Roosevelt Institute | Cornell University

Pursuing Cultural Reconciliation through Linguistic Diversity in Post-Conflict Northern Ireland

By Christopher HannaPublished February 20, 2015

Although nearly seventeen years have passed since the Northern Ireland conflict came to its official close, the country remains highly divided. The normalization and promotion of its minority languages would help to forge a multiethnic society at peace with itself and its past.
By Christopher Hanna, 02/20/15

Last November, Member of the Northern Ireland Assembly Gregory Campbell ignited cultural and political firestorms during a speech to the Northern Irish Assembly. The unionist politician was widely accused of ignorance and cultural insensitivity for caricaturing an Irish-language phrase used by politicians who represent the nationalist minority, revealing deep cracks in the facade that is "post-conflict Northern Ireland." If the Northern Irish government wishes to combat ethnic hatred and promote reconciliation among its people, it must institutionalize and vigorously promote the non-English languages they speak.
Although the Good Friday Agreement of 1998 officially marked the close of the Troubles, a thirty-year armed conflict between militants from Northern Ireland's Protestant unionist majority and its Catholic nationalist minority, the United Kingdom's least-populous nation remains deeply divided. The issue of language is an area of particular tension; nationalists typically endorse legislative action to make Irish a protected language, a move of which unionists are wary. The Irish language is spoken almost exclusively by individuals from the Catholic nationalist minority that supported the violent thirty-year campaign to defeat Protestant and British hegemony in the country, meaning that many resent the prospect of its normalization.

In an unusual condemnation of Northern Ireland's post-conflict human rights record, the Council of Europe condemned "the persisting hostile climate" towards the Irish language, recommending an act that would institutionalize it in the country's schools, courts, and the legislature, among other places. But if Northern Ireland's communities are to truly reconcile and cooperatively build a peaceful, multiethnic society, a unifying alternative to an Irish language act must be conceived and implemented.

The Irish language is widely perceived to be used as a "political weapon" by nationalist politicians, many of whom use the language as an act of protest against the country's continuing membership in the United Kingdom. Although some Northern Irish have sought to depoliticize the language by promoting its cross-community revival in Belfast, it is unlikely that it will cease being highly divisive anytime soon; a majority of Northern Irish Catholics would like to see the language used more, while a majority of Northern Irish Protestants would like to see it used less. Thus, while an Irish language act would certainly provide much-needed legal and cultural protections for the Catholic nationalist and Irish-speaking minorities, it would do so at the cost of social cohesion.

In order to formulate an inclusive language policy, the vision of the peace process must be considered. The 1998 Good Friday Agreement recognized all of Northern Ireland's minority languages as comprising "the cultural wealth of the island of Ireland," prescribing governmental action to preserve and advance them. The Ulster-Scots Agency was established to promote Ulster-Scots, a tongue spoken by some ethnically Scottish members of the Protestant unionist community; an Irish language counterpart called Foras na Gaelige was also formed. This reflected the peace process's transformative acknowledgement that Northern Ireland's distinct ethno-religious communities possess unique and equally legitimate cultures and aspirations. Above all, it reflected a profound optimism that a Northern Ireland governed by the values of cultural tolerance and co-existence was within reach. But the aforementioned controversies — including Gregory Campbell's derisive comments and the Council of Europe's condemnation of Northern Irish language policy — confirm that that vision remains unrealized.

Just as the European Council praised the Ulster-Scots Agency for its impactful work promoting the Ulster-Scots language, reports indicate that its Irish language counterpart will face severe budget cuts. To many, this is indicative of enduring institutional favoritism towards the Protestant unionist community. In order to realize the peace processes' vision of cross-cultural harmony and promote "unity without uniformity and diversity without fragmentation," the Northern Irish government should resolve these funding inequities and commit itself to the robust and equal funding of both the Irish and Ulster-Scots language promotion agencies. Further, it should implement a Native Languages Act that provides extensive legal protections for both languages, allowing and promoting their usage in public spaces such as courts and schools.

Some observers would argue that the strengthening of culturally-specific languages will widen Northern Ireland's ethno-religious divide by promoting linguistic differentiation. But if the South African peace process taught us anything, it is that true cross-community reconciliation lies in recognizing and appreciating cultural differences, not in suppressing them. An inclusive language policy will help to make the vision of cultural reconciliation in Northern Ireland a reality, promoting peace and understanding where there exists a seemingly unrectifiable divide.