NI politics, and why language matters

I kicked off a bit of a firestorm on Twitter the other day – it so happened in opposition to an MLA who is also a personal friend – on the SDLP’s use of the term “the north” in response to the UK Chancellor’s Autumn statement.

This is a subtle thing and some people thought raising it was churlish. I understand why they felt this, but I believe they are missing a fundamentally important issue. Language is about a lot more than pure, rational communication. Our daily language is littered with markers – of who we are and who we are not, of what we approve of and what we do not, of what our background is and is not, and everything in between.

“The north” is of course in widespread use by Nationalists to refer to Northern Ireland even when it is not clear from the context that Ireland is being referred to. It is of course a means of firmly positioning Northern Ireland within an exclusively Irish context (arguably while hinting at the assumed illegitimate and/or temporary nature of the jurisdiction), and hence it is used in this way only by Nationalists. Its use is a deliberate identifier, notably by Nationalist parties and the Irish News, of Nationalism and the user’s innate comfort with and preference for Nationalism. It identifies the “in group”, and thus the “out group”, and is thus deliberately exclusive of non-Nationalists (even if inadvertently).

This exclusivity is further marked by those defending the phrase being unable to identify its equivalent, which is not “Northern Ireland” (the official name) or “Norn Iron” (derived from the official name used often with reference to the football team).

Its equivalent, widely used by Unionists and the News Letter, is in fact “Ulster” (used to refer to six counties only). Like “the north”, “Ulster” is deliberately used to place Northern Ireland in a particular political context, in this case outside “Ireland” altogether. Like “the north”, “Ulster” is confusing out of context, as in other contexts (notably history and sport) it clearly refers to nine counties, not six. Like “the north”, “Ulster” thus identifies an “in group” and an “out group”, and is thus deliberately exclusive of non-Unionists (again, even if inadvertently).

Infrequent use of “the north” or “Ulster” to mean Northern Ireland is not a serious problem, of course, but users should be (and frankly are) aware that such terms always identify an “in group” and an “out group”, and are thus exclusive. Occasional use will be regarded (as one correspondent rightly suggested) as inoffensive, but determined use of such phrases will always be taken as deliberately exclusive and insensitive by those in the “out group” – and rightly so, because it is.

Most notably, those genuine about making NI work and carrying forward the required compromises around identity (as well as the required promotion of both British and Irish identity) cannot hope to do so if in their very phraseology promotes only one particular worldview and identity (placing is firmly Ireland or removing us entirely from Ireland) while ignoring all others. If even moderates cannot agree on the need for inclusive labels and phrases, there is simply no agreed, shared foundation on which to build an agreed, shared future.

It is notable that impartial organisations, most obviously the BBC and UTV, do not use either “the north” or “Ulster” for the very reason that they are loaded one way or the other. (For the record, the BBC dropped “the Province” to refer specifically to Northern Ireland some years ago for the same reason.)

Fundamental to this is an underlying problem with Northern Ireland’s still not sufficiently advanced community relations. Overuse, for example, of exclusive symbols by public agencies or councils is in fact illegal, monitored in the interests of inclusivity and fair play by the Equality Commission. Overuse of exclusive phrasing by political parties falls into the exact same area – it is at best carelessly exclusive, and at worst deliberately disrespectful. And telling people to ignore it, however liberally and politely, is just like telling them to ignore symbols.

That isn’t the aforementioned fundamental problem with community relations, however. The fundamental problem is that we remain, no matter how we refer to Northern Ireland, too willing to demand respect and legitimacy for ourselves, and too unwilling to offer that respect to others. Even moderates see fit to ignore the need to show the basic generosity necessary – for example by avoiding overuse of symbols or exclusive terminology – without demanding something in return. Language, like symbols, comes to define “in groups” and “out groups” – and denials of this obvious fact come across as frankly devious.

