Thursday, 13 October 2011

Goodwill to All Men

The News Letter reports that a motion from Nationalist members of Belfast City Council in favour of Irish-language Christmas banners has been rejected by 25 votes to 20. Although the initial Sinn Féin proposal only concerned Irish, after an SDLP amendment the plan would also have seen Ulster Scots included. Máirtín Ó Muilleoir's take on events is here.

Apart from the fact that, once again, Unionists have shown their antipathy towards Irish to be greater than their love of Ulster Scots, one is struck by the sheer range of instances where a public presence for the Irish language has now been rejected. The tale is also remarkable for the stance of the Alliance Party, which has sided with the Unionists and in the process underlined Northern Ireland's status as "a place apart". It is, after all, hard to imagine fellow liberals in Scotland, with their strong Highland representation (at least at Westminster) taking a similar hardline attitude towards Scottish Gaelic. Neither, of course, would such a denial of difference be imaginable in bilingual Wales.

The Blether Region has previously reported on the Alliance Party's rejection of DRD proposals for bilingual road signs. Afterwards a Holywood Irish-speaker had a meeting with a local Alliance Party politician on the issue that ended with his admitting that his party's reaction was wrong. However, this latest episode, dealing as it does with signs that are not transactional but intentionally symbolic, appears to be a further step away from feeling able to acknowledge and celebrate diversity.

The dilemma for Alliance, as it extends its support from its traditional base of public employees in mixed marriages around the Belfast commuter belt and picks up votes from the floundering UUP, is that its constitutional and cultural centre of gravity shifts in the process. Whether that change precedes or follows on from such increased support is open to speculation, but the end result may well be that the difference between Alliance and the post-St. Andrews DUP, like that between UUP and DUP before it, ends up being one of class rather than substance.

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