Even if Ireland can solve the coronavirus pandemic, overcome the challenges of Brexit, an Irish Language Act at Stormont could still be a sticking point for future progress at the Northern Ireland Assembly.
It has become abundantly clear that one of the obstacles preventing the smooth running of the power-sharing Executive at Stormont is the issue of a stand-alone Irish Language Act - viewed as one of Sinn Fein’s key policies.
With arguments already emerging over how to commemorate the centenary of the founding of Northern Ireland in 1921, Sinn Fein could ‘up the ante’ by relaunching demands for the Irish Language Act.
Tactically, Unionism can outflank Sinn Fein by fully embracing such an act. On first reading of the previous sentence, it might seem that someone like myself, who comes from an evangelical Presbyterian, Ulster Unionist, and Loyal Order family background, has jumped ship to Naomi Long’s ultra liberal Alliance Party roller coaster.
However, Unionism needs to fully understand the new long war which republicanism has implemented in its bid to achieve a 32-county, all-Ireland, democratic socialist republic as demanded by the 1916 Easter Rising Proclamation.
Mainstream republicanism is no longer indulging in a violent terrorist campaign, but since the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998 is attempting to implement a cultural dismantling of Unionism.
First, it was the parades disputes under the excuse that nationalists now lived along the routes of traditional Loyal Order marches. This plan was intended to drive a wedge between the Unionist middle class and the Loyal Orders.
Mainstream republicanism fully understood that since the Home Rule crisis of the early 20th century, and especially since 1905 and the formation of the Ulster Unionist Council, the Loyal Orders - and especially the Orange - was the cultural cement which held the various elements of the Unionist family together.
In an Orange lodge, the rich aristocratic Unionist businessman could sit beside the cash-strapped, working class loyalist and call each other ‘brother’. The Loyal Orders, especially the Orange and the senior Royal Black Institution, were the vehicles of political communication between the various elements of Unionism in Ireland.
The seeds of the breaking of that bond were sown at Drumcree in Portadown following the rioting which erupted when Orangemen were finally prevented from marching along the mainly nationalist Garvaghy Road in the town on their return journey from their Somme battle commemoration service in Drumcree Parish Church in 1997. The parade had been forced through in 1995 and 1996.
The sight of Orangemen clashing with the police caused serious unease between the Orange Order and the Unionist middle class. That unease became an open rift in the following year, weeks after the signing of the Good Friday Agreement, the referenda to support that Agreement, and the initial elections to the new Northern Ireland Assembly in 1998.
During July 1998, three Catholic Quinn brothers died in an arson attack on their home in Ballymoney in the heartland of Dr Ian Paisley’s North Antrim constituency.
Three senior Orange clerical chaplains - one of them my own late father (Rev Dr Robert Coulter MBE) - issued an appeal for the Orangemen to leave Drumcree Hill as a mark of respect to the three dead brothers.
The result was a death threat to those three clerics from the Loyalist Volunteer Force - a breakaway, anti-Agreement terror gang formed by leading Portadown loyalist Billy Wright after his expulsion from the Mid Ulster UVF. Wright was shot dead by the INLA inside the Maze Prison in 1997.
Middle class Unionists were disgusted by the threats to the clerics and by scenes of confrontations between pro-Agreement Unionists and the vehemently anti-Agreement Orange pressure group, the Spirit of Drumcree. That rift became formal when the Ulster Unionist Party severed its connections with the Orange Order so that the Order was no longer entitled to send its delegates to the ruling Ulster Unionist Council.
The culture dismantling campaign was increased with targeting of traditional Eleventh Night loyalist bonfire locations. But the real push against pro-Unionist culture in Northern Ireland has been republicanism’s blatant hijacking of the Irish language.
Instead of attempting to retake or reclaim the Irish language from republicanism, Unionism attempted to enter the language battle by trying to develop Ulster-Scots as a minority European language.
However, for people like myself who grew up in rural County Antrim, Ulster-Scots is nothing more than a broad Ballymena accent! At best, in my honest comment, it is nothing more than a dialect, but not a separate language. No doubt, Ulster-Scots ‘linguists’ will be jumping down my throat at that suggestion.
It is equally abundantly clear that Unionism has been wrong-footed by republicanism over the Irish language, thereby convincing Unionism to ignore its rich heritage with that language.
Republicanism has already conveniently airbrushed out of history that it was radical Presbyterians who organised the United Irishmen’s rebellion of 1798. Likewise, Unionism seems to have equally conveniently overlooked the very significant fact that it was Irish Presbyterians who saved the Irish language from total extinction.
It is rather amazing, too, that the Orange Order’s ruling body, the Grand Lodge of Ireland, has expressed opposition to an Irish Language Act when some of the Loyal Order banners proudly displayed the Irish language.
Perhaps the most famous of these banners was Ireland’s Heritage from Belfast. However, because one of its members was William McGrath, who was convicted of sexual abuse of young boys in the Kincora Boys Home in east Belfast, the lodge has since been disbanded.
Given this rich Irish language heritage in the Loyal Orders and Unionism, how should they all react to a proposed Irish Language Act, even if Sinn Fein has made it one of republicanism’s red lines?
The solution is simple, yet practical. The Loyal Orders and Unionism should forget about trying to combat Sinn Fein with rebranding a ‘Ballymena accent’ (Ulster Scots) as an alternative language.
The Loyal Orders and Unionism should embrace the Irish language and apply for every penny of funding available to set up Irish language classes. The only reason Sinn Fein has made such a fuss of the Irish language is because it taunts Unionism.
Sinn Fein would drop demands for an Irish Language Act like a hot potato if every Orange lodge, Royal Black preceptory and Apprentice Boys club applied for funding to launch Irish language classes in their halls. By adopting the Irish language, Unionism and the Loyal Orders would defuse the Sinn Fein cultural cannon.
Unionism and the Loyal Orders have played smart when it comes to St Patrick’s Day and the Battle of the Somme commemorations. St Patrick’s Day in the past was perceived to be a nationalist festival, but Orange lodges have also used it as a parade and many Unionist branches organise Irish stew social evenings.
Likewise, both Unionism and the Loyal Orders have publicly acknowledged the role played by British regiments recruited overwhelmingly from Ireland’s nationalist community at the Somme, especially during the July 1st 1916 opening day.
In Orangeism, 1st July has become known as ‘The Mini Twelfth’, and Unionists need to break the mindset that only the 36th Ulster Division suffered terrible losses that day.
Perhaps the pro-Union community could also make a start in recognising the role of Protestant nationalists in Irish history and heritage.
In the meantime, a very Happy Christmas to all at The Pensive Quill and beyond. God bless and stay safe.
And stand by for my annual awards, Coulter’s Coveted Cock-Up Cups, which hopefully will be published on The Pensive Quill before we leave 2020. As usual, the competition for the Top Tit Trophy and Gobshite Cup is intensive!
Listen to Dr John Coulter’s religious show, Call In Coulter, every Saturday morning around 9.30 am on Belfast’s Christian radio station, Sunshine 1049 FM, or listen online at www.thisissunshine.com