CURRY MY CROCODILE

Throughout February, we’re getting people from all over Northern Ireland to contribute personal pieces in the run up to the election on March 2nd. 28 days in February for 28 different voices.

There are still a few spots left to fill so get in touch!


 Sara Houston

The DUP leader’s comments on Monday are only part of a longstanding battle to politicise and diminish the value of the Irish language. Surely we are not a society that is afraid of languages but rather one which should recognise the value of its citizens being multi-lingual.

There are 32 countries in the world where women require permission from their husbands to apply for a passport, but in Northern Ireland, we are in the luxurious position of being able to have two if we so wish. We can simultaneously identify with more than one community and more than one nationality. Does it really have to be a case of either/or?

My background and my upbringing would say that I am not Irish. My passport is British. My family are a combination of Unionists and Loyalists. Some served in the British Army, some in the Navy, others were members of Loyalist paramilitaries. My dad grew up playing the drums on the 12th. My Granda was a Grandmaster in the Lodge. I select British when filling in forms, unless there is an option for Northern Ireland. I say I’m from Ireland when in America, and Belfast when in England, because it is just easier than trying to explain anything beyond that. I support Team GB in the Olympics but I also support the Irish team. I celebrated both Northern Ireland’s and the Republic of Ireland’s success at the 2016 Euros. I support Irish rugby then Scottish, Welsh and English (in that order because no one wants to deal with the English when they win – that is just unbearable!). I sing God Save the Queen and Ireland’s call because singing along to anything is fun. I collect mugs of the British monarchy and I say Derry because it is shorter than saying Londonderry. And I will apply for an Irish passport because Brexit sucks and I’d quite like the option to travel freely around Europe (and black and white photographs are more flattering).

I am and do all of these things and I am just one girl from East Belfast. Identity is fluid. It is complex. It is interchangeable and it can be contradictory. My identity is not strict or absolute in its definition.

We need to move away from the idea that identity a) is decided at birth, b) is a singular mutually exclusive choice and c) can’t change over time either for us as individuals or for whole communities. Why is it that nearly all Unionists considered themselves Irish at partition, and for many years afterwards, but not now? You can be simultaneously a Man United supporter and a Rangers fan, so why not British and Irish?

Culture and identity should not be treated as sacrosanct and static – culture is the expression of identity in a given place and time and can be either beneficial or harmful to society; it is in a constant state of flux with new elements being introduced and old ones discarded. We shouldn’t be afraid to say that those elements of culture that are demonstrably harmful to society (as a whole and not for just one side) should be discarded, with the example of many societies that have worked hard to oppose female genital mutilation despite it having been a traditional rite of passage for girls to adulthood for centuries.

It is also worth bearing in mind that the word tradition only means that something has been done a certain way for the last while, it tends to avoid the fact that there was a time when it wasn’t done and also doesn’t help us decide whether it benefits society or not.

For me the underlying issue here is the fact that many in the PUL community feel that their identity is under threat. And the question we have to ask ourselves is why? And beyond that why am I, as a member of the PUL community, able to think beyond or outside that? What is it that affords me such security of thought? Because the only difference I can see is that by any definition I am ‘middle class’. And because of that privilege I went to a ‘good school’ and went to university. And that, for me, is the fundamental problem. Layers of disadvantage mean that those with less access to services, education, employment and travel might then either hold onto certain symbols or reject others, marching onto the streets when the sectarian horn blows because some political power is telling them that their identity is threatened.

Let’s not also forget that there is systemic and passive aggressive sectarianism and elitism in the so called middle classes, which is evidenced by their refusal to invest (financially and otherwise) in integrated education and the shoring up of academic selection at 11 years old because it suits middle class kids to continue to operate under the current system.

Those who are socially disadvantaged are not the ones who are wrong. None of us can say that we would not do the same if our particular set of circumstances had been different. The choices we make and the views we have are a product of circumstances we grew up in and the levels of privilege we do or do not have. Let’s stop being absolute about it.

For me, anti-Irish Unionism will ultimately break the Union. What type of Northern Ireland are we living in when the First Minister has such open disdain and prejudice against the Irish language and by default, the Irish community? Not to mention how these comments ostracise people from PUL community who either want to learn and speak Irish or celebrate those that do.

Arlene Foster called Irish speakers crocodiles. Besides this being blatant sectarianism, I have always found crocodiles to be one of the more petrifying beasts in the animal kingdom. I’ll admit that this is probably due to some deep rooted fear from my childhood when my Gran told me that there was an evil crocodile called Clarence living under my bed and if I was bad then he’d come out and get me, but there is no escaping the fact that the First Minister is likening those that speak and/or support the Irish language to reptiles. Let that sit for a minute; How can that community (who lets not forget are indigenous to this island) ever feel that they belong and should live & work in Northern Ireland when their First Minister talks about them with such arrogance and contempt?

I don’t know whether it makes sense to have an Irish Language Act; I’m happy to plead ignorance when it comes to the detail. But what strikes me is the blatant opposition, and therefore by default oppression, that comes from the First Minister’s statement. If she actually had any interest and respect for the Irish community then she would lead her party to engage with them to discuss, agree and map out the best way forward in relation to the Irish Language. It is not for those who do not speak Irish to make decisions for Irish speakers. It is not for those without a uterus to tell a woman what to do with her body. It is not for white people to tell people of colour how to feel or act or to determine what is a race issue and what is not.

Let’s also be clear here – an Irish Language Act does not create or promote equal usage between English and Irish. The English language is universal and has been of the majority Irish culture’s first language of choice for two centuries. No one is suggesting the promotion of equal usage between English and Irish; the evidence everywhere is overwhelmingly against it. But that does not require the disdain and abandonment from Arlene’s DUP.

The question to ask is why are the DUP so frightened of the Irish language? If they feel that Sinn Fein have politicised it, then surely they should depoliticise it by taking it back and making it for all. If they’re not willing to listen to the Irish language speaking community (and it appears they’re not) then perhaps they could at least listen to or have some respect for fellow Unionists such as Linda Ervine who says that “an Irish language act would take it away from party politics. We could get away from the politicisation of it, which is an easy way to dismiss the language and people’s rights. It doesn’t have to be like this. Surely people can be respectful and have dialogue and accommodate others.”

There are times for us to be neutral, but perhaps this is a time when saying nothing in the face of oppression is not neutral at all. Saying nothing is actually an active position of supporting oppression.


Sara Houston works in policy and community development for a local charitable foundation and lives in inner East Belfast.
Follow her on Twitter.

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