Exercise free choice and a new, better NI opens up before us

This is the original of a piece to be published in the University of the Sorbonne’s “Etudes Irlandaises”:

A map of the languages of Europe as spoken roughly a century ago, overlaid with modern international borders

A map of the Indo-European languages of Europe as spoken roughly a century ago, overlaid with modern international borders

One of the biggest challenges faced by minority language movements across Europe is the association between a language and a people (or a nation) which most people inherently make. After all, if most people who speak Slovene are Slovene, and most people who are Slovene speak Slovene, then why would the same correlation not apply to any other language? As a result, almost inevitably and often unintentionally, minority language development becomes associated with movements of national determination, of whatever kind – summed up perhaps by the old Welsh maxim “Cenedl heb iaith, cenedl heb galon” (“a nation without a language is a nation without a heart”). The difficulty is that the correlation is almost universally inaccurate. This paper argues that the correlation between “language” and “nation” is often unhelpful to minority language development, particular with reference to Ulster Scots (defined as the variety of the Scots tongue spoken in parts of Northern Ireland and County Donegal); and that indeed the “language versus dialect” debate this correlation inevitably engenders is pointless and unhelpful.

How is the correlation between “language” and “nation” inaccurate? Most obviously, most people who speak English (however defined) are not English; indeed, counting those who speak it fluently as a second language, England itself is a comparatively minor part of the modern English-speaking world. Furthermore, the recent census of England and Wales demonstrated clearly that an increasing minority of English residents do not in fact speak English at home (or at all). The correlation falls down immediately, in the case of the world’s most widely spoken language.

Even within the boundaries of Europe, where the “nation state” (which often defined or was defined by linguistic boundaries) took root, the correlation is of scant value. Most French people do indeed speak French – but so do lots of Belgians and Swiss. Proportionately as many Austrians speak German as Germans; yet Austria was itself once the centre of a multi-national and multi-lingual empire which, even after the “independence” of many of its nation states, leaves linguistic minorities all over the place. A third of Hungarian speakers in Europe do not live in Hungary; many live in Romania, yet many Romanian speakers live in Moldova. Polish is indeed the dominant language in Poland, but is also now the second language of Ireland, North and South. Some Italians speak German; some Czechs speak Slovak; some Estonians speak Russian. This is before we get into the “language definition” debate – some Spaniards speak Galician (perhaps closer to Portuguese than Spanish); some Swiss speak “Swiss German”; most Luxembourgers switch between Germanic Luxembourgish and Standard French depending on context. Even though international frontiers came sometimes even to mark linguistic frontiers (e.g. between “German” and “Dutch”), even a Europe of over 50 sovereign units does not match “nation” with “language” in any meaningful way.

If the correlation between “nation” and “language” does not stand up to scrutiny in the case of widely known national and administrative languages, why then do we insist on assuming the two are linked with minority languages? It is widely assumed that anyone who takes an interest in the development of, for example, Catalan or Scots is likely a Catalan or Scottish Nationalist – indeed, most people would assume the two are directly interlinked, with the language used (or abused, according to preference) to emphasise the distinct “national identity” of the would-be independent state. It is not for me to determine whether or not this helps the political objective being assumed; but I am certain it hinders the linguistic one.

The fact, with the both the above examples, is that Catalan and Scots are widely spoken languages in certain spheres of life (exactly which spheres differ, with Catalan now enjoying much wider access to more formal, educational and administrative settings than Scots does). The fact is also that their speakers are almost all proficient in the dominant administrative language of the state (Spanish in the case of Catalonia/Spain and English in the case of Scotland/UK), and that this “dominant” language also has a wider global role, and thus international economic and diplomatic importance, as one of the most widely spoken languages on the planet. Therefore, to tie the minority language in with an independence movement is to suggest the minority language could one day enjoy the same status as the currently “dominant” language – even though Spanish and English have obviously global reach and Catalan and Scots obviously never will. However, this is plainly a ludicrous suggestion. The current national governments of Catalonia and Scotland may aspire to independence on a par with (the rest of) Spain and England and they have every right to that aspiration, but most of their residents (even those pre-disposed to support the objective of independence) would recognise that suggesting minority languages could or even should ever enjoy parity in a globalised world with the languages of Spain or England is quite ridiculous (and conceivably even economically harmful). The result is that tying minority languages to independence movements suggests an unattainable objective for those minority languages – leaving a lot of people, even those instinctively supportive of the independence movements, to give up on them altogether.

