Category: History

  1. Curried Yoghurt. Northern Ireland and the Irish language.

    I don’t speak Irish. Like almost every Irish kid I was taught it at school, but in my case this was interrupted when my parents moved overseas. Not much scope for learning the Irish language in a British school in Greece in the 1980s. That said, upon my return home to Dublin several decades later I can’t say my Irish is significantly worse than most of my contemporaries. It seems like few of my generation retained the language… even though most of them had daily lessons in the subject right up to the age of 16.

    That’s not intended as a criticism of the Irish language. It’s not even intended as a criticism of teaching or promoting it (though it suggests that if we do wish to increase the number of Irish speakers; whatever the hell the Irish Board of education was up to in the 1970s and 80s should be avoided like the plague). Rather it’s just to illustrate the fact that it’s not something I feel strongly about. If you’re a Gaeilgeoir and that annoys you… I’m sorry; it is what it is.

    I think it’d be very sad if the Irish language died out. More than that; if a strategy was developed (either in the schools or some as-yet undreamt-of community initiative) that was demonstrated to significantly increase the number of people voluntarily learning and speaking Irish, I’d genuinely celebrate it (for all sorts of reasons) and would have no issue with the government funding it. I’m not a strict utilitarian when it comes to public spending… so long as we do a half-decent job of trying to cover the essentials, a society should also try to fund those things, within reason, that are culturally important to it.

    If you’re a libertarian and that appalls you, don’t worry; your views will change quite a lot when you grow up.

    But again, let me stress, if I was shaping Sinn Féin / Republican policy in Northern Ireland right now, an Irish Language Act would not be one of my red lines. If I was them I’d be doubling-down on the “look how moderate and reasonable we’ve become” strategy, all the while quietly putting their faith in the inevitability of a unification referendum after Brexit tanks the British economy. Once they’re part of a united Ireland they can rejoice in their children sharing the same experience as those down south… that of resentfully learning a language they’re destined to immediately forget upon graduation.

    Instant Retraction!

    Did I just say an Irish Language Act would not be one of my red lines? I take it back.

    No seriously, I retract that. Total U-Turn. In fact, I’d go so far as to suggest that an Irish Language Act is now of primary importance for the formation of any power-sharing government in Northern Ireland. It’s a massive red line. And it is rightfully a massive red line.

    There is an effort in the UK media to portray this impasse as Sinn Féin digging their heels in about a trivial issue. Or worse, something that is simultaneously trivial and explosively sectarian. And when I say the UK media, I don’t just mean the usual suspects.

    The Mail, The Sun, The Express… they are all predictably predictable. But it was reading The Guardian’s shocking editorial on the subject that I felt genuine anger. Here we have the editorial position of what is ostensibly the newspaper of Britain’s liberal left, and it is either a shamefully ill-researched slab of ignorance or it’s a knowing hatchet-job on Irish republicanism.

    I want you to ponder this line from that editorial…

    “The darker truth here is that Sinn Féin has chosen to weaponise the language question for political ends, less to protect a minority than to antagonise unionists.”

    That’s not the darker truth here. Let me explain the darker truth here… and in the off-chance the author of that Guardian editorial is reading this, I will try to use small words.

    No Angels

    Sinn Féin are perfectly capable of trying to make political hay out of any situation. That’s what politicians do. But the darker truth here is that a promise is being reneged upon. And I don’t care which side does it; it’s completely unacceptable. It would be just as bad if the DUP were being painted as unreasonable and aggressive (“weaponising language”) simply for holding Sinn Féin to what they already signed-up to. Pretty sure the editor of The Guardian would have no problem with that. Right?

    More than a decade ago, Unionists, Republicans, the Irish and British governments all gathered in Scotland. At St. Andrews, they revised and eventually agreed the rules by which the Stormont power-sharing executive would function. This included both procedural aspects and legislative ones. Among the promises made by all present was the following…

    (You can download the full text of the St. Andrews Agreement as a PDF from the UK government’s website. That paragraph appears in Annex B.)

    The text that finally made it into actual British legislation — Northern Ireland (St Andrews Agreement) Act 2006 — isn’t as explicit, demanding instead that “a strategy be developed” […] “to enhance and protect the development of the Irish language.”

    Weasel words?

    So the DUP points to the Northern Ireland (St Andrews Agreement) Act 2006 and insists (technically correctly) that it doesn’t explicitly commit them to an Irish Language Act.

    But that British law is not what all parties agreed and signed at St. Andrews. That piece of paper, the St. Andrews agreement itself, between the DUP and Sinn Féin (amongst others) clearly and explicitly promises an Irish Language Act. And that’s the context we find this whole farrago unfolding within.

