“We don’t trust unionist politicians to respect our rights” – By Jake Mac Siacais

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‘Cultural Supremacy’: we’re finally at the nub of the problem, a time of opportunity or missed opportunity. Will it be breakthrough or stalemate?

Our seemingly endless series of interrupted talks has now been put in limbo. Your guess and mine about how long our stay in limbo will be are probably as valid and useful as Brokenshire’s. For sure there is no agreement and no likelihood of one soon as we enter ‘Marching Season’.

Talks will, we are told, rumble on after a fashion before they resume in earnest sometime after the summer.

There is deadlock in the words of Arlene Foster because: ‘what we can’t see is one section of the community having cultural supremacy over others’.

I would wholly welcome that statement, were it genuinely intended to signal an end of cultural supremacy. I don’t believe Arlene meant it in the sense that I, or many others, would like to interpret it.

Furthermore, from tenor of political spokespersons in the aftermath of the hapless Brokenshire’s latest pronouncement, it clearly doesn’t signal an end to the dogfight nor the zero sum gain politics which have bedevilled this place since Unionist leader James Molyneaux, greeted news of the 1994 IRA ceasefire with the statement that it was ‘the most destablising event since partition’ and ‘the worst thing that could have happened to us’.

He certainly got it right with the former, as far as Unionists were concerned. For all of us who live here and who have lived realtively free of violent conflict since 1994 his latter statement was way off the mark. Things have changed here since the days of the Lords Molyneaux, Trimble and Paisley. Many would say and many others would admit in their heart of hearts that they have changed utterly and irreversibly. All the certainties have gone.

Back now to the current leader of Unionism Arlene Foster. On the occasion of her elevation to the leadership of the DUP my organistion, the West Belfast based Irish Language development agency Forbairt Feirste (which is charged with promoting and developing Belfast’s Gaeltacht Quarter in partnership with government) wrote to her (10/12/2015) in the following terms:

“Can I, first of all, on behalf of the Gaeltacht Quarter Board, congratulate you on your elevation to the leadership of the Democratic Unionist Party. We wish you well in tackling the challenges which face you and the rest of us.

“We believe in taking opportunities for building goodwill and mutual understanding and would therefore like to invite you to organise a party delegation to visit the Gaeltacht Quarter at the invitation of Forbairt Feirste. The purpose of the visit would be to both acquaint yourselves with some of the work that is ongoing in the Gaeltacht Quarter and to allow for us to engage in a positive exchange of views on what we can do to fulfil our mutual aim of ensuring there are no cold places in our society.”

We recieved not as much as an acknowledgement of receipt of that letter.

We have written in similar terms to the DUP on several occassions. The latest of those was in the aftermath of Foster’s statement that she was prepared to meet Irish Language organisations.

In our last correspondance with her on 13/4/2017 we again invited her to meet with us and expressed the hope that we would hear from her soon.

We still await even the courtesy of a reply.

Fair enough we are where we are, as they say. The invitation stands.

We believe that there is everything to be gained by dialogue and nothing to be lost. Our cultural identity will not be diminished by the encounter and neither should anyone else’s.

Reflection is being advised all round. Perhaps it’s time for us all to step back and try to see this stalemate and stasis as opportunity rather threat. We all, I’m sure, agree that half solutions or more of what we’ve experienced for over twenty years is really not a useful or desirable outcome.

Notwithstanding all the previous agreements and compromises there is clearly unfinished business. It requires a step change if sustainable arrangements are to be agreed.

So pausing for reflection I’d like to offer my perspective.

There is probably nothing more important to us all, regardless of our background than identity. The simple but profound questions: Who am I? From where do I come? How do I interact with the part of the world in which I live? These are fundamental questions to all humans. The cultural expression of the identity which we derive (or indeed construct) from exploring these questions is personal, precious and quite often complex, and it is always a journey.

