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The North or Northern Ireland. You say it best when you say nothing at all? Probably not. September 26, 2008

Posted 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.


1. splinteredsunrise - September 26, 2008

Oddly enough, it was probably Bairbre de Brun during her tenure at health who had the most inventive response. She would just refer to the North as “here”.

But it did crop up, didn’t it, during the first executive. There’s an unwritten public sector rule of thumb that, when you get a letter from a city in the north west, your reply will be addressed to Londonderry or Derry (or I suppose Doire) depending on what terminology your correspondent uses. Trimble, possibly as a sop to his backwoodsmen, tried to get the civil service to address all official letters to Londonderry. It never took off of course, but there were some irate calls to Talk Back as always.


2. ejh - September 26, 2008

I may have mentioned this before but in my first year working in the (then) DHSS, when students could still claim during the summer, I was taking one bloke’s claim and he described his home address as “Derry”. At this point hismate, next to him, and conceivably of a different viewpoint, said “Londonderry” to which the first chap responded “Derry was a city when London was a swamp”. This was amusing but does not, I believe, rest on any solid historical foundation.

I occasionally refer to “the 6/32” when corresponding with a friend of mine who goes to Northern Ireland away games, since I’m of the stated opinion that players should only receive 6/32 of a cap for appearances.

By the way, should Republican take a capital R – and was Allister deliberately being disrespectful in omitting it?


3. WorldbyStorm - September 26, 2008

That situation you refer to splintered sounds really tangled as regards public sector responses, at least insofar as one has to divine intentions to make them. But what of official and unofficial usages, because I should have touched on that above – how during Stormont and presumably previously there was a complete avoidance of recognition of any nationalist terminology. Don’t know if you’ve looked, but the Linenhall Library has a selection of NI govt stuff from 1920 to proroguement, tourism stuff, pamphlets and one would from reading them be hard pushed to find any indication that there were two communities (although it’s also telling that in general they avoid any significant mention of particularly Unionist cultural events – the closest being a photo of ‘Roaring Meg’ or somesuch).

ejh, I think it should take a capital R. But I’m not sure. I’m sure it was intentional.


4. Garibaldy - September 26, 2008

Capitalisation for terms like that is now being widely dropped, so perhaps Allister is just getting with the times. Or, more likely, he is writing like it was still the C17th and capitalization was rare. He probably still uses ‘f’ instead of ‘s’ in the middle of words.


5. ejh - September 26, 2008

Tell you what, if the keyboard would let me I’d do the same myself.


6. WorldbyStorm - September 26, 2008

I’ll bet someone is ahead of us on that and has already written software, or produced a font that does likewise.


7. Phil - September 26, 2008

An old fiddler came to the local folk club a while back, and explained at some length that he wasn’t going to play the Londonderry Air. Fair enough, except that he went on to explain at some length that he wasn’t going to play the Derry Air either – he was going to play the Doire Air. It was late and we’d all had a bit to drink, so nobody much minded, but I did think afterwards it would have been easier just to call it Danny Boy – or, better still, to play something else.


8. Remote Denial of Service Exploit Effects The Asterisk PBX - September 26, 2008

[…] The North or Northern Ireland. You say it best when you say … […]


9. skidmarx - September 26, 2008

“Let’s put aside the near pathological use of language within the letter with references to ‘grubby’”

I see that the first page of The Iron Dream has a reference to a “grubby terminal”.

Generally I find the “London” prefix just a waste of verbal effort.

I was telling a joke to a friend with HIV a few years ago (Q. What do you call a man with AIDS and herpes. A. An incurable romantic).He pointed out that he had HIV not AIDS at which point I said “Jesus Christ, you’ve got a life-threatening condition and you’re worrying about my terminology. Get a life”. My friend then said he wished his doctors would speak like that rather than shilly-shallying around.
[My friend is not JC]


10. ejh - September 26, 2008

An old fiddler came to the local folk club a while back, and explained at some length that he wasn’t going to play the Londonderry Air. Fair enough, except that he went on to explain at some length that he wasn’t going to play the Derry Air either – he was going to play the Doire Air.

Presumably he had to say all this or he’d have been in danger of playing a tune that was shorter than the introduction, which as I understand it is not acceptable behaviour in a folk club.


11. petebaker - September 26, 2008


The key point in this particular kerfuffle over the terminology used, was that Conor Murhy had brought a text to an Executive meeting, got agreement on the basis of that text, and then systematically went through the text – or rather got an underling to do it for him – substituting “the North”, etc, for “Northern Ireland”, before publishing it as a document with full Executive approval.

Maurice Hayes got it about right

In the middle of all this, in a farcical sideshow, the DUP is infuriated by the actions of a Sinn Fein Minister in making textual changes to an agreed Executive paper in order to replace all direct references to Northern Ireland. Like a demented sub-editor in the RTE newsroom, which for years has been doing the most absurd verbal gymnastics rather than mention those dreaded words, he has been changing Northern Ireland into the North, or some other convenient euphemism.

