Wednesday 27 May 2009

UCUNF and the Irish language

The UUP have traditionally been opposed to all manifestations of the Irish language in Northern Ireland. On occasions this opposition has been clearly motivated just by anti-Irish bigotry, and on occasion it has been dressed up in 'rational' concern about the cost of providing services.

David McNarry MLA epitomises the 'naked bigotry' approach:

"I beg to move

That this Assembly reaffirms its support for the recognition given to the Irish language and Ulster-Scots culture through Foras na Gaeilge and Tha Boord o Ulstèr-Scotch as an equitable framework for the expression of these linguistic and cultural traditions; objects to the proposal for an Irish language Act in light of these arrangements; and calls on the First Minister and deputy First Minister to request all members of the Executive Committee to recognise the sensitivities of using the Irish language by refraining from its use in the Assembly Chamber, in Committees and in written communication with MLAs.

Not content simply to try to ban it from the Assembly, the UUP MEP Jim Nicholson tried to block its adoption by the EU as a full official language:

UUP hits out at EU upgrade for Irish language (23/06/2005)

Ulster Unionist Party MEP Jim Nicholson has hit out at the decision to upgrade the Irish language to official EU status, branding the decision "a purely political campaign".

"It will only serve to overburden a linguistic regime, which is already struggling to cope with 20 official languages," he said, criticising the British government's backing for the measure.

"We have got to question the (British) government's priorities in investing moral and financial support in the promotion of the Irish language at a time when budget constraints are being felt in public sector areas such as health and education," he said.

Sinn Féin MEP Barbara De Brún became the first MEP to address the European Parliament in Irish since it became an official language of the EU.

The 'rational approach' is followed, amongst others, by UUP MLA Tom Elliott:

"Waste of money in provision of Irish language schools (17/11/2008)

Ulster Unionist MLA Tom Elliott has raised his concern over figures released by the Department of Education this week in relation to funding in Irish language schools.

In a question to the Minister of Education, Caitriona Ruane Mr Elliott had asked her to detail the average amount spent per primary seven pupil in an Irish language school and in a school within the controlled sector during the 2007-2008 school year.

In her response the Minister revealed that as an emerging sector, 'Irish medium schools have additional costs associated with their particular type of provision'. Overall the answer detailed that average £2,509 was spent per primary seven pupil in the controlled sector while £3,025 was spent on those in Irish-medium schools.

Commenting on the funding difference Mr Elliott said: "If you look at this as an isolated figure it does not seem too bad - only a difference of £516. However if you put it into realistic terms and look at it in terms of even 100 pupils then this is a difference of £51,600, or 1,000 pupils this is a difference of £516,000 - this is a considerable amount of money when put in context."

"Looking at this difference I once again echo my parties belief that there is no requirement for Irish Medium schools with the subject easily incorporated into mainstream schools without the additional costings of a separate school."

However, since the UUP-Tory Party common-law marriage has taken effect, a slight moderation in the position has begun to appear. Where previously no UUP member would countenance any support for Irish, on the fringes of the party (in its limited blogosphere) there are signs of change. Although the unionist bloggers represent only themselves, they may also be more representative of the younger element entering the UUP, or at least entering UCUNF.

Fermanagh Tory Seymour Major, for example, has recently completed a long investigation into the Irish language, and has arrived at these conclusions:

"In principle, the Irish Language should be nurtured so that it has the best chance to flourish within the Protestant community and eventually become a unifying rather than dividing (sectarian) symbol

(6) If the Irish Language Act can be transformed into a non-divisive and Unifying symbol for Northern Ireland, the costs of implementing promotion proposals under (8) below will actually save money indirectly in the longer run.

(7) To take no further action legislatively would be as divisive as the SDLP proposal.

(8) An Irish Language Act is recommended which would

(a) Be similar to the Scottish Act of 2005 in the sense of appointing a Board to devise a plan and strategy for promotion of the Irish Language. The Board would be required to consider the terms stated in the Belfast Agreement.

(b) Not have the same stated aspiration in the pre-amble of the Scottish Act (i.e. having a view to giving the language official status in the future). Instead, a pre-amble would be less committed. (See above under “Constitutional rights and Identity”)

(c) Place an obligation to facilitate the teaching of Irish in all Northern Ireland schools without it being made compulsory."

Even a traditional UUP member like the anonymous 'Chekov' of Three Thousand Versts is less than fully negative:

"I am sceptical about the need for many of the things to which the various Irish language lobbies aspire and there are other suggestions, made by language enthusiasts, which I would categorically oppose. I am not convinced, for instance, that an Irish Language Act is required, although I would not necessarily oppose one which took the Scottish model as its basis."