    It’s not about the Irish language. It’s about one side, one community, being told it doesn’t need to honour its commitments. And the other being painted as antagonistic when they call foul. Britain’s attitude towards Ireland has become deeply disturbing. On one side we have the editor of The Guardian openly suggesting the DUP can pick and choose which former agreements they need to abide to, while a senior sitting Tory MP (and former minister) suggests that maybe the entire Good Friday Agreement be jettisoned…

    Culturally speaking, I don’t understand what the hell is going on in Britain right now. I feel bad for my UK friends who largely seem as mystified as I am, but I also fear for the collateral damage this whole British psychotic episode might have on us here. Ireland is a million miles from the country I remember from the 1970s, but I’m far from convinced “the peace process” is 100% finished yet. And it would be sheer lunacy to start picking at that scab now.

    I’m aware that the Irish Language Act is not the only obstacle to the resumption of power-sharing. But even if it was, it’s not something that can be compromised on. As soon as you say one party to an agreement does not have to uphold their promise, there is zero chance power-sharing can have a future.

  2. Trump’s Big Button

    I’m picturing a hypothetical afterlife in which Sigmund Freud is reading Trump’s twitter feed and becoming increasingly paranoid that the commander of the world’s most powerful nation is deliberately mocking him with a crass caricature of his most well-known ideas.

    In this hypothetical afterlife Freud sits at a table in a pub, drinking a Vodka-redbull, and complaining bitterly to Joyce and Einstein who are sympathetic but see the funny side. “Ach, you’ve heard me go off on my ‘cultural relativity’ rant enough times by now”, chimes in Albert when Sigmund pauses to gulp his drink and snort a quick line of coke, “so I get it”.

    Freud shakes his head in a manner both frantic and emphatic. “That’s different though”, there’s a dismay in his voice, “they were still taking you seriously! This Trump guy is just taking the fucking piss. And I don’t understand why!”

    Joyce nods sagely. “Yeah maybe, but sure it could be worse, you could be one of those poor feckers over there”.

    He gestures towards the darkened booth where Marx and Nietzsche sit, pale, unmoving, staring blankly at the wall, a look of horror on their faces.

  3. Being Sat Upon

    This is something I’ve often remarked upon. As an Irish person who spent a lot of time in the UK but has since returned to Dublin, it’s very noticeable how prominent the UK is in Irish culture and media, and by contrast how near-invisible Ireland is in most of the UK.

    My wife — who is neither Irish nor British — can occasionally get a bit irritated by how UK-centric the Irish media is. And I do sympathise.

    But I also completely understand it and — contrary to the original tweet — am not in the least bit surprised by it. It is fully explained by this Douglas Adams line about horses…

    It is difficult to be sat on all day, every day, by some other creature, without forming an opinion about them. On the other hand, it is perfectly possible to sit all day, every day, on top of another creature and not have the slightest thought about them whatsoever.

    – Douglas Adams, Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency

    The featured image on this post (on social media shares) is copyright Brian Lenehan (cc-by-sa/2.0)

  4. The reasons for Brexit

    This is my favourite of today’s reasons for Brexit. Tomorrow we may be back to blue passports for all I know. Or bendy bananas. Yes, I know you — dear “sensible” Brexiteer — may find such notions risible or patronising. But the great thing about democracy is the bendy-banana woman on Question Time had exactly as much say in the referendum as you did. There were doubtless people on the other side who voted “Remain” for reasons you would find silly.

    But I doubt there’s as many of them. And I doubt they’re as silly.

    Truly, the reasons for Brexit are many and varied. But I’ve yet to hear a single one that rang true for me.

    Anyway; it appears from the above tweet that the UK is leaving the EU — a massive policy shift and one that, even if you’re a fan of Brexit, clearly has the potential to wreak havoc if carried out badly (both on the UK and its neighbours) — and it’s doing it because they think some of the people working in the EU aren’t very nice to them.

    “Arrogant” and “unelected” it seems. And it’s hard not to read that and immediately think of The Citizen in Ulysses… sure, sure he’s the butt of many a joke, but there’s plenty of insight amid the bombast and rhetoric…

    – That’s your glorious British navy, says the citizen, that bosses the earth. The fellows that never will be slaves, with the only hereditary chamber on the face of God’s earth and their land in the hands of a dozen gamehogs and cottonball barons. That’s the great empire they boast about of drudges and whipped serfs.

    – On which the sun never rises, says Joe.

    – And the tragedy of it is, says the citizen, they believe it. The unfortunate yahoos believe it.