Across the “Sheuch” from Scotland lies Northern Ireland, which naturally has its own constitutional peculiarities. Here, the “Irish” language had already become intertwined in the familiar way with Irish Nationalism (itself assumed to correlate with Irish Catholicism too). Thus, Scots (known in Northern Ireland and the border counties of Ireland as “Ulster Scots”) became intertwined with Unionism; given the tendency for minority languages to be associated with breakaway national movements, it in fact became more obviously associated with “Loyalism”, a form of Unionism which vehemently opposes any hint of unity with the rest of Ireland and yet regards its affiliation to Britain as strictly conditional (indeed, stands of “Loyalism” have frequently hinted at an ultimate preference for a separate Protestant State in the north east of Ireland). However, the link between the Scots tongue as spoken in Ireland (Ulster Scots) and “Loyalism” is ludicrous because it bears no relation to reality whatsoever – as is immediately obvious from the fact that contemporary Ulster Scots is spoken exclusively in rural areas and “Loyalism” is more evident in the urban inner-city.

Government department and agencies in Northern Ireland have, unfortunately, subscribed to the fiction that “Ulster Scots” and “Loyalism” are somehow linked. As recently in 2012, a Department of Culture consultation referred throughout to “Ulster-Scots language, heritage and culture”, implicitly suggesting that the Scots language and Loyalist heritage and culture were to be regarded as a single unit, when in reality they are almost entirely distinct – even geographically. As a result, the language has come to be almost totally ignored – since it is tied to a group of people who do not speak it, any attempts at promoting it invite ridicule (with the result that most people in Northern Ireland refuse to believe there are any speakers). Ulster-Scots Speakers themselves, meanwhile, are left marginalised from any attempts at “promotion”, because almost all such attempts are aimed for “culture and heritage reasons” at a completely different set of people – people who actually speak English! This is a perfect example of the risk of trying to link “language” to “nation” – sometimes to two scarcely coincide at all.

Another difficulty for Ulster Scots, given its implicit association with “Unionism” (and therefore against Nationalism), is that its proponents have often been unwilling to share their development work with those developing Scots in Scotland, precisely because the latter are assumed (often correctly) to be in favour of Scottish independence and thus of a completely opposing view concerning the constitutional future of the UK. As a result, the tendency in Northern Ireland has been to argue for language status for “Ulster Scots” alone, suggesting it is distinct not just from “English” but also from “Scots”. Politically this is bizarre and linguistically it lacks any justification whatsoever. Politically, it amounts to supposed Unionists (i.e. people assumed to support linkage between Northern Ireland and Great Britain) opposing an obvious link to Scotland; linguistically, there simply is no case for suggest Ulster Scots is distinct grammatically, lexically or phonologically from Scottish Scots, and indeed its development is harmed by doing so. Depriving for political reasons the obvious linguistic links between Ulster Scots and Scottish Scots deprives Ulster Scots of much of its interest – why would proponents of any variety of Scots wish to cut themselves off from the writings of Burns (including Auld Lang Syne) or the vocabulary of the game of golf (putt, links, divot etc), when these are the key introductory points of immediate and obvious interest to millions of people even well beyond the British Isles?

The other fundamental difficulty with the false intertwining of “nation” and “language” in the case of minority languages is that too many proponents of minority languages are inclined to take an attack on one as an attack on the other, and define them in similar terms. For example, a suggestion that Scots is not a “language” in the true sense is not, in fact, an attack on the idea that the Scottish nation could do perfectly well as an independent country; it is merely a suggestion that the Scots language is not used across the whole range of settings from formal to informal. People who are inclined to tie together minority language development with campaigns for political independence are inclined to spend a lot of time arguing over language status in the same way they argue over national status – yet the two are separate arguments! Scots could quite easily be revived with Scotland remaining within the UK (after all, Welsh has flourished within the UK far more than Irish has in the independent Republic of Ireland); on the other hand, an independent Scotland could quite easily decide to promote English for economic reasons to the exclusion of Scots.