And even in the Assembly, some UUP members have been able to discuss the Irish language without feeling the need to inject the previously-obligatory condemnation:

"Coulter reveals cost of Irish language translation (26/05/2009)

Rev Dr Robert Coulter, the Ulster Unionist Party Assembly member for North Antrim and UUP Stormont Commissioner, has revealed more than £1,200 of taxpayers' money has had to be spent by the Assembly on Irish language translation services.

Dr Coulter was responding to a question in the Stormont Chamber from his party colleague David McNarry from Strangford during oral questions to the Assembly Commission.

Dr Coulter said: "To date, £1,270.38 has been spent on the translation of Assembly publications into the Irish language through our existing print contract.

As far as future costs are concerned, the print contract for the Assembly is out to tender and is due to be awarded during the summer recess.

Allied to the main printing requirements that are covered by the contract, there will be a requirement for a number of associated services, of which written translation will be one. Definitive costs at present are not available as those will be based on the demand for such a facility.

Quite telling in this exchange was the fact that the costs of Irish language translations were so low, calling into question the 'rational' argument against the language.

And earlier this year, a UUP Mayor actually participated in a launch of an Irish language survey in Moyle district:

"Déardaoin 12 Márta [2009] beidh an Comhairleoir Willy Graham, Cathaoirleach Aontachtach ar Comhairle na Maoile, beidh sé ag seoladh suirbhé ar dhearcadh an phobail i dtuaisceart Aontroma i leith na Gaeilge.
Beidh an ócáid ag titim amach i bParlús an Ard Mheara i mBaile a’ Chaistil ar 7.30in."

What this seems to indicate is that, without yet making any fuss about it, the UUP is softening their position on Irish. At the time of the UUP-Tory linkup there was considerable talking up of the prospects for 'non-sectarian' politics, and the prospect of attracting votes from previously non-unionist voters.

Although most Irish speakers and Irish language enthusiasts tend to be nationalists, they are not, of course, all republicans. Unionist antipathy and bigotry has pushed supporters of Irish closer to the SDLP and Sinn Féin, but it may have become apparent to the strategists of UCUNF that this was, in many cases, a reaction to unionist antipathy. Remove the antipathy, and possibilities open up. Many Irish language enthusiasts actually dislike the way that Sinn Féin has (mis-)used the language, but dislike outright bigotry against their language even more.

It is possible, therefore, that UCUNF – largely through its Tory input, in all likelihood – has made a strategic decision to abandon the traditional unionist antipathy towards Irish. By doing so, it may be seeking, if not yet the votes, at least the transfers of 'moderate' nationalists. The European Parliament election is too soon for such a strategy to have any impact, and in the up-coming Westminster election transfers do not occur, but in 2011 there will be two significant elections in which UCUNF will be fighting for every possible transfer, in order to maximise its seats in the Assembly and on the new local councils. If, as widely expected, the Tories win the up-coming Westminster election, then the new Secretary of State will be a member of UCUNF, and in a position to use his or her powers to push through 'Irish-friendly' measures, perhaps in the area of broadcasting.

This blog will be watching closely to see if the 'green shoots' of linguistic sensitivity really do appear, or if they turn out to be false hopes.

The related area of sport, and specifically concerning the UCUNF attitude towards the GAA, similar moves would have to be made if the partnership hopes to receive any significant transfers from SDLP supporters. This will also be watched as the GAA season really gets under way. If senior members of UCUNF are seen to attend GAA matches – in a complete reversal of past behaviour ­– then it will be clear that change has started.


hoboroad said...

Good post keep up the good work

dub said...

i think a ucunf member... ie earl storey.. attended the derry monaghan match in celtic park in derry the other day and in fact was involved in some kind of blessing of the new stand there. he also made some very warm comments about the gaa. i believe he is a c of i reverend. so you seem to be onto something here.

Horseman said...

That's interesting, dub, thanks.

Did you read Frank McNally's account of that game in the Irish Times? Quite funny (but then he is sually one of the wittiest journalists on the scene at present).

Seymour Major said...


Firstly, this is an excellect contribution to this issue.

If some Grand Strategy has been or is being devised behind the scenes which includes elevating the Irish Language beyond sectarianism, I am not aware of it.

What you will find amongst conservatives is that this kind of initiative would be driven just as much from the heart as from the head. It fits in with our vision of how the Union should be - one of embracing cultural diversity.

As the French would say,
"Vive la différence"

Anonymous said...

