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  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.