This point transfers to Northern Ireland too. The suggestion that Ulster Scots is not a language, or at least lacks the range that English has, is often taken as an insult to Loyalist or broader Unionist culture because the that culture is supposedly intertwined with the Ulster-Scots language. It is noteworthy that the public figures who react most vehemently to this suggestion are, without exception, unwilling to utter so much as a word in Ulster Scots – because, as established above, they actually speak English! Visiting actual speakers of Ulster Scots, on the other hand, one is instantly struck how unconcerned they are about the “language versus dialect” debate (in much the same way speakers of Swiss German are unconcerned about it). The most prominent living poet in Ulster Scots, Jim Fenton, has long studiously avoided the debate altogether by referring to it as a “tongue” – precisely because he wants people to enjoy it, not argue about it!

Why is this? Here, I proceed with caution because when assessing a group of people, however defined, it is easy to drift into generalisation and conjecture. Nevertheless, much of this still derives, in my view, from the “Siege Mentality” of many Ulster Protestants – a mentality which is felt very much to be literal.

The story of “The Siege”, which in Northern Ireland needs no further definition to be taken automatically to mean the 1689 Siege of Derry, is perhaps highly relevant here. The albeit slightly simplified narrative carried down to the present day involves not just the clash between the Catholic “Irish” Jacobites seeking to take the city and the mainly Presbyterian “Ulster-Scots” city residents who held out against all odds, but also the other essential aspect involving the “English” – namely the English ship which waited further up the River Foyle for months instead of intervening, and (in common Ulster Protestant perception at least) leaving those inside the city walls to starve. This presentation of the “English”, as essentially gutless and untrustworthy, remains characteristic of much Ulster Protestant mentality and instinct to this day – ironically further enforcing the “siege mentality” as they see themselves caught between an adversary on one side (the “Irish”) and fellow countrymen they don’t trust on the other (the “English”).

It is this which, long pre-dating any “language” movement, gives the notion of “Ulster Scots”, even if it was not always so widely referred to as such, a particular resonance for many Ulster Protestants, particularly those for whom “identity” is most important (the world over, those who obsess most with identity tend to be those of fewer means and thus, these days, those in the inner cities and some rural locations). Exactly how this played out politically and linguistically has varied from time to time. Most “Ulster Scots” instinctively took the American side in 1776, many joined the 1798 rebellion, some (including nearly a third of Presbyterian Ministers in Ulster) were supportive of “Home Rule” at least until the “Ne Temere” Decree of 1907. Prior to the Victorian Age, Ulster Scots were marked for the priority they gave to education and particularly literacy, but in creative writing and particularly in poetry many purposefully followed Scots norms rather than English ones (i.e. those of Burns rather than Wordsworth) – these included not just vocabulary, spelling and grammar but even verse forms. The County Down poet Hugh Porter, writing at the start of the 19th century, perhaps summed it up best when he wrote of his own use of language (and, perhaps, of his own identity):

It is nor Scotch nor English either, but a bit o’ baith mix’d up thegither, but it’s the sort my neighbours use, wha prefer shoon prettier far than shoes.

Perhaps his most famous contemporary, James Orr from Ballycarry in County Antrim, went further and dismissed the English entirely, most notably in “Ode to the Potatoe” where he mocks the “English” for requiring so many crops when the “Irish” (to which he is clear he belongs) make do perfectly well with one – a poem made, in restrospect, almost into a tragedy by the Great Famine little more than a generation later. In other words, politically and linguistically, the notion of “Ulster Scots” has long been compelling for Ulster Protestants, as has the link between the politics and linguistics of “Ulster Scots”, based as they are upon Ulster Protestants’ sense of being caught besieged between the English and the Irish; however, how precisely this has revealed itself has swung dramatically over time. Those self-defining as “Ulster Scots” have always been split fully three ways – Nationalist, Liberal and Unionist – but exactly in which proportion has varied hugely from generation to generation, and may do so again.

