Grafitti calling for an Irish Language Act. Image, BBC, fair use.
Sometimes, the best way to understand the shape of a specific nationalism is to look at its more liberal adherents. The bellicose blusterings of flag-wavers are roughly similar in each country: you can try to distinguish between your Nigel Farages, Donald Trumps, Modis and Erdogans, but the heat at the surface can make it harder to delve into the depths of national meaning.
What’s often more interesting is the bits of a hegemonic nationalism that are so embedded that even those who blush at words like ‘nationalist’ will repeat them in what they think is a calm, ‘rational’ tone. And it’s with that in mind that we should turn to the Guardian’s editorial page.
For context, the Northern Irish Assembly collapsed more than a year ago under the pressure of a DUP financial scandal and the broad crisis of Brexit. This week, Theresa May and Leo Varadkar, the Irish Taoiseach, went to Belfast hoping to secure a deal to reassemble the Assembly. One of the key stumbling blocks was that the DUP was unwilling to sign up to an Irish Language Act.
There is much more to be said about what’s really going on in this process, and the various motivations of the many parties to the negotiations. But set those aside for a moment. Because it was in this context that the Guardian published an editorial under the headline: “The Guardian view on Northern Ireland talks collapsing: the lost language of power-sharing”, which included this paragraph:
“The darker truth here is that Sinn Féin has chosen to weaponise the language question for political ends, less to protect a minority than to antagonise unionists. Unionists have duly been antagonised. The Gaelic language is the main tongue of a mere 0.2% of the Northern Ireland population. Around 10% claim to understand it to some degree (perhaps just a few phrases). But Sinn Féin does not do things accidentally. Its proposals have become a weapon of tribalism in communities where identity politics always looms large and divisively. Fears that Irish may be made compulsory in schools, that a language qualification might become a job requirement and that street signs would be made bilingual are not all well grounded. But some are. Bilingual road signs, for instance, would take the issue into every street in Northern Ireland, with pointless provocative effect.”
There are a few details the Guardian seem to have forgotten here. An Act to protect the Irish language isn’t just some wheeze concocted by Sinn Fein to troll the Orange Order. The 2006 St Andrews Agreement required the British government to ensure such an Act was passed, and, as the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission points out, “the Northern Ireland (St Andrews Agreement) Act 2006 introduced a statutory duty on the Northern Ireland Executive to adopt strategies to ‘enhance and protect the development of the Irish language’ and to ‘enhance and develop the Ulster Scots language, heritage and culture’”.
“All of these commitments are” the Commission notes “awaiting implementation.”
As well as having the backing of the human rights commission, the proposed Irish Language Act is also supported by all three cross-community parties represented in the Assembly – the Greens, Alliance (the Northern Irish sister party of the Lib Dems) and People Before Profit.
Then there’s the reason that this issue re-emerged: it flared up when DUP communities minister Paul Givan slashed funding for the Irish language in December 2016, in what looked like an effort to distract from the controversial Renewable Heat Incentive scheme. But, according to the Guardian, it’s Sinn Fein who are “weaponising the language for political ends”.
Then, of course, there’s the matter of the European Charter on Minority Languages, under which Britain is supposed to be protecting the Irish language in Northern Ireland.
But all of that is detail. The real point here is this.
The lack of people speaking Irish in Northern Ireland isn’t just the result of the inevitable supremacy of English. It’s the product of brutality over centuries – from the plantations to Cromwell’s mass murder to the 1831 Education Act, with which British colonists forced Irish people to learn in English rather than their native tongue; to the violence of the famine and the vast exodus it triggered; to the oppression of Catholic communities which triggered the civil rights movement in the 1960s.
Looked at over centuries, the decline of the Irish language is best understood as a product of what Tomás Mac Síomóin, among others, describe as the cultural genocide of Ireland.
It is in this context that we should look again at that Guardian editorial: where it deplores moves to revive a language as divisive, because the elimination of it has been so successful that only a few thousand people in the North still speak it; where the victims of this oppression are dismissed as ‘tribal’, while the hatred of those who detest diversity goes unchallenged.
Of course the Irish language is political: it’s always political for marginalised minorities to express themselves. It’s always political to defend diversity in the face of those who demand a monochrome society.
But in its rush to parrot the lines of the DUP, what the Guardian misses is a fascinating trend: what we see now bubbling into the most precarious bit of Britain’s high politics is a long term, underlying trope deep within the psyche of Britishness.
We’ve become familiar with it in Scotland too, where increasingly panicked British nationalists are becoming ever more obsessed with laughing at or complaining about Gaelic and Scots tongues, moaning about the invented costs of adding place names in different languages to road signs, and endlessly claiming that “Gaelic was never spoken here” about places whose names are clearly derived from Gaelic words (for the record, Gaelic was spoken almost everywhere in Scotland at some time or another). While legislation defending Gaelic and Scots was brought in by the previous Labour/Lib Dem Executive, it’s often attacked as an SNP and nationalist project.
And of course, it’s a trope with which many in Wales and Cornwall and among Britain’s Gypsy and traveller communities are familiar.
This tells us a number of vital things.
Anglonormativity hasn’t gone anywhere. The fact that the Guardian allowed someone to write such nonsense under the paper’s own byline shows that even Britain’s most progressive mainstream newspaper is unwilling to do the deep work of decolonising its soul. Those who hoped Britain would be able to reinvent itself as a pluralinational polity seem have been deluding themselves.
In fact, it seems like Englishness and Britishness are, for many, merging more than ever as Anglo-British nationalism seems to be swallowing Unionism. To understand this distinction, it’s important to understand that the Unionist party manifesto in Scotland in 1951 spent much of its time making clear that it was the party which defended Scotland’s place as its own nation within a union of equals, where Labour was the party of the British state and the SNP the party of independence.
Unionism in Scotland was represented by Tory lawyers defending Scotland’s separate legal system whilst happily waving a union flag, middle class teachers defending Scotland’s distinct education system within the UK, and the clergy defending the autonomy of the Church of Scotland under the broad umbrella of the British state. Historically, Welsh Tories and Welsh Labour were as happy to speak in Welsh as were Plaid Cymru members.
In Northern Ireland, the arch unionist the Rev Dr Ian Paisley described himself as both Irish and British: his unionism meant that for him, those were complementary identities.
But as the deep crisis of the British state unfolds, it seems that the acceptance of national pluralism which has ebbed and flowed in the 300 year history of the UK is on the wane. Instead, it is being replaced by the reassertion of Englishness as Britishness; the demand for conformity around the dominant culture within the union, rather than the construction of each separate national identity as equally British.
Demands for linguistic conformity are, like all attacks on freedom of speech, a sign of fear. And if this is anything to go by, Anglo-British nationalists are very worried indeed.
When languages die, every poem ever written in them goes, every song sung in them loses its meaning, a whole understanding of the world is snuffed out.
Whilst the Irish language – with its own state – is unlikely to disappear anytime soon, the existence of the language in the north represents a cultural diversity whose value can never be measured with the tools of a capitalist society: it’s no coincidence that across the world, there is a direct and close correlation between language diversity and biodiversity. And just as game-keepers kill wildlife because they fear competition, colonists always do what they can to purge indigenous languages, because diversity threatens their power.
And when Britain’s most progressive newspaper joins in with that process, it tells us that Anglo-British nationalism feels like it’s facing deep threats.
But perhaps we already knew that.