Michael Clifford: Use of language as a political football

Language is important when it comes to the politics of this island, traditions here and traditions in Northern Ireland place huge store on it, writes Michael Clifford

Michael Clifford: Use of language as a political football
Former Tyrone Footballer Sean Cavanagh sparked a storm of indignation on social media this week with his comments on the day-to-day reality of living on a divided island. Picture: RyanByrne INPHO

Poor Sean Cavanagh. There’s a line I never thought I’d be writing. 

The former Tyrone footballer ruined three September days for me in the 2000s with his power and skill. Off the field he comes across as articulate, confident and intelligent.

Poor Sean Cavanagh. He set off a storm last week with a throwaway comment that did nothing more than reflect the reality of this island. 

On an RTÉ sports podcast he was discussing lockdowns and restrictions that currently pertain, especially concerning Gaelic football. Then he came out with this:

“Certainly, up here in the UK, it’s a bit bizarre as well because we all probably are watching Leo and watching the GAA’s announcements and see ourselves as part of that, but equally in terms of the day to day living, we’re waiting on an announcement from Boris.” 

He might as well have suggested that the Blessed Tony Holohan should be hung, drawn and quartered as an enemy of the people.

Social media went into spasms of self righteous indignation. How dare anyone, not to mind an icon of Gaeilic games in the North, recognise the reality of international borders.

It mattered not that Cavanagh was talking in terms of laws and directions governing the jurisdictions in which he lives as they affected the lockdown. 

The North is in the UK but that is a truth that dare not speak its name in many quarters.

The fact that it was a Gaelic footballer from Tyrone, quite obviously not making a political point, who uttered the truth, mattered not to those perennially primed for spasms of self righteousness.

He had committed a cardinal linguistic sin against nationalist aspirations. While awaiting the reunification of the island, the current status must never be acknowledged.

If that wasn’t bad enough there was another blow from the Taoiseach of the so-called southern state.

Speaking to Pat Kenny a week ago about his party, Leo Varadkar said the following:

“We don’t have a lot of overseas members. We do have some overseas members though. We have members in Belfast, for example.” Oh-oh. 

Heading straight for John Bruton and “the fucking peace process” territory. Leo was putting clear, blue water between the country of which he is caretaker leader and the neighbouring jurisdiction. 

To be fair, that was a low blow, casting the nationalist population of the six counties off into the North Sea.

Sinn Féin assembly member Emma Sheerin took quick offence, accusing the Taoiseach of being “out of touch with people north and south at a time when people on the ground are struggling with the challenges of the Covid 19 crisis".

“His comments are bizarre and insulting to the nationalists in the north he pledged never to leave behind again and he should unreservedly withdraw them,” she said.

There is plenty to criticise in Mr Varadkar’s stewardship, and much to suggest that he may be out of touch with “ordinary people”, but all he did here was mistakenly suggest the north was overseas when it is over land.

In any event, he donned the sackcloth and ashes within days.

“My sincere apologises to anyone I offended,” he said. “I have crossed the land border dozens of times in my efforts to prevent a hard border and to bring both jurisdictions closer together.” 

Note his reference to the land border, just to clarify that he is aware there is no sea between the two jurisdictions.

Varadkar then went on the ‘sauce for the goose, sauce for the gander’ attack.

He pleaded that in the interest of goodwill could Shinners “stop referring to the state as the ‘South of Ireland’, ‘Free State’ or the ‘Southern State’. “Some find that offensive too and it is geographically incorrect, especially if you consider the location of Donegal,” he said.

See? if a Blueshirt can’t tell his rivers from his seas, then the Shinners don’t know how to use a compass.

Varadkar has a point. Shinners aspire to run the Republic of Ireland yet they can’t bring themselves to name the country their elected leaders represent.

For them, this long established and relatively stable democracy, with all its many flaws, is merely a work in progress. It will not be complete until it is once more reattached to the fourth green field.

What will Taoiseach Mary Lou McDonald do when she attends EU, or even UN, meetings? Will she cross her fingers under the table when she’s referred to as the leader of the Republic of Ireland?

Or will she stand up and point out that the Irish Republic, as proclaimed on the steps of the GPO, has not yet arrived and the country she represents is spiritually illegitimate?

What of the Shinners who follow association football? Do they stay silent when the chant is, “Ireland, Ireland, Republic of Ireland”. Or maybe they just stop halfway through and cross their hearts and hope to die.

When they do ascend to power in the Republic, perhaps the Shinners will undertake to have the state’s name changed to Aspiring Republic Of Ireland, or Not Our Republic, or some such term.

The other contentious word in the political lexicon of the island is ‘Republican’.

This has long been commandeered by Sinn Féin and those who support the party. They are “Republicans”. What exactly does this mean?

In the 1920s, it referenced those who were opposed to the Anglo Irish treaty largely on the basis of a requirement to pledge allegiance to the crown.

During the troubles it distinguished those who believed in killing for a united Ireland from those focused on pursing it through peaceful means, as nationalists did.

Today, apart from a lunatic fringe, there is no more killing. 

Is a Republican now somebody who aspires to a United Ireland through peaceful means? If so, most of the island is Republican. Who could be against a united island if it was to be achieved peacefully and in relative harmony?

Language is important when it comes to the politics of this island. Both traditions in the north place huge store on it. 

In particular, offence is embraced with enthusiasm. Some of this is understandable. The nationalist tradition believes, to a large extent, that they were abandoned to a sectarian state a century ago. 

One way or the other, things have moved on, particularly in the last two decades.

South of the border, the Republic of Ireland is a mature democracy, in which, like other similar countries, there are many socio economic problems.

Referencing it as if it remains a work in progress until Sinn Féin is in power in a 32-county jurisdiction is offensive. 

There is not a whit of evidence to suggest that the country will, when and if that day arrives, head off in a different direction.

In the meantime, mind your Ps and Qs, and remember, it’s only words.

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