Having swallowed the camel of the principle of consent, and the affirmation of the constitutional position of Northern Ireland in the Good Friday Agreement, it seems childish to now strain at the gnat of actually using the name of the entity you are engaged in governing. Serious politicians (and sub-editors) should have better things to worry about.


12. petebaker - September 26, 2008

That last paragraph is also a quote from Maurice Hayes.


13. WorldbyStorm - September 26, 2008

That’s fair enough pete, but note my piece was about the broader issue and the specific incident was only used to illustrate a mindset… it still begs a deeper question as to how those who seek to make the North/Northern Ireland a place comfortable for all it’s people intend to progress… Murphy *may* have acted beyond his remit, and certainly I would completely balk at changing more than 50% of terms (in other words using both as noted by F O’C as the BBC and the IT does), but the wider point remains.


14. petebaker - September 26, 2008


In an un-official capacity, I couldn’t care less.

In an official capacity as a Northern Ireland Minister?

I refer you back to Maurice Hayes..

Having swallowed the camel of the principle of consent, and the affirmation of the constitutional position of Northern Ireland in the Good Friday Agreement, it seems childish to now strain at the gnat of actually using the name of the entity you are engaged in governing.


15. petebaker - September 26, 2008

I would add, WbS, that I have nothing but contempt for the BBC’s ill-guided attempts at an imagined balance.

Personally, when blogging, I try to use the official names at all times – Derry City Council, Londonderry and City of Derry Airport, for example. And just let the reader modify them in their own heads – if they feel the need to do so.

But then, unlike the BBC, I’m not susceptible to the pod screams of those suffering from political psychosis. 😉


16. WorldbyStorm - September 27, 2008

I don’t know Pete. If a community within Northern Ireland uses those terms then I think it is necessary for the *official* terminology to reflect that. And that works both ways.


17. Garibaldy - September 27, 2008

This pedantry over names is embarassing. But, at another level, it is indicative of how little space you can put between the various parties in social and economic policy (save of course the 11 Plus, but it’s quite clear the Provos are willing to allow selection to continue in some form). I think the future of NI politics will look a hell of a lot like the crowded centre-right consensus in the south.


18. WorldbyStorm - September 27, 2008

Can’t disagree there Garibaldy. But is it entirely an embaressment? Consider how much debate and dissension there is over terms like ‘left’ and ‘socialism’… and I’d think they have less pull on people than issues of nationality and community. Incidentally, on one level I do agree with Pete which is to say I don’t care a bit what something is called – but I do believe in treating everyone with a degree of courtesy.


19. garibaldy - September 27, 2008

I’m happy to use NI myself, and find the six counties/north of Ireland thing a bit tedious and tortuous. Having said that, I feel the same away about Londonderry. But it’s still good to talk about the free state 🙂


20. deiseach - September 27, 2008

I remember explaining to my English girlfriend that I used the phrase ‘the North’ to describe ‘Northern Ireland’ and why I did that. Six years on, she – now my wife, although still English – always refers to it as ‘the North’, to the point that I have to reiterate that it’s fine to call it ‘Northern Ireland’, I really don’t care, stop calling it ‘the North’, you’re making it look like I care about such nonsense please call it ‘Northern Ireland’ pleasepleasePLEEEASE!!! 🙂

Looking at petebaker’s method of rationalising his particular use of nomenclature, I am reminded of Joe Lee’s excoriation of the Unionist mindset in his history of the short 20th century in Ireland, i.e. if you maintain the status quo through the threat of violence you are a statesman, if you resist said status quo through the threat of violence you are a terrorist. I don’t envy any politician or civil servant who tries to square these kind of circles.


21. Yank in Ulster - September 27, 2008

Sure, many use their wordage in a purposely provocative way, but it’s also possible to use these contested terms in a pragmatic way.

My personal rule book is contextual:

It’s “Northern Ireland” and “Republic of Ireland” when dealing with the legal entities (and thus representatives of these respective Governments should prudently use these terms). It’s “the North” whenever you’re referring to the northern part of the island (useful for all-Ireland sporting references and North-South matters). Ditto for “the South”.

Many people will say “stroke city” for Derry/Londonderry, but I always say “Derry” or “Derry City”, because that is what the majority of its inhabitants and elected representatives call it in the local district council. Furthermore, AFAIK the Black Perceptory has always said “Derry”; the prefix “London-” was added later. Meanwhile, there’s an island-wide use of the term “County Londonderry”. I remember Hillary Clinton referring to both in her address in Belfast, “City of Derry in Co. Londonderry”.

