They simply see Gaelic as something cultural and part of some ‘parity of esteem’.
However, this is to ignore its political context and role; the place of Gaelic in republican ideology and its political implications within the Northern Ireland.
Anyone familiar with serious Gaelic language enthusiasts will also know the battles they have had with republicans to avoid being taken over by them.
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Indeed, from the 1890s onwards there has been a Republican drive to infiltrate the Gaelic movement and hijack it for their own political purposes, diverting it from legitimate cultural and scholarly study.
This goes back to the nature of modern Irish nationalism — a polar opposite to the ideals of the United Irishmen. Modern nationalism adopted the late 18th century ideas of German Romanticism, which rejected the Enlightenment ideals on which the United Irish and modern Unionism are founded (science, reason, industry, liberal-democracy, internationalism and cosmopolitanism).
Enlightened ideals stressed breaking down barriers of religion, mysticism and language, for a single language and polity. This was not only functional to international trade and science (universal laws) but also helped break down social and linguistic barriers.
Thus it united different peoples’ and made it easier to spread knowledge and learning, science and the arts, so emancipating people from ignorance and enabling liberal-democracy to work.
Modern Irish nationalism emphasised the opposite: it extolled a closed world of local mysticism, and thus was anti-cosmopolitan, anti-science and industry (the source of Ulster’s economic success) and anti-liberal-democracy.
It regarded all modern progress and development as corrupt and corrupting of the ‘true’ Ireland, which they defined as Roman Catholic, peasant-farmer and above all — Gaelic speaking. Language, ie Gaelic, was of prime importance, to establish linguistic, economic, political, social and cultural barriers to the outside world (Sinn Fein — ourselves alone) and to attack an English speaking culture that championed the Enlightenment and its values.
Republican cultural and linguistic policy was thus an attack on the culture and identity of the English speaking Union; part of a process to manufacture division and separation. Yet Welsh and Cornish have not necessarily become part of such a process, even for their nationalists, and no one in their right mind in Scotland thinks of a Gaelic speaking Scotland again.
Meanwhile, in the Republic, Gaelic, part of its original project, has been quietly dropped at anything beyond a symbolic level, ie still trying to pretend separation from the UK. All the Republic’s attempts to implement nationalist ideology ended in abysmal failure, as tacitly admitted in the Whitaker Report (1958) on the Irish economy.
At any realistic level Irish nationalism, including Gaelic, has failed in practice, yet these are still the ideals and policies republicans pursue and wish to impose on everyone. Gaelic to them is not just a cultural interest, but part of a political campaign to sow division and discord and impose a narrow, parochial identity on everyone.
Economically Gaelic is useless and functional to only a small number of self-indulgent activists who will make an highly (tax payer) subsidised living out of translations no one really needs.
It will add economic costs to public and private services and increase social and economic costs in terms of increased sectarian divisions and duplication of services, which only republicans will benefit from.
I have every sympathy for the serious, scholarly study of Gaelic (which has been most useful to my own academic work). And what anyone wishes to do in their spare time in clubs and societies is purely their own affair, unless they try to impose it on the rest of society.
However, it is the use of Gaelic in public as part of a political strategy by republicans, to sow discord and adversity within Northern Ireland (to enable them to gain greater community control and funding) that must be resisted.
Theirs is also part of a strategy to increase separation from the rest of the UK, stressing difference and separation. On both counts it should be resisted.
Concurrently Unionists would be well advised to avoid going down the same route, ie of Ulster-Scots as a (of highly dubious provenance) language. This just increases the divisions and plays into republican hands.
Unionists should stress the richness and success of their shared cultural heritage within the UK, not least in science (where English is the universal language) and the arts (where all the great ‘Irish’ names wrote in English).
A single language not only unites, but in English we have the universal medium for modern knowledge, learning and progress, the very thing Irish nationalism always feared and resisted, yet is so successful for the rest of us.
Unionists must resist the divisive tactics of republicans and learn to defend the cultural values of liberal-democracy and language policies that unite rather than divide.
Already one can note how Gaelic street signs demarcate nationalists area and a creeping control by republicans over large sections of society, from which unionists (Catholic and Protestant) often feel excluded.
Thus unionists learn to feel alien in their own land, taken over by hostile forces, which encourages a migration of Unionists both within Northern Ireland and out of it as it undermines their sense of belonging and security.
Further, it deters inward investment and the kind of jobs that would provide the longer term employment economic security that will keep people here and give everyone a better future.
Finally, language policy must not be seen in itself, but as a part of a strategy of republican ‘salami slicing’ of small gains and concessions. Each, by itself, seems harmless and insignificant, but added up, over a period of time, amount to significant changes in the culture, environment and political imperatives that surround us.
Slowly unionist identity, social, cultural and political references and landmarks are removed, the environment and ethos of places dismantled for a slow republican take-over.
It is the continuing logic of PIRA’s ‘long-war strategy’ and TUAS (Tactical Use of the Armed Struggle). It’s now a cultural struggle, subtle and less overt, to replace unionist identities with nationalist ones until we just come to accept a nationalist understanding and view of our world. And unionists are sleep-walking into it.
• James Dingley is chair of Francis Hutcheson Institute