Saturday, 15 January 2011

Digging for Victory?

What is the Alliance playing at with its resistance to bilingual signage? After the vehement reaction from liberal Irish-language enthusiasts, one might have thought that its representatives would have stopped digging, yet the party shows no sign of moderating its opposition.

Some political commentators have suggested that the consultation recently launched by Conor Murphy is a ploy to distract attention from manifest failures over water; others that he is seeking to steal a trick on his fellow Nationalists in the SDLP in the forthcoming Assembly elections.

Of course, if one thinks about it, it becomes obvious that the consultation process on Irish and Scots signage must have been in gestation long before the Christmas water stoppages. The latter theory is more plausible, but ignores the fact that the Nationalist parties' reactions to Anna Lo's comments on the issue have been virtually identical. No surprise there, as the SDLP also introduced a language Bill in the Assembly.

If anything, it seems that it is the Alliance that is in election mode, planning to capitalise on the trickle of softish Unionists from the UUP in the hope that some at least of their voters will follow. That is short-sighted, since the party's doctrinaire opposition to any visible acknowledgement of existing diversity is just as likely to scare people off. Gaeilgeoirí are a notoriously dedicated bunch — known, for example, for deliberately choosing partners from among their own ranks in order to raise their children through the medium of the language. Needless to say, there was no way that someone who rated the Irish language as very or extremely important could have voted for the anti-Gaelic DUP or UUP. Sadly, the Alliance's foray into linguistic Gleichschaltung seems to narrowed their choices yet further.

Although the differences between them are much less important than in previous decades, the conventional narrative has it that there are two sorts of Nationalists in Northern Ireland. Part of the Alliance's argument against English-Irish signage is that it will reflexively be associated with one sort. Unfortunately, the party seems to have missed the reason why. Sinn Féin means 'Ourselves', i.e. that group of people who, if they don't get what they want, will go off and do their own thing anyway. At a time when Northern Ireland has more Gaelic-speakers than three-times-larger Scotland, when there are more children in Irish-medium education than ever before, and when those who acknowledge an Irish ethnic tradition are a majority in every age cohort under 30, if the state cannot even allow a transparently Irish name to appear in its original spelling on a road sign, no wonder the language is associated with that unilateral, DIY ethos.

Regrettably, it seems that the Alliance has decided to re-position itself as a secular Unionist party. Arguing that a piecemeal approach to English-Irish road signs will lead to ghettoisation is perfectly valid. But failing to back it up by arguing for universal bilingual signage means that it is not an argument, but a subterfuge.

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