It is never one-dimensional and the majority of us will take huge umbrage with anyone who disparages our culture. In situations of conflict and of competing cultures this can often turn nasty, violent or just be hugely disruptive.

I don’t need to tell anyone here about that. Whatever we say we all know the score.

Bearing this in mind and without rehashing how we all got to where we are, let’s now consider why thousands, young and old took to the streets of Belfast to demand an Irish Language Act, first promised at St Andrews over a decade ago. Let’s leave aside party politics and consider the question seriously in light of the fact that we’re all going to continue sharing this small piece of territory for the foreseeable future.



Putting your cards on the table is always a good place to start any discussion. I’m a Gael. I’m an Irish language activist. I work in the Irish Language sector. Politically I’m an Irish Republican and a socialist. I am a husband, a father of five and grandfather to five, all of whom have been brought up bilingually and have received and continue to receive the highest standard of Irish Medium education, much in the case of my older children without state support. They haven’t faired too badly. The first two have graduated from university, the next two are currently at university and the last is manning up for A Levels. Plenty more like them are coming through. All bilingual, many trilingual. All of them confident, tolerant and outward looking citizens, a credit to any normal society.

From my maternal grandfather, I got a familiarity with and a grá (love) for the colloqualisms of his native north antrim. I’m as comfortable walking the hills, ag spastóireacht sna cnoic or even rannerin’ roon tha brae, all the same activity expressed in different idiom.

Provided I don’t insult my neighbours or cause offence or harm in so doing I fail to see why anyone should have a problem with it.

There are, however, self-evidently those who do have problems with my Irish identity and my right, as a citizen and taxpayer, to live my life through Irish. Time out of number I have been appalled and angered with insults that I have had to endure and which all Irish speakers have had to endure. All who marched in Belfast demanding an Irish Language Act feel the pressing need for legislative protection of our rights as taxpayers who choose to live their lives bilingually. We don’t trust unionist politicians to respect our rights. Their behaviour gives us no reason to trust them. We won’t settle for half measures or fudged cultural acts and the majority of local politicians agree with us.

Those who have a problem with Irishness and Irish language speakers, are in two broad categories, firstly those who hold and have held antagonistic views about Gaelic Language and culture since the foundation of the northern state and those who currently vote for parties which espouse this position in greater or lesser measure.

Secondly there are those who hold these antagonistic views and seek to be in government and who furthermore wish to equate and link my Language with Orangeism, or with the cultural allegiances of others which I do not in any way share but which I do not seek to deny to them. It’s not on. It won’t happen.

Now to the elephant in the room, which has led to the latest Stormont impasse and has blighted this corner of the Island for too long.

Whatever about the party political jockeying which surrounds this latest hiatus, we are in the situation we’re in beacuse the majority of unionism feels the DUP are the only ones who will stand firmly for the Union with Britain and who will uphold their interests and the majority of nationalism feels only Sinn Féin will stand firmly for the new dispensation we all believed had been achieved through the GFA and subsequent compromises which the electorate endorsed through the mandates they gave.

Both the current DUP and Sinn Féin mandates are impressive. Only 52,000 votes separate them.

The state in which we live, was and is ultimately a product of British policy towards Ireland since the early 20th century. The state is approaching 100 years of age and all of us, however much we dispute and contest our ‘shared history’ clearly agree that this is not a stable, harmonious or truly peaceful place to live in.

For most nationalists Cultural Supremacy has meant and means only one thing: Orange and unionist domination and naked sectarianism. Nationalists genuinely feel and have felt like second class citizens in our own place. Most have no affinity with Britishness and most certainly none for unionism, loyalism or Orangeism. Yet we are surrounded on every side by the symbols of Britishness and the ‘unique displays of Britishness’ which dominate the public space.

