Ancient language, modern politics combine for gridlock in Northern Ireland

How long can a country — or an autonomous province — go without a functioning executive? Northern Ireland may be testing the limits of that question. Thirteen months ago, the governing coalition fell apart and talks have been ongoing ever since. The conflict involves several issues, but as the Washington Post reported yesterday, the biggest obstacle is status and funding for the Irish language and its native speakers:

The power-sharing government of Northern Ireland, a province of the United Kingdom, has been paralyzed for more than a year, in large part over the question of what to do about Irish — embrace it as an official language or keep it at arm’s length — alongside a parallel fight over same-sex marriage.

Today there is no functioning executive in Northern Ireland, and multiple deadlines for its restoration have come and gone. There have been veiled threats from London to reestablish direct rule if compromises are not reached, although that would signal a failure not just for the U.S.-brokered peace process, but also for Prime Minister Theresa May’s Conservative government.

Those aren’t the only key issues, however. The upcoming exit from the EU, Brexit, has complicated relations with the Republic of Ireland. Dublin insists that they will not approve any Brexit deal which creates a “hard border” within Ireland, and the EU has also taken that position. That may force May to negotiate a different status for Northern Ireland than for the rest of the UK, but the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) also insists that Northern Ireland get treated exactly the same as the rest of the UK — and May’s Tory government relies on DUP for its majority in Parliament.

Still, the Irish language question remains at the top of these impasses. Sinn Fein wants to pass an act which would make Irish an official language of Northern Ireland, while DUP has resisted that strongly. They have instead proposed a law that addresses several minority languages while refraining from giving any an official status:

Sinn Fein want a stand-alone piece of legislation to protect speakers – an Irish Language Act – but the DUP has long insisted it would only countenance new laws if they also incorporate other cultures, such as Ulster Scots.

Finding a compromise resolution to the thorny language dispute that will satisfy both parties is key to unlocking the Stormont deadlock.

The Belfast Telegraph reported today that a private meeting between Sinn Fein and DUP leaders may signal that the impasse could end soon. Theresa May and Leo Varadkar, the Taoiseach (Prime Minister) for the Republic of Ireland, may soon be on hand to celebrate an agreement:

Sinn Fein and the DUP were last night putting the final touches to a potential deal to restore power-sharing at Stormont.

Well-placed talks sources said that if progress continued to be made at the current rate, an agreement between the two parties could be revealed next week. …

There has been significant progress on the Irish language, which has been the main stumbling block in discussions.

A senior political source predicted that the issue of equal marriage would be circumvented. “The can will be kicked down the road,” he said.

We should certainly hope that this impasse comes to an agreeable end, and soon. This year marks the twentieth anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement, a genuine foreign-policy achievement for Bill Clinton that ended nearly 30 years of violent sectarian clashes in Northern Ireland. A failure would eventually have forced London to reassert direct rule, which could have touched off more violence. If the various factions in Northern Ireland can come to a peaceful coexistence within the framework of a functioning parliamentary system, they can continue to set their own course in rational self-governance rather than through irrational means.

Some readers may be entirely unfamiliar with the Irish language, which I have studied on and off — mostly off, to be honest — since 2001. In fact, my favorite story about my love affair with the language comes from that year, shortly after I began studying it when I traveled to the Republic of Ireland with my family. I went into a convenience store in one western town and asked the cashier if they sold any Irish-language newspapers. With my obvious American accent (more California than Minnesota at that stage), she asked skeptically, “Do you speak Irish?”

“No,” I replied, “I’m just starting to learn it.”

“Ah,” she said with a sigh, “why bother?”

The history of the Irish language has been fraught with politics, cultural baggage, indifference, hostility, and mixed feelings. None of those are the reasons that I study Gaeilge and want to master it, if such a thing can be done at all. It’s easy to get caught up in the politics of language, as well as the politics of a distant and generations-past homeland; too many Americans attempted to do that with the Troubles before the Good Friday agreement.

But one does not have to go outside the US to discover that language involves politics and issues of cultural and economic dominance. In fact, we can just go to Hawaii for the latest demonstration:

Kaleikoa Kaʻeo appeared in court this morning at 10:00 a.m. Upon being summoned, he responded to the judge in Hawaiian language saying, “Eia no wau ke ku nei” (Here I am standing here). The judge refused to acknowledge his presence and has now issued a bench warrant for his arrest for failure to appear in court. Police were authorized to take Kaʻeo into custody at 1:00 p.m.

Kaleikoa Kaʻeo has been teaching Hawaiian language for more than 25 years. He and his wife Kahele are both Hawaiian studies professors at the University of Hawaiʻi Maui College. They raise their children speaking ʻōlelo Hawaiʻi. So when he found himself in court, his language of choice was Hawaiian.

