Irish-language dispute is just an excuse not to talk to the other side

A tribe derives its identity not just from its own culture, but from opposing the culture of the other, writes Fergus Finlay 

Irish-language dispute is just an excuse not to talk to the other side

OF COURSE, I want a powersharing government re-formed in Northern Ireland. But has anything ever really changed? Scratch a nationalist in Northern Ireland and green blood flows. Scratch a unionist, and orange does. The tribal divisions are as deep as ever.

David Ervine, an ardent and committed loyalist, once said to me that he completely respected my pride in being Irish and feeling Irish. But, he added, “if the price of that is that I’m supposed to feel less British, that’s a price I’m not prepared to pay”.

It was a remark that has stuck with me. Our conversation took place in the context of the development of the Downing Street Declaration almost a quarter of a century ago. The loyalists in Northern Ireland made a significant input to the document, and Ervine and his colleagues drafted some of the language in it. They subsequently, and unambiguously, declared a ceasefire on the basis of the declaration, and they never broke it.

The document itself quotes then British prime minister, John Major, as referring to the need to “reach agreement on how (the people of Ireland and Northern Ireland) they may live together in harmony and in partnership, with respect for their diverse traditions”. Taoiseach Albert Reynolds said in the same document that any agreement must “respect the democratic dignity, and the civil rights and religious liberties of both communities”.

Where is any of that to be found in the current impasse? After a quarter of a century of talking to each other, how have we gotten to a point where the single biggest obstacle to an agreement on power-sharing is the Irish language?

The answer is to be found in the rules of tribal politics. The rules are simple. Anything that’s acceptable to the other side is, by definition, not acceptable to mine. Everything is about victory, never about compromise. What makes you feel better makes me feel worse. Or, to go back to David Ervine, I can only feel more Irish if I can make you feel less British.

There is no other democracy in the world where it wouldn’t be possible to work out an agreement about a minority language. Only in Northern Ireland could a row about Irish undermine the attempt to form a government. In every other democracy that has minority languages, there’s legislation somewhere that supports it — but it never features high on anyone’s agenda.

Of course, we’ve always had a troubled relationship with our native tongue. My Irish is appalling, and I’ve never denied that. Like most of us, I guess, I’d love to have a bit more. And I certainly don’t, and wouldn’t, begrudge efforts to promote it.

But it is, undeniably, a minority language. In Northern Ireland, it’s not even the language of the minority. I have no idea how many Sinn Féin TDs. MLAs, and MPs have fluent Irish, but its use is not especially widespread among the people they represent.

What is widespread is disillusion — about the economy, about health services, about cutbacks generally, and, of course, about Brexit and what it might bring. Wouldn’t it be really absurd if a hard Brexit, arrived at without any meaningful input from a Northern Ireland government, resulted in a virtual wall around Northern Ireland?

But inside that wall, if one tribe wins, the future of the Irish language would be protected in some way, while economic and social conditions fell apart. What absolute nonsense that would be.

In a sense, of course, it’s not really about the language. Tribal politics will always seize on something. That’s because a tribe derives its identity in essence not just from its own culture, but from opposing the culture of the other.

But it is mind-boggling that the mature, grown-up leaders of unionism can only see the Irish language in terms of defeat or victory. When, 25 years ago, the loyalists submitted a set of principles that they cared about to both governments, and got them into the Downing Street Declaration, these included: the right of free political thought; the right of freedom and expression of religion; the right to pursue democratically national and political aspirations; the right to seek constitutional change by peaceful and legitimate means; the right to live wherever one chooses without hindrance; and the right to equal opportunity in all social and economic activity, regardless of class, creed, sex, or colour.

They were the things that mattered then, in terms of principle. How anyone could object to the additional right to have one’s chosen language respected and supported, in a modern democracy, is beyond belief.

Nobody is seeking to make Irish the primary language of Northern Ireland, and everyone knows what an absurd proposition that is. We might have chosen, in this jurisdiction, to declare Irish the first official language, but I don’t know anyone who regards the application of that constitutional principle as representing grounds for oppression.

So, isn’t it the truth that there is simply nothing mature or grown-up about the unionist decision to simply walk out of talks over an issue like that? Doesn’t it really mean that they see the Irish language as some kind of token that will be used to wave triumphalist flags at them?

But there’s nothing remotely mature, either, about the way in which Mary Lou McDonald wraps the tribalist flag around herself. When she chose to end her very first speech as Sinn Féin leader with the phrase “Tiocfaidh ár lá”, she would have known full well how much that would grate with some, at least, of her audience.

BUT that’s one of the other rules about tribalism. We always talk to our own, and listen to our own. It is only when we are satisfied that our tribe members are happy to let us do it that we even attempt to talk to the other tribe. And, of course, breaking out beyond the tribe is not an easy or rewarding thing to do.

The careers of John Hume, Seamus Mallon, and even David Trimble, and the position of the political parties they led, are testament to that. Gerry Adams, on the other hand, only ever had one audience in mind when he spoke — his own.

That was his great strength as a leader, but also his terrible weakness, when it came to putting down unbreakable structures of democratic government.

This latest row — essentially about nothing at all — proves one thing. If the rules of tribalism can’t be broken — or can’t occasionally be replaced by acts of generosity — the conflict in Norther Ireland is never going to end. It is always going to run up against some impassable wall or another.

Everyone who has ever been involved in genuine peace-making knows that removing violence is only a first step. It’s easy to make peace with your friends, harder with your enemies, and hardest of all, it seems, with those who aren’t of your tribe.

More in this section

Puzzles logo

Puzzles hub

logo podcast

War of Independence Podcast

A special four-part series hosted by Mick Clifford

Available on

IE logo

Commemorating 100 years since the War of Independence

News Wrap

A lunchtime summary of content highlights on the Irish Examiner website. Delivered at 1pm each day.

Sign up

Some of the best bits from direct to your inbox every Monday.

Sign up
Execution Time: 0.237 s