From Rod To Whip

Learn Irish and embrace an Act! That’s the radical advice from contentious political commentator, Dr John Coulter, to Unionists and members of the Protestant Loyal Orders and Churches. Here in his Fearless Flying Column today, he sets out his case.

Unionists, and especially the Protestant Loyal Orders, should embrace any future Irish Language Act (ILA) and set up classes for Gaelic speakers in their various Unionist party branches, Orange Halls and throughout all Protestant denominations.

Sinn Fein’s demand for such an Act has been one of the major stumbling blocks preventing the restoration of the power-sharing Executive at Stormont with the Democratic Unionists.

Many in the pro-Union community, particularly in the DUP and its election-battered Ulster Unionist rivals as well as the Orange Order, view the ILA as part of Sinn Fein’s ‘war’ on British heritage and culture in Northern Ireland.

For a change, Unionists and the Loyal Orders – the Orange, Royal Black Institution, Independent Orange Order and Apprentice Boys – (and indeed, all the Protestant denominations who claim to be part of the Reformed Faith and the descendants of Martin Luther) need to start boxing clever and play Sinn Fein at republicans’ own game. 

Instead of digging in their heels and yelling Ulster Says No to an ILA, the pro-Union community should go in the opposite direction and fully embrace its rich heritage and history with the Irish language.

Unionists seem to have forgotten that it was traditional Irish Presbyterians, not militant republicans, who saved the Irish language from extinction a few centuries ago. And if there’s money to be had from Irish Language legislation, then let the Protestant Churches and community groups located in predominantly Protestant areas get their slice of the cake by setting up Irish language classes in church and community halls, too. Why should republican-dominated Irish language groups get all the dosh from such an Act?

The Orange Order has also conveniently overlooked its history that it once had a Belfast-based lodge, Ireland’s Heritage, which proudly paraded each 12 July with the Irish language emblazoned on its banner.

Unfortunately for those within the Order who wanted to embrace Irish Gaelic as part of their cultural identity, Ireland’s Heritage also had among its member, the notorious convicted paedophile William McGrath, dubbed the Beast of Kincora, because of his sexual abuse of young boys in his care at the former Kincora Boys Home in east Belfast.

The late McGrath served a prison term for that abuse and in his past had been a founder of the loyalist paramilitary group, Tara. Years after his death, McGrath was the subject of allegations that he had been a British intelligence agent and that the abuse at Kincora had been allowed to continue so that McGrath could gain information about homosexuals within the Unionist community.

But the long-term consequence of McGrath’s conviction was to force the Ireland’s Heritage lodge to hand in its warrant and effectively disband.

Unionism and the Loyal Orders are in danger of falling into the same cultural pitfall over an ILA as they have done in the past since the 1985 Anglo-Irish Agreement. Unionism was on a political high since its victory over the power-sharing Sunningdale Executive following the 1974 Ulster Workers’ Council strike which crippled Northern Ireland.

Unionism, loyalism, Orangeism and many in the Protestant denominations basked in the glory of that achievement and adopted the simple maxim – if we take to the streets, we can win anything; rational thinking need not apply!

But that approach proved to be Unionism’s undoing in 1977 when the late Rev Ian Paisley attempted another loyalist strike. It flopped. When Thatcher and FitzGerald signed the Anglo-Irish Agreement, Unionists failed to read the small print and again took to the streets with their Ulster Says No and Ulster Still Says No campaigns.

While loyalists tramped the wet roads of Ulster during the icy cold winter nights of late 1985 and early 1986, Southern nationalists quietly established the Maryfield Secretariat near Belfast giving Dublin its first major say in the running of Northern Ireland since partition in the 1920s.

What they should have done was embrace that Agreement and set up a Unionist Embassy in Leinster House and demand an equal say in the running of the Irish Republic. Unionists have tended to take the same approach to the Irish language as they have adopted for many years to St Patrick’s Day – regarding the latter as a nationalist commemoration and the former as a pillar of republican culture.

In spite of the current stalemate over an ILA, some Orangemen do parade on 17 March to commemorate Ireland’s national saint. Just as Irish nationalism has had to come to terms with remembering and recognising the many Catholics who fought for the Crown in two world wars, so too has Unionism and the Loyal Orders to come to a realisation that the language of Gaelic is as much a part of the Protestant tradition as it is a pivotal part of nationalist culture.

Instead of combating republicanism’s current perceived stranglehold on Irish, Unionists have responded with the knee-jerk adoption of the supposed Ulster-Scots language. Just because Ulster-Scots campaigners have got the European Union to recognise it as a minority language does not necessarily mean it is a real language in practice.

While the Ulster-Scots history and heritage are legitimate, surely if there was to be a genuine language aspect to this culture, it would be the Scottish Gaelic which Unionists would be learning – not a glorified version of the North Antrim accent!

Spend a day chatting to the folk of Ian Paisley junior’s North Antrim Westminster constituency and you will soon become fluent in so-called ‘Ulster Scots’. As someone who grew up in that great constituency, I soon learned practically that Ulster-Scots was a dialect. Elocution lessons soon put paid to my ‘career’ as an ‘Ulster-Scots’ linguist!

For Unionism and the Loyal Orders, there is only one sensible and workable way forward to turn the tables politically on Sinn Fein – throw their weight fully behind an ILA and use the cash which will flow for that Act to set up as many classes as possible. Every DUP and UUP branch should have an Irish language class. Equally, every Orange Hall and Protestant Church Hall in Ireland should also host such classes.

The ILA rod which Sinn Fein is using to beat Unionism will then become Unionism’s whip over republicanism. Likewise, Unionism’s ability to embrace an ILA could well be the catalyst which can kick-start a new moderate nationalist party given the electoral drubbing which Sinn Fein has dished out to the SDLP in recent polls.

Similarly, any moves by Unionism to support an ILA should not be misinterpreted as the growth of a liberal trend in the pro-Union movement; this is merely Unionism boxing clever for a change. Liberal Unionism has wrecked the once dominant Ulster Unionist Party, which has been almost totally eclipsed electorally by the DUP.

Unionism needs to rethink its strategy towards Sinn Fein and stop being the Unionist monkey which dances to the Sinn Fein tune. Unionism urgently needs a springboard to go on the political offensive as Brexit looms in 2019.

The adoption of an ILA by the DUP, Loyal Orders and Protestant denominations can be that launching pad which ultimately allows Unionism to nudge open a political door to give it more of a say in the running of the 26 Counties.

Once that door is opened, who knows what benefits it could trigger for all the people of this island, especially if Unionists can persuade the Republic into a new Union with the UK and joining the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association. Ireland was once a founder member of the CPA in 1911 when it was known as the Empire Parliamentary Association – and all it would take would be a few Irish language classes in some rural Orange Halls and Protestant Church Halls.

For any Unionists interested in preparing for an ILA, you can contact us on Facebook at our group – Saighdiuiri oga na Eireann De.

John Coulter is a unionist political commentator and former Blanket columnist. 
Follow John Coulter on Twitter  @JohnAHCoulter

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Anthony McIntyre

Former IRA prisoner, spent 18 years in Long Kesh. Free Speech advocate, writer, historian, humanist, and researcher.

2 comments to ''From Rod To Whip"

  1. I was half thinking this was a satirical piece. Then I looked up Saighdiuiri oga na Eireann De. I still am. The two sides are well met.

  2. James,

    It's from 'Dr' John so who knows!

    But the Irish language should be shared by all, its a disgrace to us all that its been politicized.


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