The North or Northern Ireland. You say it best when you say nothing at all? Probably not. September 26, 2008Posted by WorldbyStorm in Culture, Northern Ireland, The North.
I’ve been thinking about political language for some time now. Certainly since I read Fionnuala O’Connor’s piece in the Irish Time some while back on the use of terminology in the North. Or is it Northern Ireland? She makes some valid points on foot of complaints by Jim Allister, formerly of the DUP, amongst others that a Regional Development strategy document was ‘republican speak’.
Republican speak – eh? As O’Connor notes:
Though it was going a bit far to call it “malevolent,” surely. Writing “the North” rather than “Northern Ireland” and “Derry” instead of “Londonderry” – a demonstration of evil intent? After all, like such other august institutions as BBC Northern Ireland, this newspaper has been shuffling the terms for years.
The full text of his letter is as follows:
I write to convey my disapproval of aspects of the above documents.
In particular I object to the import into these documents of republican speak for our country, Northern Ireland. The constant references to somewhere called “the North” is a calculated slight upon both the name and constitutional entity and integrity of Northern Ireland. It is wholly inappropriate that planning documents have become vehicles for promoting this republican agenda. Hence, it is offensive and wrong to so politicise a planning document that it has chapters headed “The Spatial Development Strategy for the North” and “the Rural Area of the North of Ireland”. Likewise the text is riddled with such inaccurate and political language. In similar vein the second city of Northern Ireland, Londonderry is constantly referred to as “Derry”, which is not its name.
I really think it is quite shameful that Minister Murphy has imposed his grubby republican speak on planning documents.”
I also raised issues about the disproportionate emphasis on spatial planning development links with the Republic of Ireland and the paucity of focus on vital east/west links.
At the same time I wrote to every Unionist member of the Executive asking how and why they permitted such to happen. Now, it seems Murphy hoodwinked his colleagues and surreptitiously inserted his republican propaganda. This demonstrates the bad faith with which republicans misuse their government office.
What is required now is
• immediate withdrawal and reissuing of the document in a non-political form;
• full explanation of how this political slight of hand was performed and the role therein of Civil Servants, who surely should have advised Murphy against this malevolent political action;
• firm disciplinary action against Murphy for apparent breach of the Ministerial Code;
• and a learning by Unionists of this further lesson in the unworkability of mandatory coalition and the untrustworthiness of Sinn Fein.
Let’s put aside the near pathological use of language within the letter with references to ‘grubby’ which surely would have Freud working overtime and let’s consider this remarkable insight into how narrow a certain viewpoint can be. Firstly all language is political (and this aspect of his complaint in a way reminds me of how some on the Irish left blindly ignored British state power when critiquing Republicanism as if the latter somehow existed in splendid isolation from its environment).
Secondly, and as O’Connor notes:
Allister’s “grubby republican speak” is the everyday usage of constitutional nationalists.
This is the insuperable contradiction at the heart of his analysis. It’s not as if the use of such terms is restricted to hardened cadres of Sinn Féin members. The mildest of mild nationalists will use such terms entirely unself-consciously. But by pretending – for surely he knows this fact – that it is otherwise he in effect excludes a community from participation in the shared socio-political space of Northern Ireland. O’Connor continues:
To both communities, denial of their preferred term for the place they live in is disrespect, an indicator that “the other” would still oppress them if they could. Many unionists hear “the north of Ireland” as denial of their existence. Many nationalists hear denial of theirs when Northern Ireland is termed “this country”. Unionists who jeered at the self-consciousness with which the original deputy first minister Séamus Mallon occasionally mentioned “Northern Ireland” find it impossible to say “the North” and can not see that it might be sensitive to alternate the terms.
It’s semiotics 101, isn’t it? The issue is that as long as language is used as a stick, a marker, a means of ownership then there will be problems. Which is to say that there will almost always be problems if a zero sum game is played on such matters.
However, she makes a sensible suggestion…
By this stage, it would have been pleasant if the DUP and Sinn Féin had agreed to ignore the other’s usage, if they could not bring themselves to use both.
That’s difficult, particularly after a shared history like that in the North, but it is essential. But it is subtly different to the old phrase ‘parity of esteem’. It’s not so much the latter as an evasion. And in that respect it is analogous to actual physical spaces within the North which are confined to individual communities. In that regard it could be seen as profoundly negative, as if when charted on a venn diagram there are no intersections between neighbouring circles (and this is hardly a novel analysis – after all Eamonn McCann has made something of a career of criticising the GFA on precisely the grounds that it institutionalises such dynamics… although my only thought would be that since they pre-exist it is difficult to unpick that particular chain of causality or indeed to divine a replacement).
And of course it is how that applies in the public sphere that is more problematic again. And then layer on top of that the Irish language and we can see scope for further difficulties. But it is crucial that they are addressed in an equitable fashion and one which doesn’t seek to deny expression to any group.
In a way the South has had to wrestle with a similar issue which at first sight seems easier but in practice has been arguably as difficult, not least due to the old problem of paying lip service to an issue. The nominal bilingualism of the state has leant Irish a spurious status in the public space. There, but for many ignored. A small anecdote. Some years ago I was at a conference on issues relating to language and the point was made that now Ireland had a significant influx of people from abroad this would lead to the necessity to ensure that signage and suchlike accommodated other languages. The discussion went back and forth about how difficult this might be. Imagine the practical problems of having more than one language in the public space? Eventually I raised a hand and hesitantly pointed out that we already lived in a bilingual state and therefore this might be a quantitative, but not a qualitative change.
So blindness exists on all sides and the solution – if that’s even valid as a term in the context of this debate – is difficult to discern clearly. One might cynically argue that if we take the Southern route then chances are that the less dominant language will fade from public view almost simultaneous to its position in the public view.
However, it’s not difficult to propose that that is far from the outcome that Allister would find optimal (or ironically, many many of us). And for him it’s not just about a nominal equality of expression but about the expression itself in the public space.
On this blog it is easy to use the terms more or less interchangeably simply because it is easy and it allows for a recognition that there are reasonably distinct cultural and political identities on this island and that by using all available terminologies one diminishes none of them. It is that very plurality of expression which is offensive to Allister. Now, we could take the line that he is a marginal and diminished force, although time will tell. But it may well be that – in this instance – the best route is to ignore him and the viewpoint he represents and seek a sort of parity between such expressions at state, or sub-state, level.
And it may be that, pragmatically speaking if one hopes for stability, that is the only route in the society anyhow – a messy incomplete and stuttering advance that slowly allows cultural and socio-political expressions their space in the sun. Same as it always was.