Wednesday, 1 June 2011

Chicken and Egg

Much comment has surrounded the naming of Mary McArdle as special adviser to the new Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure, Carál Ní Chuilín. Ms McArdle served a prison sentence for her role in the death of a judge's daughter in a botched assassination attempt during the Troubles; her engagement has understandably been heavily criticised by Unionists.

While one can no doubt argue for and against the role of ex-prisoners in Northern Ireland politics generally, if one's central and overriding concern is the benefit of Irish Gaelic, it is difficult to see this specific appointment as anything other than ill advised, as it will render much more difficult the sort of diplomacy necessary to persuade Unionists to embrace the language and, one hopes, a language Act.

Reviewing an Alex Kane article published in the News Letter, Brian Walker comments that "Alex can't resist trying to hurt Sinn Fein back, a very human reaction to callous behaviour.", later stating that "Alex's reaction to the appointments is psychologically authentic on the unionist side."

As matters stand, therefore, it is likely that the best we can expect for Irish is half a policy, with one Minister's initiative thwarted or undone by another sitting at the same Executive table, and a stop-start game of musical chairs every four years as d'Hondt is run.

Interestingly, Alex Kane's article explicitly addresses the issue of language legislation.

"Caral Ni Chuilin, newly appointed to Culture, Arts and Leisure, says, "we are in a post-conflict situation and that's it," and then appoints convicted murderer Mary McArdle to help her push through an agenda which includes a more determined promotion of an Irish Language Act."

It is not too difficult to infer from the above that Mr. Kane views a language Act as part of the problem rather than the solution.

That it is surely the latter is shown by an article in today's Irish Independent, which quotes from a leaked cable detailing a private conversation between Gerry Adams and a senior American diplomat in April 2009.

"Adams warned that the lack of political progress on issues such as Irish language and education reform was angering the republican grassroots and could lead to more support for dissident activity."

Commenting on the special adviser's appointment, Brian Walker says:

"It is easy to make too much of Sinn Fein's strategic ability. They probably feel under some threat from the dissident appeal despite their electoral successes […]"

So Sinn Féin has given a special advisory role to Mary McArdle partly in order to placate grassroots anger at its lack of progress in achieving an Irish Language Act, despite the fact that her appointment will considerably reduce the chances of any legislation being passed. Leaving aside the obvious riposte that there is no guarantee that any diplomacy on the part of Nationalists or Republicans could ever persuade Unionists to accept a law protecting Irish, it is difficult not to feel despondent at this sectarian game of chicken and egg.

From modest beginnings, almost as a form of internal exile in the face of political frustration, the North's language movement has grown dramatically. Over the next few years it will be moving centre-stage as a Catholic majority draws ever closer. Unionist parties, including the civic Unionists of the Alliance, are mistaken if they believe that employment and housing legislation or a more representative police force have eliminated Nationalist grievances. To put it bluntly, that view is about 40 years out of date, and any arguments against a vastly enhanced role for the language have already been lost — not in the halls of Stormont but in Holyrood and Cardiff Bay. Promoting Irish should be much more acceptable to Unionists than promoting Mary McArdle; bizarrely, many people seem to believe that the two should offend, or enthuse, them equally.

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