While we’re talking semantics, I irk at the use of the term “Irish” language, as the language is actually Gaelic, which is also spoken in parts of Scotland, i.e. “American English” and “British English” is still English; I don’t speak “American”, but English (and no wise cracks please).

Of course, the whole matter of the “Irish language” in the North/Northern Ireland/Ulster (6 or 9) is another kettle of fish.


22. skidmarx - September 27, 2008

I thought I’d put this up earlier, but do Republicans still gag at the use of the term “republic” to describe the 26 counties?

There is a parallel in the term “norteamericano” which only applies to the US and Canada, even though I’m assured by latin americans that Mexico is in North America too.They also sometimes dislike the use of “American” to describe the US alone.


23. Wednesday - September 27, 2008

I once commented to a Protestant friend from Derry that I was surprised to hear him refer to it as that rather than the L word. He laughed and said “Everyone says ‘Derry’. We only call it ‘Londonderry’ when we want to annoy youse.”

Regarding Yank in Ulster’s comments, I’m curious to know what authority there is for the assertion that the language is actually called “Gaelic”. It’s of the Gaelic sub-family of the Celtic group, of course, but that doesn’t make “Gaelic” its name any more than Welsh, Cornish and Breton are actually called “Brythonic”. And Irish and Scottish Gaelic are pretty much universally recognised as different languages now, making American and British English non-analogous.


24. Yank in Ulster - September 27, 2008

@Wednesday: Quick Wikipedia reference: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gaelic_language

Okay, it’s Goidelic language not Gaelic, but you can see how this covers “Scottish Gaelic”, “Irish”, and “Manx”. I just respect Gaelic as Gaelic, whether spoken in any of these three areas.


25. WorldbyStorm - September 27, 2008

I tend to agree deiseach. “Official”/state readings aren’t necessarily helpful in this discussion.

Yank in Ulster, I didn’t know the Clinton use. Very adept of her.

skidmarx. I can’t answer that question? Anyone know?

Wednesday… I often get that sense too as regards the first paragraph. But again that’s where *official*/actual readings/usages conflict…


26. garibaldy - September 27, 2008

Bill popularised that usage of Derry city/county Londonderry the time of that Christmas visit. I also object to the notion that Irish and Scottish are the same language. Seems to me an analogy might be the Romance languages rather than saying they are different dialects of the same language.


27. Wednesday - September 27, 2008

Answer to Skidmarx’s question is yes.


28. Phil - September 27, 2008

ejh – ‘longer’, but not really.

YiU – I’ve seen irate objections to people not calling the language ‘Irish’.


29. Dunne and Crescendo - September 27, 2008

All this stuff about language becomes more important politically because it papers over the cracks in both Sinn Fein and DUP explanations for their current positions. Its like people who refuse to say ‘Northern Ireland’ or the current Ogra SF campaign to paint post boxes green, which I initally thought was a joke. Rhetorical opposition to a state that they have endorsed.


30. garibaldy - September 27, 2008

And displaying an alarming absence of knowledge of Connolly.


31. edifice - September 28, 2008

British Parliamentary activity in Ireland, now there’s a phrase that’s defining. A bit like democracy, some think its a vote whilst others think of it statistically. But British Parliamentary activity in Ireland doesn’t think of it at all. Amazing the irrelevancies we concentrate on.


32. Renoir - September 28, 2008

I find it hard not to think that the country Ireland is divided into two states, the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland. Therefore neither RofI nor NI are countries, contrary to Allister’s view. The very names suggest that it is accepted that they are in some fundamental sense components of the same entity, which I think can be meaningfully called a country. There is no reason to suppose that to hold to this country/state distinction necessarily means that I am pro- or anti-partition. It might, however, suggest that I think all states provisional, but that is a global not an Irish point. Partition, however, is so deeply engrained, particularly among those of broadly nationalist views, that Ireland is almost always used to refer the Republic. The irony, of course, is that these nationalists are often, but not always, anti-partitionist.


33. garibaldy - September 28, 2008

I think that people referring to Ireland meaning the 26 counties is ingrained in the south, but not at all in NI, where it tends to drive people who want an end to partition mad.


34. Renoir - September 29, 2008

I take that point, Garibaldy.


35. skidmarx - September 29, 2008

Hopefully there’s a future for cross-community collaboration over dodgy diesel deals.

Would “The Republic of Southern Ireland” be equally unacceptable to all?

In an early series of The Weakest Link Anne Robinson asked which country Ho Chi Minh had been president of. Offered “Vietnam” as the answer she said that the correct answer was “North Vietnam”. Onviously her researchers hadn’t read Chomsky on the American War on South Vietnam.


36. Redking - October 1, 2008

“Would “The Republic of Southern Ireland” be equally unacceptable to all?”

Ah, but Donegal -the most northerly county is actually in the South, if you know what I mean…


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