This is not exclusive (!) to Northern Ireland by any means. Across the UK, for example, use of “Europe” to refer to the Continent can be seen by some as irksome and is a clear hint at British exceptionalism. The predominantly German-speaking Italian province of South Tyrol is referred to in German as “Südtirol” (the rest of “Tirol” is in Austria) but in Italian officially as “Alto Adige” (to avoid the Austrian link; although interestingly since I was there in 2000 apparently many younger Italian speakers in the area now use “Tirolo del Sud” as a marker of regional solidarity). Referring to the Spanish language in Spanish itself as “Español” (from the name of the state) or “Castellano” (from the name of the originating region, and also the one used in the Spanish Constitution) is a marker of preference and grouping; as is the use of “Moldovan” or “Romanian” to refer to the official national language of the Republic of Moldova (which is identical to Romanian but referred to constitutionally merely as the “national language”). There are many more such examples – the point being that language is just as sensitive and symbols. If we are aware of this, we may well choose to use it as a tool to annoy a certain “out group” and emphasise our credentials within a certain “in group”. If we are not aware of it, we probably need to be…

We have a responsibility in our use of language, just as with symbols, to behave sensitively and not to place our fellow citizens in an “out group” (at least, if we are serious about making NI work for all its people). It is time we respected that responsibility – in the north of Ulster and elsewhere…

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16 thoughts on “NI politics, and why language matters

  1. I hope you realise that using the North is a colloquialism often used by people from the Republic of Ireland, not simply the Nationalist Community. It’s not merely Shinnertalk to ignore partition, it’s not simply a phrase an SDLP person “greens” themselves with, it’s something that crops up naturally on RTÉ and Irish television. Often most Irish people would use the phrases The North and Northern Ireland interchangeably.

    Ulster/Province can be wildly used in GB, but usually maybe because of the BBC this seems to be mainly confined to the political sphere. What also exists in Britain, or indeed the British mainland is the use of Ireland to mean Northern Ireland and/or Republic of Ireland and the use of Britain more than the United Kingdom, sometimes even to Britain and Ireland, or as they might say the British Isles, with very little awareness this may show an ignorance of the independence of the Republic.

    Even in Europe, Northern Western Europeans will put the adjective Northern/North to the beginning, Southern Western Europeans will put it to the end. Irish has Éireann an Tuascairt and Tuascairt Èireann.

    So I think it is a bit unfair to simply blame either on insular communities when they really are parts of organic national culture and background. People from outside Northern Ireland might use either term and genuinely be surprised it could cause an offence. There is some level of truth that don’t

    • …blame on malice what could be explained by ignorance

      • That point about “ignorance” rather than “malice” is well made – and leads us to the core problem.

        Two things…

        One is that it is not good enough to be “ignorant” if you are claiming to be about “making NI work”. Part of “making NI work” is coming to terms with the fact that it is a deeply sectarian society and it won’t work fully until it isn’t. To be clear, that we are a sectarian society means that sectarianism, not non-sectarianism, is the norm; sectarianism, not non-sectarianism, comes naturally; and thus that non-sectarianism has to be proactive. [I’m using sectarianism in its most basic sense – “exclusively one sided” rather than “bigoted”.]

        The second is tied to this. As Rev Dunlop put it, this sectarianism may be best seen as a pyramid. At the bottom lies ignorance, which inevitably among some breeds fear, which inevitably among some breeds hatred, which inevitably among some breeds violence. You are left with a small minority engaged in sectarian violence, but the ignorance at the bottom of the pyramid. [That’s how you get from “exclusively one-sided” to “bigoted hate crime”…]

        This comes to the crux of the issue among Nationalists. Someone raises a quibble about Irish anthems at GAA games or use of Nationalist terminology in a piece about welfare (common to all of us), and far from their quibble being considered, the person raising the quibble gets marginalised and even themselves accused of being sectarian! That’s “in group” thinking, or as it is commonly known “sectarianism”, right there. Yet even “moderates” do it.

        In other words, that we are too ignorant to recognise it is the fundamental problem!

      • I’m not sure if a few words in someone’s vocabulary is going to make of a difference socially speaking, The English language evolved integrating multiple cultures version of a word. To use the word Tory doesn’t mean you’re Irish any more than using the term Ombudsman makes you Swedish. It can be just an element of multiculturalism.