So it is that we arrive at a contemporary situation in which most (though not all) who associate themselves with “Ulster Scots” regard themselves as “Unionist”, see the two as intertwined, and yet often at the same time reject outright any direct linguistic association between “Ulster Scots” and “Scots” – in other words, for many “Ulster Scots” has become something to be associated exclusively with “Ulster” and not shared with Scotland. It is a peculiar thing, surely, for “Unionist” who support the link with Great Britain politically to deny it linguistically?

Yet the combination of the two core parts of this paper explain this peculiarity, at least in part. Firstly, because everything in Northern Ireland is “mirrored” into two “sides”, if “Nationalists” have their own exclusive culture (incorporating a language), so much “Unionists” have theirs. Secondly, most “Unionists” are of a heritage which, while supportive of the link with Great Britain, is also greatly suspicious of the people who live there. These combine to explain why “Unionists”, having in fact secured their constitutional future as best they possibly can within the UK, remain so wary and suspicious. This lack of confidence cannot easily be overcome.

It was noted earlier also that many “Ulster Scots”, at least historically, had in fact been “Liberals” (now most likely to associate with the contemporary Alliance Party rather than any of the Unionist groupings). Even in the run-up to the Covenant of 1912 led by all the great Unionist Leaders of the time, entire hamlets in Scots-speaking and predominantly Protestant parts of rural Ulster (such as Armoy) refused to sign.

So what do modern “Liberals” make of this intertwining of language and culture? In truth, they do not think much about it. Liberals across the world tend to focus more on the reasoned and rational (and thus make political appeals to the “head”) where many others focus more on the emotional (and indeed identity-based; thus making political appeals to the “heart”). The recent “Flags Dispute” over Christmas 2012 was a classic example – the Liberals took a rational position that the flag on Belfast City Hall should change from flying 365 days a year as it always had in Belfast to flying on “designated days” as was the case with most Councils in the UK, in a way which would maintain the flying of the sovereign flag without overdoing its use in the centre of a city of divided national affiliations; Unionists took the more emotional position that “their flag” was being “taken away”. The fact that once militant Irish Republicans, for the first time in the history of Ireland, voted to fly the Union Flag over a civic building was lost to all sides, even though in theory it was a thorough endorsement of both the Liberal position (on the flag) and the Unionist position (on the constitution). Liberals were unable to engage at the emotional, identity-based level in order to claim victory; and for aforementioned reasons Unionists are always too suspicious to engage rationally to claim it.

Similarly, on language, Liberals tend to focus merely on the use of language as a mode of direct communication, rather than on the intertwining of language and political identity (and the way in which language can be used to communicate much more than just what is conveyed by the words themselves). In the same way they dismiss emotional attachments to symbols, they dismiss emotional attachments to languages. Although in theory Alliance Party policy is supportive of the development of all minority languages, this support rejects any notion that “indigenous” languages such as Irish and Ulster Scots should be treated any differently from more recently arrived languages such as Cantonese or Polish; and in practice gives such primacy to English that other languages would perhaps be best subtly forgotten. This is, rationally, an entirely sensible policy and position, of course. However, does it do justice to the emotional side, based as it is on centuries of the intertwining of language, politics and identity?

Therefore the whole thing has, in my view, broader political implications for Northern Ireland. Once one accepts that “language” and “nation” are not necessarily intertwined, and may indeed not be connected at all, one can begin to imagine that the whole diametric view of Northern Ireland to which we are supposed to subscribe may not be true at all. Under nationality, we are supposed to choose “Irish” or “British”; under political affiliation “Nationalist” or “Unionist”; under religious background “Catholic” or “Protestant”; under language “Irish Gaelic” or “Ulster Scots”; under sporting preference “GAA” or “hockey/cricket”; even under football team “Celtic” or “Rangers”. However, if the correlation between “language” and “nation” does not stand up to scrutiny, do any of these other correlations?

