In the recent past, there was a common idea among academics who thought and wrote about unionists, that there were broadly two types of unionism in Northern Ireland. ‘Cultural unionism’ concentrated on defending a way of life regarded as specific to Protestants in Ulster and it was most closely associated with the DUP, while ‘liberal’ or ‘British unionism’ was focussed on the UK as a whole and influenced some quarters of the UUP.
People’s attitudes and motivations can rarely be put into categories so neatly, but there was some truth to the distinction. A common Ulster Unionist jibe asserted that the DUP was an “Ulster nationalist” party with little time for UK politics or modern British society, and scarcely deserved to be called ‘unionist’ at all.
From the perspective of late 2017, it’s a lot more difficult to sustain that claim.
Whatever the merits or otherwise of Brexit, the DUP threw itself into a nationwide campaign and argued the case for the whole UK to leave the EU. Then, after the last general election, its MPs found themselves holding the ‘balance of power’ at Westminster. The party brokered a deal to support the government in key votes and established a meaningful relationship with the Conservatives.
This new emphasis on UK politics happened partly by accident - because Sinn Fein had collapsed the power-sharing executive at Stormont and left Democratic Unionists without their local political platform - but it also reflected how unionism has realigned, as voters and activists deserted the UUP.
Unfortunately, there are some ominous signs that, in order to get the Assembly up and running again, the DUP might be tempted to return to its old habits and accept a sectarian carve-up on the Irish Language.
Although the party has sent out conflicting signals, some of its representatives encourage the idea that it may back legislation to formally support Irish, if the Ulster Scots ‘language’ is included in an act as well. It’s a dangerous notion, that could change Northern Ireland considerably, on the flimsy pretext of securing equivalent money for a culture that interests a tiny majority of enthusiasts.
An Irish Language Act could mean almost anything, but campaigners most frequently cite legislation in Wales, where a much larger community speaks the native tongue and English and Welsh are legally on an “equal footing”. Sinn Fein wants the act to centre on its own paper, compiled by former culture minister Caral Ni Chuilin, which proposes ‘affirmative action’ to boost the number of Gaelic speakers in the public sector.
Even less wide-ranging legislation could deepen divisions in our society and encourage ongoing efforts to ‘mark out’ areas with Irish street signs and other indicators of cultural ownership. Add Ulster Scots to this equation and public money may as well be used to fund a kerb-painting scheme to show exactly who lays claims to which parts of the province.
This kind of thinking reflects very accurately how power-sharing has operated in Northern Ireland since 2007. Government here has often come down to divvying up taxpayers’ money to one or other of our perceived ‘communities’, and the biggest parties’ role is to fight for their share of the spoils.
The Irish language is certainly a unique and irreplaceable part of the heritage of the British Isles. It deserves support and protection, just like many other aspects of our culture. However, Sinn Fein barely attempts to disguise the fact that it wants legislation in order to promote the “Irish national identity” because Northern Ireland “is not British”, as Michelle O’Neill claimed at the Conservative Party Conference.
A language act, or even a wider culture act, will focus on things that divide people in Northern Ireland, rather than things that bring us together. It will take money that could be spent on services for everyone and spend it on a tiny minority whose idea of culture is making a big deal about national identity, often with transparently political motives.
If the DUP is really starting to think about politics differently, and if it aspires to keep the support of the broadest section of unionism, it should leave this legislation well alone.
This article was published first in the News Letter.