    The navy is still there, albeit less fearsome than it once was… but so is the hereditary chamber, the royalty and the belief that Empire was something to take pride in. So is the sense that 52% of the population can make a massive, long-term decision without even considering the impact it might have on a close neighbour (one who has been treated quite shabbily enough already) and then start trumpeting about The Will of The People.

    “Arrogant”? “Unelected”? Is it possible, just possible, that there’s some projection going on here?

  5. The British Empire Strikes Back

    This right here. This is why Brexit will be a godalmighty disaster. That’s a Conservative Party MEP saying that. Not some random commenter below a Daily Mail article lamenting the end of the British Empire. Check out the banner image on the guy’s profile

    British Empire 2: The Hannansphere

    No, I assure you, that’s not a joke. That’s the flag beneath which a tory Member of the European Parliament chooses to speak to the public. It’s the kind of detail that makes you wonder whether Hannan might not be a character created by Peter Cook, somehow escaped from the pages of an uncommissioned script. But it’s tough to be whimsical for too long when it’s clear from his tweets that this Tory MEP genuinely thinks of Ireland as “belonging” under that flag. And he’s a little put out, quite frankly, that everyone else doesn’t think so too.

    It’s not just Hannan. A 2014 YouGov opinion poll has recently resurfaced — given fresh new relevance by the brexiteering lurch towards isolationism. In this poll, a significant majority of respondents believed Britain should be more proud than ashamed of its imperial past.

    And this is why we find ourselves in a peculiar farce. The British unilaterally* took a course of action that at the very least is causing a lot of concern here in Ireland; and at worst could potentially be catastrophic for our country. And yet a significant portion of the British Establishment and commentariat seem vaguely affronted by the notion that we’re not falling meekly into line behind them. The referendum campaign on the British mainland barely mentioned Ireland. And the subsequent General Election campaign featured Ireland mostly as a 1980s-era prop with which the tories could beat Corbyn.

    I love the UK. I lived there for many years. Went to university there. Worked there. Met many great friends there. Here in Ireland, if I was ever idiotic enough to enter politics, I would be immediately tarred with the term “West Brit” and it’d be a tough label for me to shake. By a great many yardsticks, I would be considered an anglophile for an Irishman**.

    Point being… given the mess of a situation we find ourselves in, and accepting that we can’t change the past… if the argument for Ireland to leave the EU and join some kind of federation with the UK was likely to find any sort of traction here in Ireland, then I’d be exactly the sort of person who would give it some consideration.

    But I’m not. When Irish people are polled on EU membership, you get numbers that would appear baffling to a lot of British people. Even after the frankly unjust and unjustifiable way in which the Irish citizenry were treated during the banking crisis… even then we never polled less than 80% in favour. Right now… it’s creeping closer to 90. At some level we didn’t fully appreciate until quite recently, we Irish are European. And if we leave the EU, it’ll be because the entire thing collapses, or we get dragged out kicking-and-screaming for some other reason. It won’t be because we feel an attachment to the Union Jack, or because it makes logistical sense for us to climb into the boat with the British, even as they blow holes in the hull with an antique blunderbus inherited from their Great Grandad.

    Brexit is a psychotic pitbull the UK brought into the neighbourhood. It’s up to them to make sure it doesn’t hurt anyone else. It’s not up to us to accommodate their delusions that the thing is a harmless poodle.

    The British have seriously screwed up with Brexit. Whatever they have done to themselves (and it may be very damaging indeed), they have likely inflicted a great deal of harm here in Ireland too, risking both political and economic upheaval in a region that might still have a bit of Semtex knocking about in it. And yet the Tories are exasperated when, far from backing them up, the Irish are infuriated. After literally centuries of utterly shameful behaviour in Ireland (Empire-nostalgia notwithstanding), I don’t think it’s unreasonable for us to expect Britain to start acting like half-decent neighbours for once.

    Fat fucking chance.

    * Let’s be clear… I am in no way questioning the legal — or even the moral — right of the British people to choose their own path (within reason — you’re not allowed randomly nuke countries even if you vote for it 52-48). However, if something is to be described as truly “democratic” then I’d argue everyone significantly affected by it should be given an equal vote. The Irish were not allowed to vote on Brexit. Again, let me stress, I’m not saying we should have been. I’m just saying you need a different word than “democratic”.

    ** Though it’s a good deal more complicated than that. There are aspects of British culture (the monarchy, the militarism, a huge chunk of the national character surrounding class, self-image and nostalgia for empire) where I would be far more extreme in my dislike than even the most fervent Republican. So yeah, as ever, do be careful with those broad strokes.

Site Footer

Copyright © 2017-18 Jim Bliss