Monday, 10 June 2013

Cumann Yet For A' That

The Orange Order has written to the University of Ulster to complain about students' wearing of modified GAA shirts with IRA-themed images — and in the same letter about the presence of bilingual signs on campus. While the Blether Region sympathises with its arguments regarding whether the shirts are contributing towards the creation of a shared space, it is clearly a logical fallacy to maintain that Protestants should necessarily feel alienated or afraid every time they clock a word of Irish. Quite apart from anything else, many people in Northern Ireland wallow in such deep-seated ignorance of the Gaelic that they are prone to mistake other languages for it — Ulster Scots in the case of a bilingual sign at Tullyard Way on Belfast's Clonduff Estate, and Scottish Gaelic in the case of UK passports, to name but two cringeworthy incidents. One feels sorry for such dyed-in-the-wool non-linguists, who must pass their entire day jumping at shadows.

It is also a distasteful irony that the complaint should emanate from a pathologically sectarian organisation such as the Orange Order.

Some years ago an official equality body adjudicated on the presence of bilingual signage in Queen's University Student Union. Its decision was spectacularly wrong, in the Blether Region's view raising serious questions about whether the organisation was, to use a modish phrase, "fit for purpose". However, as that decision was never overturned, senior Orangeman and solicitor Drew Nelson remains free to cite it as precedent:
"If multiple languages representing many nationalities of students were used it could be lawful – as at Belfast City Hall – but because only Irish is used so prominently, that is in breach of section 75 of the Northern Ireland Act and the university’s own diversity policy. This sort of ethos is creating a cold house for Protestant students, whereas Queen’s University Belfast dealt with these same issues 10 years ago."
The UK is of course now a signatory to the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages, which means that the promotion of Irish has, to some extent at least, received the official imprimatur of the state. The notion that the language should be judged on its mere presence rather than what is said in it is, frankly, bizarre. Although fluent speakers may be a small percentage of any visitors, on a practical level the presence of signs is amply justified by the maxim of "use it or lose it". Perhaps most relevant of all, the Gaelachas of Ireland is an unalterable historical fact, so that one cannot deny the culture without denying the person.

To do so would be a wee bit racist.

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