Friday, 25 April 2014
Much has been made in recent days of NI21's use of Irish in a billboard advertisement. Although the Irish itself could have been better, any concerns about linguistic purity will have been comprehensively offset by the immense and potent symbolism involved. It must surely be the first time that an avowedly Unionist political party has used the language in such a way.
Back in the days when the Blether Region first arrived in the North, an Irish-speaking colleague, evidently no friend of Sinn Féin, liked to point out that there were more and better speakers of the language in the SDLP. Nowadays, with continuing growth in Irish-medium education and a shift in the balance of power between the two Nationalist parties, that will be considerably less true. For many Unionists, Irish is a Republican affair and something to view with suspicion, if not outright hostility.
Conversely, of course, one could argue that it is just NI21's Unionism that gives it the leeway to make such gestures towards the other community. It is also a testament to the far-sightedness of its founders, who appear to realise better than most Unionists the change in demographic realities with which they are faced.
Another recent development in Northern Ireland politics concerned Anna Lo's declaration in favour of a united Ireland. To those familiar with the history of the Alliance Party, whose genesis can be traced to a coming together in the early 1970s of Unionists and Nationalists, it should come as no surprise that some at least of its members are in favour of doing away with the border. All the same, it riled many within and without the party, whose advocacy of internal solutions means that it is often viewed as soft Unionist.
On the language issue, NI21, which evidently supports an Irish language Act, seems to have outmanoeuvred Alliance, which antagonised many in the Irish-language community with its stance on signage. At times one almost believes that Alliance policy is formulated in a bubble, one that self-defines as liberal but is in fact merely non-sectarian. One friend of the Blether Region in the party even defended the necessity of gaining two-thirds majorities in favour before bilingual street names could be erected — a requirement that may soon be declared illegal — and claimed that gay marriage, an institution with no legal advantages over civil partnership, was a more pressing issue than a language Act, something that would transform speakers' relationship with the state, and perhaps their view of it.
Clearly, we are in changed times, but, just as in the early 1970s, power-sharing still has its share of slow learners.