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…