        There are dissident republicans and dissident unionists sharing student accommodation in South Belfast, there are mix marriages where linguistic terminology doesn’t change, even among Alliance supporters. I don’t think using the North to refer to Northern Ireland or questioning the use of the North is wrong either. Ignoring differences might be better than highlighting them.

        What’s in a name?

        Social mobility is low, so levels of people mixing their areas is low, so levels of people mixing their schools is low and there’s more of an appetite to leave Northern Ireland than to go to neighbours. Calling something this or that is not going to make even a minor difference to that.

        800 years of sectarianism on this island didn’t arise because of a few semantic differences

  2. Patrick says:

    It is notable that impartial organisations, most obviously the BBC and UTV, do not use either “the north” or “Ulster” for the very reason that they are loaded one way or the other. (For the record, the BBC dropped “the Province” to refer specifically to Northern Ireland some years ago for the same reason.)

    Just reading this while listening to BBC radio Ulster…. Ian

    • Heh heh – which doesn’t of course cover “Northern Ireland” thanks to “Radio Foyle”…

      But it’s a good example of a leftover from a time when everything was “Ulster” – “Ulster Television”, “Ulster Transport Authority”, etc. But times have changed and so have these titles, and rightly so. I’m sure if there were no Radio Foyle, “Ulster” would now be “NI”.

  3. Tuskar Rock says:

    Quote: «..too unwilling to offer that respect to others.» I suppose “a bit unwilling” or “slightly unwilling” would be better. Analogous, possibly, to being “too pregnant” or “a bit unique” or “slightly dead”.

    Or the truth could be faced, Northe’n Arland – at least the part of it that identifies with the recently numerically greater and politically dominant culture – seems to have little or no incentive to abandon the shibboleths of 16 and 17th century English politics and join the rest of the world chugging along in 2015AD.

    And equally the part of the Sex Coynties that identifies with the formerly numerically lesser and politically suppressed culture – has equally little incentive to cast aside the bitterness and resentment therefrom engendered, etc., etc, etc.

    Or perhaps there IS some vast untapped subterranean sea of good fellowship awaiting some latter-day Moses (Mandela?) merely to strike the rock, wherefrom the waters of true peace and harmony will gush forth. Or, did your prophets cal to you in times now gone, but their voices were not heard?

    Of course, I could have it all wrong. I live in the KnowItAll Scythe, and you know what WE’re like, all talk but knowing not that whereof we speak. Hope I’m not being ungenerous here, but there’s only so much picking at wounds, making them bleed, and then having to run to Westminster or Leinster House or Capitol Hill – or all three – looking for a box of sticking plaster, that can be possible henceforth, surely?

  4. other paul says:

    I think what so many people fail to appreciate about the current DUP/SF “stitch up” is that we have two opposites trying to find common ground and looking past foibles which may annoy each other for the greater good.
    As a lapsed nationalist, the unionist interpretation and use of the term Ulster doesn’t really bother me at all, and I hadn’t really thought about it in a while.

    However, decrying that Nationalists show no respect because they don’t use the term “Northern Ireland” more often is at best baffling, and perhaps slightly hypocritical, coming from someone who stood under the UCUNF banner.

    • There’s a BBC Northern Ireland program “True North” … nothing to do with an Irish (nationalist) identity. Could we really even see the case where “North” can be simply a shorthand for Northern Ireland in some contexts?

    • I think he criticized the group for something that highlights a party’s outward Irish nationalist (exclusive) culture. The North could be seen as ambiguous to the Unionist community, in a similar manner to using the “mainland” can be seen as ambiguous to the Rathlin Island community. There are 652458240 random versions of the “Six Counties” in an all Irish 32 county context and 84 versions of Six Counties of Ulster (9 county 16th century version of Ulster not including Louth)

      Most SDLP (and several Sinn Féin members) aren’t reluctant to use Northern Ireland, but they won’t use it every time and in every context. There is a similar culture among Southerners, sorry denizens of the Republic of Ireland.