Are we witnessing moderate unionism stealing the Alliance party clothes?
Has unionism woken up to the potential time bomb as described here?
Will these moderate unionists become "more Irish than the Irish themselves" eventually as with earlier plantations or will their present aim prevail in the long run?
What do you think Horseman?


Horseman said...


I certainly think that there are some within unionism who aspire towards civic rather than tribal unionism. But there always have been such people, and they have always believed that their day was about to come. This is just the umpteenth false dawn.

I think, though, that some within unionism are waking up to the demographic change, but very few have an answer to it. Oddly enough, some think that the way to deal with an increasing nationalist population is to try to pretend that NI is even more 'British' than before. They'll be an interesting footnote in future history books.

The clever ones (few, I admit) are those who are starting to accept that they are in Ireland, and that they must connect better with their fellow Irishmen and women. There will be some strain between these ones and the 'civic' unionists (who are, in many cases, just 'nayce' tribalists), because the ultimate aim has to be peace, reconciliation, integration, economic advance, social and cultural strength, environmental rotection, etc, etc. And you cannot do that if you pretend that NI is an island - you have, eventually, to accept that it is part of a larger whole. The 'civics' (aka UCUNF) try to pretend that that whole is the UK, whilst geography tells us that they are wrong (and thus shows them up as tribalists).

Post-tribal unionists would, frankly, not be as 'unionist' as UCUNF. Nor even as blinkered as Alliance. So far, they have no political vehicle, and probably never will, so they will (as before) in VERY small numbers make their way over to nationalism. Nationalism's challenge is to find a way to ease that transition so that more can make the switch.

hoboroad said...

I think you will see more people of a Unionist background start to assert there irishness as the DUP get more and more strident.Some Unionists seen themselves as respectable people and the DUP can be seen as moneygrabbing philistines who let the side down.

Anonymous said...

Has unionism in any of its incarnations ever owned up and accepted responsibility for the creation and running of the "protestant state for the protestant people" and the "cold house" for nationalists that resulted?
To my mind as an "easterner" surely this would be a starting point for reconciliation whereby the wrongs perpetrated by all sides could be forgiven leading to a new dawn for the people of Ireland. I think the New Ireland Forum was an attempt at this? but to my mind to succeed the impetus would have to come from within the unionist community.
Are there any signs of this within Unionism? or are all their energies used up in negativity (against nationalism and against themselves which it seems to me from down here is more vitriolic)
How can we, as nationalists, facilitate this?


hoboroad said...

Do not hold your breath on that one anon.Unionists do not say sorry.

Seymour Major said...

Anonymous (the latest one),

That is an interesting comment. You may recall that Tony Blair apologised for the Potatoe Famine in 2002. I recall the Pope apologising for the Catholic treatment of Galileo and the Archbishop of Canterbury recently apologising for the attitude of his predecessors towards Charles Darwin. What you are suggesting is not certainly not unprecedented. Taking responsibility for a past event of a predecessor is a way of helping to heal the wounds of communal history.

The Northern Ireland Government of 1921-1972 was not the only party at fault in the treatment of the Catholics. The UK Government was certainly at fault for neglecting Northern Ireland. I think you will find that soon (I cant say when) you will find a UK Prime Minister apologising for what happened in that period. I hope that turns out to be David Cameron.

It may take a bit longer for somebody from the UUP to say something similar (I hope not)but I am confident that will also happen one day.

Seymour Major said...

Further to my last comment, I meant to mention one further point. I may be a unionist but, at the risk of stating political heresy, I dont see that as the most important political thing for the people in Northern Ireland.

Our aim should be to make NI a better place for our children so that they can enjoy and identify with people from all communities in Northern Ireland.

In other words, it is important that NI does build its own identity separate from the UK and separate from ROI so that if the population wants to become part of a United Ireland or to remain in the UK, that they move forward together.

It is just possible that there are Nationalist out there that have reached a similar vision for Northern Ireland. I hope so.

Horseman said...

Sorry, Seymour, but on that last point I fundamentally disagree. There is no reason whatsoever why one should want a separate identity for NI, unless you are peddling a version of 'ulster nationalism'.

As NI moves closer to reunification it would be both natural and beneficial for the border to fade to insignificance - not to be resurrected as a 'cultural border' within a united country.

In other words, people in NI should move closer to the rest of the country. But if there is a group (unionists) who do not wish to, well that's their choice. They will shrink in numbers and will eventually integrate - it will just take them longer.

It sounds to me that you are trying to co-opt northern nationalists into a laager of separateness as reunification approaches. That is a purely unionist place to be, and nationalists should have nothing to do with it.