“There are things you can say in Hawaiian that you know really express through our cultural view of why its important for us to defend our sacred sites,” says Kaleikoa Kaʻeo.

Kaʻeo is being charged with three petty misdemeanors related to his arrest last year during protests against the construction of a telescope atop Haleakalā. The judge in his case granted a motion by the prosecution compelling Kaʻeo to conduct court proceedings in English.

Language at some point always has a political component to it. It identifies communities separately from others, and connects the members closer to their heritage and shared values. Endangered languages mark the dissipation of communities, to some extent, which represents a loss to the fabric of human culture. In cases where economic and/or political domination accompanies the erosion of those communities, the political aspects of language can create a toxic environment where identities harden into divisions, and divisions into violence.

However, I’m not Irish; I’m an American of Irish descent, four generations removed. While those factors may interest me as an observer, I’m not a member of those communities. My love for the language is not about those issues. To get back to Gaeilge, let’s get back to the young woman’s question to me. Why bother, if I’m not living in the Gaeltacht, planning to go there, or interested in political and cultural confrontation?

Simply put: I just love the language. Yes, it’s likely I wouldn’t have taken an initial interest in it without a sense of my Irish heritage. It’s also true that my study of the language puts stories like the Northern Ireland impasse more on my radar. But for me, at least, my appreciation for the language stands on its own. Irish, or Gaeilge, is one of the earliest languages of western Europe, thought to go back thousands of years. Its first written forms (in Ogham) date to the 4th century, long before English began to develop, and at least 700 years before Norman influences began to transform Old English into the language we know today.

Also, the syntax of Irish defies the English and romance patterns to which we are accustomed in fascinating ways. Sentence structure in Irish is verb-subject-object … sometimes, anyway. Half the fun is trying to figure out the rules, and then you hit a point where you realize that the other half of the fun is trying to figure out how and when to break the rules. Here’s an example from my Twitter feed last night, when I was trying to get a few people to put together a flash-mob-style, non-political Irish-language event at CPAC next week:

The translation for this is: I would still like to have a pop-up Gaeltacht at CPAC, without politics. Are any Irish speakers in DC interested? A (mainly) word-for-word translation looks much different: Would be good with me still pop-up Gaeltacht to have at me at CPAC without politics. Are one Irish speakers in DC be interest at them? How can you not fall in love with that?

Plus, the spoken language sounds so beautiful. Irish-language music, both sean-nós (old style or traditional) and modern are easily found, but not anywhere as easily translated. To get a flavor of spoken Irish, here is Irish Central‘s Frances Mulraney narrating a video about a typical day in New York as an Irish speaker for TG4’s Mol Scéalta (‘Story Hub’ … I think):

The tweet translates to “This is Frances Mulraney, living in New York and working for Irish Central. She gave an insight to us about life there. If you’re a Gael over Sail [Irish overseas], and you have an interest in sharing your life overseas with us, contact us.” I’ve progressed more with written Irish than spoken, but I probably gleaned about half of what Frances says in this clip, which she likely kept deliberately simple to keep from scaring students off.

When I was most active in studying Irish, from 2001-5, I became somewhat conversational in the language. There is a vibrant Irish-language community here in the Twin Cities, but I fell away from it when blogging became a large part of my life. I recently rejoined it, and it’s wonderful to see old friends and meet new ones. In that sense, we have created our own community too, but we make a very deliberate choice to steer clear of politics, both in Ireland and (blessedly) at home. I am hoping to make myself more a permanent part of this community, but also to connect with Irish speakers in Ireland too. I plan to travel in the late spring to a week-long immersion course, a goal I set but never achieved in the earlier time frame.

Meanwhile, social media has made it so much easier to connect to other Irish speakers. I spend some of my time on Twitter practicing the language, helped in no small part by online resources that allow me to check my work before I tweet. The online resources in 2001-5 tended to be attached to politics, but now there are so many more resources that focus entirely on the language itself. There may never have been a better time for people to learn Irish on their own for the sheer love of the language than now.

That is why we should cheer on efforts at Stormont to find a way to accommodate the competing political interests among the people who live in Northern Ireland with support in some form for the language. It’s also why it’s best to leave that determination to the people who have to live there and allow them to work it out as best they can. Language can divide, to be sure, but it can also unite and offer a beautiful reminder of where we’ve been.

As Máirtin Ó Muilleoir told the Washington Post, “We preserve our old beautiful buildings. We should preserve our old beautiful language, too.” Indeed.