      “Da Nort” does have a semiotic connection to Irish Republicanism, but it can be brushed off as easily as the semiotic associations that “Olstar” has at times.

  5. Tuskar Rock says:

    Quote: «..too unwilling to offer that respect to others.» I suppose “a bit unwilling” or “slightly unwilling” would be better. Analogous, possibly, to being “too pregnant” or “a bit unique” or “slightly dead”.

    Or the truth could be faced, Nor’n Arland – at least the part of it that identifies with the recently numerically greater and politically dominant culture – seems to have little or no incentive to abandon the shibboleths of 16 and 17th century English politics and join the rest of the world chugging along in 2015AD.

    And equally the part of the Sex Coynties that identifies with the formerly numerically lesser and politically suppressed culture – has equally little incentive to cast aside the bitterness and resentment therefrom engendered, etc., etc, etc.

    Or perhaps there IS some vast untapped subterranean sea of good fellowship awaiting some latter-day Moses (Mandela?) merely to strike the rock, wherefrom the waters of true peace and harmony will gush forth. Or, did your prophets cal to you in times now gone, but their voices were not heard?

    Of course, I could have it all wrong. I live in the KnowItAll Scythe, and you know what WE’re like, all talk but knowing not that whereof we speak. Hope I’m not being ungenerous here, but there’s only so much picking at wounds, making them bleed, and then having to run to Westminster or Leinster House or Capitol Hill – or all three – looking for a box of sticking plaster, that can be possible henceforth, surely?

    • Thanks for joining us, and I agree entirely.

      We are all about respect for our own culture, but bugger respecting anyone else’s.

      We all want our own aspirations accepted, but stuff anyone else’s.

      Mandela adopted the Springbok symbol and made it his…

  6. owenpolley says:

    It’s particularly lamentable to see a colloquialism (as Kevin describes it) in official documents. Today DCAL released a consultation document into funding for ‘soccer’ stadia, littered with the terms ‘the north’ and ‘the north of Ireland’. It actually has the effect of making the text unclear. Take this passage, outlining qualifying criteria:

    “Venue Located in the North of Ireland: The venue must be located in the north of Ireland and the project must, in the main, benefit the inhabitants of the north of Ireland.”

    By this criteria applications could be made to fund stadia improvements in, for instance, Donegal. So clarity and comprehension is sacrificed to Sinn Fein’s ideological agenda. A truly ridiculous situation when we’re talking about official documents released by a government department.

    To me, this kind of misuse is more serious than the contents of press releases, although I take your point.

    • The DCAL minister even referred to something called the Northern Ireland football team very recently. Maybe language doesn’t matter that much.

      • She has never referred to “Northern Ireland”, the jurisdiction.

        Yet I know Irish Republicans who do. They understand that, to unify Ireland, you need to respect the status quo and take people with you. As a result, I respect them and would be much likelier to support, or at least tolerate, the route they advocate.

        Language is important!

    • You’re right of course, Owen.

      And this matters for another reason. The 1998 Agreement, which apparently Sinn Fein supports, determines absolutely and without dispute that “Northern Ireland” (so called) exists; and even that “the people of Northern Ireland” exist. It determines further that Northern Ireland is specific in allowing a dual birthright (to be British or Irish, or indeed both, regardless of constitutional status).

      Too many Nationalists continue to suggest that the existence and status of Northern Ireland are “disputed”. They are not. The Agreement leaves neither in any doubt.

      The specific reason I picked up on the SDLP usage was that the SDLP is claiming it will move towards a stance of “making NI work”. Yet if it cannot even name the place by its agreed name, preferring instead to use terminology used only by one of NI’s two main “traditions” [again, to use the text of the Agreement], it is clearly not that keen on respecting the aspirations and identity of all Northern Ireland’s inhabitants. That is why it matters.

      But of course, legally, it is a serious problem that DCAL has done that. The terminology is wrong, and could be subject to legal challenge. (I have no problem with “soccer”, to be honest – it is at least clear!)

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