Yes, let's make NI a better place for all (not just the kids), but one very beneficial thing in this respect is for NI to take its natural place on the island. For this unionists have to just get over their border obsession. People in NI should be able to play a full and equal part in the life of the country (or nation, as I would see it) without unionists constantly trying to block, stall, disrupt, sneer, ignore, oppose, fight, or look down on them. Unionists have to play their part on the island as equals - if they really think that interacting with the rest of us is going to weaken their arguments for the 'union' then surely those arguments must be mighty weak.

Seymour Major said...

With all due respect Horseman, that separate identity is building already, despite the political discourse. The more harmony you create, the stronger that identity becomes. I would suggest that is far more "natural" than the vision you are putting forward.

The vision is not, either, a version of Ulster Nationalism. That is a quite distinct label which, if you consider the points made by Chekov is really the preserve of the DUP.

The third identity scenario would bring NI much nearer to the position of Wales and Scotland. A policy which brings this about is entirely consistent with Unionism.

As to the Culteral Border, you have it the wrong way around. The Cultural border is there now and it is very stark. It would still be that way if there was a referendum tomorrow which the Nationalists won and it would not solve Northern Ireland's conflict. Anybody who thinks that the old Unionist mentality is going to just melt away under such a scenario is utterly naive.

The third Identity IS the best way forward for NI. A society that is relaxed about its relationship with both the UK and ROI can be beneficial not only to itself but also to both the UK and ROI and it will become prosperous.

You have also got to bear in mind that within a generation, political thinking will have moved on in all the countries outside Northern Ireland. People within it, meanwhile, will be able to buy into that provided they can become less inward looking more relaxed about themsevles. As a new super-identity builds in Europe, the border question and sovereignty will then become less relevant in importance.

I'm sorry if I am ranting on a bit here. Perhaps it will be better if I develop this theme in my posts.

Anonymous said...

Obviously you are a nayce unionist but when push comes to shove you still retreat within the walls of Derry. You should stay "outside" a little bit longer and enjoy our company. We aint half bad really when you get to know us. Céad míle fáilte and all that.


dub said...


how on earth can people in the north become less inward looking and develop a brand new national identity at the same time?

a local ulster pride, yes indeed. what cultural border are you talking about/ the one that starts at banbridge and snakes its way round to that delightful coleraine place?

. Anybody who thinks that the old Unionist mentality is going to just melt away under such a scenario is utterly naive.

ah yes, so because the dear old bigots will not move on irish nationalists in the north will just have to pretend to be the same nationality as them which is what? ulster boorish neanderthal hate irish hate catholics hate english. yeah that's really going to work isn't it?

this new identity is well advanced in GAWA aka ni football. its a kind of watered down we are the people loyalism with a dash of irishness thrown in. you might have noticed that it is explicitly anti irish nationalist and also that no and i repeat no nationaists whatsoever are buying it.

Anonymous said...


From the heart, Well said.

hoboroad said...

What ever happened to Love ulster hate 44 percent of the people who live there.One wee march in Dublin and they disappear Willie Frazier could always back winners.

hoboroad said...

Seymour Major were do you stand on extending the 1967 Abortion Act to Northern Ireland?It exists in England Scotland and Wales.Why not Northern Ireland?I think David Cameron would be all for it.Or do some British laws exist only on the mainland?

hoboroad said...

Did John Taylor once joke about handing South Armagh to Dublin in exchange for a nice part of Donegal?

hoboroad said...

How many members of UCUNF are openly gay?We all know there have been Gay Unionist mps in the past.Could David Cameron use Northern Ireland as some sort of testing ground for gay English Tories.What about black or asians standing for the Tories.

hoboroad said...

What about Jewish or Muslim people running on a UCUNF party ticket?Or a Catholic Unionist englishman like Charles Moore of the Daily Telegraph did not one of his relatives once run on a Ulster Liberal Party ticket back in the 1960's?

hoboroad said...

Did Jeremy Hanley not speak a few words of Irish to some Irish speakers lobby group in the early 1990's.I think it was at Rathgael House in Bangor the Department of Education HQ.

TyroneAndy said...

Interesting to see comments like "they (Unionists)must connect better with their fellow Irishmen and women." Don't see too many efforts from the nationalist \ republican posters on this blog to make much effort to connect with their Unionist fellow-Ulstermen (scary word for this blog, eh?), other than to retreat to stereotyped images of Unionism and Unionists as tribalists and bigots who just need to wake up and recognise they're wrong. Doesn't look much like constructive engagement in my book.