féin, resigned in protest at the suspected abuse of a renewable energy scheme and massive devolved government overpayments to certain beneficiaries, with the apparent connivance of the Democratic Unionist (DUP) party.

Sinn Féin is an Irish political party that fundamentally believes the Irish should rule themselves as a united, socialist Republic independent of British rule. In short, it supports Irish nationalism. The DUP, on the other hand, was founded in 1971 by the controversial Free Presbyterian minister and politician Ian Paisley. It supports British influence and Ulster Protestant culture and fights against Irish nationalism. The two parties are by far the largest in the Northern Ireland Assembly, a power-sharing legislative body in Belfast.

The political landscape became more problematic when the DUP became kingmakers at Westminster following British Prime Minister Theresa May’s botched general election campaign, using their leverage to extract financial support. The ongoing uncertainty over what Brexit (the United Kingdom’s withdrawal from the European Union) will look like, particularly in terms of whether there will be a “hard” border across the island of Ireland, adds to the mix. The DUP supports Brexit, but the majority of people in Northern Ireland, and in the Republic of Ireland, oppose it.

Attempts to revive the power-sharing executive between nationalists and unionists have failed repeatedly, with the latest talks collapsing last Wednesday, February 14. Though all of the mentioned issues play a role, as does the controversy over same-sex marriage (opposed by the DUP, supported by Sinn Féin, and legal across the United Kingdom and Ireland except for Northern Ireland), the number one sticking point is, as usual, about cultural identity — specifically the status of the Irish language.

Irish language and politics

Irish is a Gaelic language that has been spoken in Ireland since Neolithic times, and pre-dates the emergence of English, and England, by a millennium. Even though the language is spoken by very few as a first language in Northern Ireland, it is considered an important hallmark of Irish identity by Sinn Féin. One march in Belfast in support of Irish language legislation drew a crowd of 5,000 last year.

The language was dominant across the province of Ulster (of which the area now called Northern Ireland forms a part) until the arrival of Protestant Anglo-Scots colonists in the 17th century. It was still spoken as a native language by substantial pockets of the population well into the 19th century, but is today largely spoken by people whose first language is English, the majority of whom are of Irish nationalist or Republican persuasion. Though teaching is available through the medium of Irish in some Northern Irish schools, the teaching of Irish generally is still relatively sparse in schools attended by those from a Catholic or Irish Nationalist background. It should also be added that recent governments in the Irish Republic have come under fire for their lack of support for the Irish language — something not unnoticed by the DUP.

Sinn Féin is campaigning for standalone legislation to protect and promote the use of the Irish language in Northern Ireland — it is the official first language of the Republic of Ireland. Their argument is that there should be a similar arrangement as for other devolved administrations in the UK — Wales has an act for the Welsh language, as does Scotland for the Scottish Gaelic language (a descendant of Irish Gaelic), so why should Irish Gaelic be treated differently?

For the DUP, the proposed Irish language act is perceived as a threat to their own sense of British identity. They argue that any such legislation would give Irish an elevated status, awarding cultural supremacy to (mainly nationalist/Republican) Irish speakers and undermining the “Britishness” of Northern Ireland. The DUP, when in power in 2016, changed the name of a fisheries boat from Irish to English, and withdrew funding for Irish courses for children in the Donegal Gaeltacht (the Irish-speaking areas of County Donegal, one of the Ulster counties in the Irish Republic). Seemingly petty acts such as these caused outrage among Irish language speakers.

There had been some hope that a deal had been struck at the political talks, with what seemed to be an agreement reached that three language acts would be introduced — one for Irish, one for Ulster Scots (really a dialect of English which nobody speaks now, but which some Unionists see as a mark of cultural identity), and a third overall piece of legislation designed to make concessions to both parties.

The arrival of Theresa May and Irish Taoiseach (Prime Minister) Leo Varadkar in Belfast on February 12, 2018, usually a sign that a deal had been agreed, was not enough to prevent the DUP from pulling out of negotiations. No explanation was given for the withdrawal, but it is likely that a leak of the proposed arrangements led to an angry reaction among some DUP politicians and supporters, causing the leadership to rethink their stance on what they had apparently agreed.

Should direct rule be imposed, the knock-on effects could be problematic for the British government — issues such as same-sex marriage, abortion and others could prove to be political dynamite, threatening to bring down Theresa May’s minority Conservative government if the DUP feels compelled to withdraw its support. However, the DUP’s antipathy towards the Republican-sympathetic leadership of the opposition Labour Party might be enough to stop this happening.

The political paralysis, in large part down to the language issue, has once again illustrated the bald fact that the centuries-old cultural war is no less a problem now than it was when Northern Ireland was created in 1920. The central plank of the 1998 peace agreement, which promised “parity of esteem” for both cultural traditions in Northern Ireland, seems to have been left by the wayside. With a return to the hard-won power-sharing arrangement looking as far away as ever, and with the Good Friday peace agreement of 1998 once again under strain, this latest political crisis serves to emphasize the way in which the issue of language can be weaponized.

Thomas Gilmartin
Thomas Gilmartin is a freelance writer with a degree in history, a master's in international relations and law degree from King's College London. He worked for several years at a high-profile anti-corruption tribunal in Dublin.


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