Monday, 3 February 2014

Treading Carefully

The wail of anguish at Foras na Gaeilge's recent funding — or "de-funding" — decisions has been momentarily drowned out by the ravings of a numpty. Yes, George Chittick, Belfast District Master of the Orange Order, has warned Protestants not to learn Irish because it is part of the "publican [sic] agenda". The Sandy Row hardliner made the bizarre comments when addressing a meeting last Saturday.

Reaction has been swift, with the Orange Order itself stating that the question of whether to learn Irish is a matter of individual "conscience" for its members — the peculiar use of moralising vocabulary suggesting that the organisation, for all its eye for damage limitation, may be seriously split on the issue. Perhaps the most high-profile rebuttal, however, came from Linda Ervine, the PUP-linked East Belfast language activist. But is there a subtext to all this? A matter of hours before Mr. Chittick's statement, the Skainos Centre in East Belfast was attacked by outraged Loyalists when it hosted a talk by Brighton bomber Patrick Magee. The centre is also the venue for Ms Ervine's language classes.

It is not beyond the realms of possibility that Mr. Chittick attacked the Irish language in order to have a go at the Skainos Centre — or, alternatively, that the Magee controversy merely emboldened him to vent his existing spleen. Loyalists of course have a history of making ill-informed attacks on Irish, sometimes even claiming that the form revived in the North is based on Southern models (something true only if one overlooks the fact that Donegal is Ireland's most northerly county).

Many years ago, back in 1980, Loyalists from that same part of East Belfast hurled abuse at the funeral cortege of Ronnie Bunting, assassinated leader of the INLA. Mr. Bunting's father, Ronald, was a staunch and outspoken supporter of the Rev. Ian Paisley. As one might expect, he decried both the politics and the violence in which his son had become involved but gave full expression to a father's grief for his dead child. However, that did not stop the Loyalist reaction in an area where people hold strong views. If there is a lesson to be drawn from this, it might well be that, while learning Irish in East Belfast is — just about — acceptable, inviting Patrick Magee to address a meeting is a step too far.

If Irish is to prosper and folk in East Belfast are to be weaned off displays of sectarian kitsch in favour of something genuinely cultural, people will have to tread carefully.

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