Once we in Northern Ireland begin to accept that the idea that to be “French” you have to speak “French” and to speak “French” you have to be “French” is a myth, suddenly a whole lot of other myths become apparent – such as the one that we must neatly box ourselves into compartments marked “Irish-Nationalist-Gaelic” or “British-Unionist-Ulster Scots”. Once we recognise that in fact we may wish to exercise a free choice in distinguishing between “language” on one hand and “nation” (or “culture and heritage”) on the other, a very different, new Northern Ireland opens up – one which is not so much bitterly divided as fascinatingly multi-faceted. Is a future embracing that new Northern Ireland not much, much better than the one in which a bitter sectarian conflict cost thousands of lives?


5 thoughts on “Exercise free choice and a new, better NI opens up before us

  1. chris roche says:

    Mulroney says:
    Ian James Parsley’s Sorbonne piece is highly impressive in its grasp of the facts and its insights into a fiendishly complicated politico-linguistic rigmarole both in OBI (Occupied by a German-parasite-royal-family British Isles__England, Scotland, Wales) and FBI (Free British Isles, the Republic of Ireland, where even someone born in a log cabin can aspire to become head of state). But it has to be recognised that it isn’t the blunt ,if golden, penknives of Yale, Cambridge, and the Sorbonne that slice through history’s Gordian Knots, it’s the sword of all-conquering Alexander, whose modern equivalent happens to be collective Irish republicanism, which unstoppable force of nature will eventually succeed in freeing, not just the Six Counties of northeast Ulster, but through inspiring example, OBI as well!

  2. Scots Anorak says:

    “Although in theory Alliance Party policy is supportive of the development of all minority languages, this support rejects any notion that “indigenous” languages such as Irish and Ulster Scots should be treated any differently from more recently arrived languages such as Cantonese or Polish; and in practice gives such primacy to English that other languages would perhaps be best subtly forgotten. This is, rationally, an entirely sensible policy and position, of course. However, does it do justice to the emotional side, based as it is on centuries of the intertwining of language, politics and identity?”

    In fact this is entirely illogical and nonsensical, amply evidenced by the fact that no other territory in these islands (not even England, in the case of Cornwall) maintains such a hard-line utilitarian policy. If the Alliance Party truly wishes Northern Ireland to be a normal and cohesive society like Great Britain or the Irish Republic, it must promote a language policy that confronts intolerance, and the promoters of intolerance, head-on, supporting and celebrating diversity rather than forcing it to cover up. I am a liberal with regard to immigrant languages: I support the provision of interpreters where required; I support community centres for ethnic minorities; I signed the petition to save the BBC Asian Network. However, public policy has to recognise that any comparison of regional languages spoken only in these islands, such as Irish and Scots, with immigrant languages that are the language of state in their homeland, such as Chinese or Polish, is entirely specious. That speciousness is obvious when one realises that the self-styled advocates of linguistic equality would balk at extending it to areas, of which there are not a few, where English is the minority language. Criticising Loyalists falls down flat if one’s own position is far to the right of Nelson McCausland or Lee Reynolds, both of whom, last time I looked, supported spending money on Scots.

    In that regard, I suggest that the Alliance Party heed the words of the late Nobel laureate, Séamus Heaney, a man, it is fair to say, who was not known for his violent Republicanism: “Not to learn Irish is to miss the opportunity of understanding what life in this country has meant and could mean in a better future. It is to cut oneself off from ways of being at home. If we regard self-understanding, mutual understanding, imaginative enhancement, cultural diversity and a tolerant political atmosphere as desirable attainments, we should remember that a knowledge of the Irish language is an essential element in their realisation.”

    PS — Although you might prefer to leave it, I think you may need to check out that Porter quote before you go to print.

  3. James Campbell says:


    God help us if the Cr comment is anything but a wind-up.

    Interesting article. But is there a subtle (too subtle for me) subtext to: “A third of Hungarian speakers in Europe do not live in Europe.” Time travellers?

  4. Martin Lemon says:

    Ian you say Ulster Scots is an exclusively rural phenomenon but surely if you’ve ever visited the likes of Larne, Ballymena, Ballymoney, Coleraine ect you would know this is certainly not the case?
    If you meant ‘rural’ in comparison to Belfast or Derry then of course your point does stand.

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