I pay a TV licence yet every year must witness airtime given, courtesy of the BBC and my money, to what is to me is a display of naked sectarianism, foisted upon us under the guise of an Orangefest. Then there is the effrontery of the bonfires, the seas of flags, kerb painting and territory marking. Many bonfires are lit by DUP and unionist worthies. Many others besides are bedecked with the most grossly offensive sectarian, anti-nationalist and anti-catholic displays of hatred. Most are built throughout my native city with the clear preference being to have them in as close proximity as possible to the misnamed peace walls.

Young loyalists, driven into paroxysms of ‘loyalist grievance’ are ignored, even worse, indulged as they erect huge and in some cases life threatening bonfires wherever they like, be it private or public space. This is tolerated and colluded with by those in authority and come the night of the 11th of July there will be scenes of drunkeness and drug taking with blood-curdling songs celebrating sentiments such as  ‘we are up to our necks in fenian blood’ and other even more offensive lyrics yet we are told by the DUP that this is to be equated with protection of Irish, an indigenous minority language which has the oldest vernacular literature in Europe and which is a shared heritage for all.

Language protection is a Europe wide practice. Our neighbours in Scotland and Wales have legal protections. How much more do we need them here given our circumstances?.

Let’s hope the stalemate and changed realities of demographics produce real dialogue whenever it may come. Things have changed utterly. Genuine new thinking is needed if we are to arrive at workable arrangements. Half deals and cobbled together deals just won’t cut it. Let’s travel in hope.

Jake Mac Siacais is Director of Forbairt Feirste.


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  1. You are are obviously a republican bigot, you forget the terrorism thrown upon us by Sinn Fein. Unionist people will NEVER surrender to Sinn Fein, people who vote for Sinn Fein are seen as supporters of the IRA. U are the single biggest stumbling block to a United Ireland, Unionist people still believe there is a war going on, as all British identity is slowly being erased. Vast majority of unionist people don’t even care about a language act. We are mostly of Scottish decent so therefore are Celts, but even this cannot be regonised by republicans. We all believe If it wasn’t for Sinn Fein IRA there already would be a United Ireland. They are the biggest stumbling block to all your wishes. As much as we don’t like the SDLP we don’t see them as murdering bigots.

    • Jake Mac Siacais (@MacSiacais) on

      You are totally entitled to your opinion Darren. I don’t share it. Thanks for responding, however, even if I absolutely and totally refute your description of me as a Republican bigot and a lot of the other things you say. I don’t forget for a moment the place we have all come from but wouldn’t share your perspective on it. Hopefully we can all learn to travel in hope. Bitterness only poisons those who harbour it.

      • Jake,

        You and your fellow Republican travellers always hark on about fulfilling obligations ‘agreed,’ under so called previous Agreements.

        How about this one:

        My father was murdered by the Provisional IRA and his killer was convicted, but released under the terms of the G.F.A.

        Upon his release, he went on to ‘allegegedly,’ murder a taxi driver, but was never touched due to political expediency and was then sentenced for Attempted Murder of a barman in Dundalk.

        I have been fighting continuously for the terms of the G.F.A. to be upheld and for my father’s killer to be returned to serve his sentence for his breech of the G.F.A.

        Maybe you could forward this to those in the ‘know,’ to see that this particular term of the GFA. to be fulfilled.

    • Darren bet :

      “..Unionist people will NEVER surrender to Sinn Fein…people who vote for Sinn Fein are seen as supporters of the IRA.”

      Your bitterness is consuming you and eating you alive to your own detriment – time to move forward.
      The GFA was signed 19 years ago.
      France and Germany buried the hatchet approx. 10 years after WW2 when they joined together to establish what we now know as the EU – this is the way forward.

      There will almost certainly be an irreversible Nationalist ELECTORAL majority by the mid-2020’s in the North – and the only way forward in your dealings with the Nationalist community is as 100% equals in every respect.
      The respect that the Unionists community demands from the Nationalist community works both ways.

      A Re-United Ireland is inevitable – Unionists have nothing to fear from this.

      All the best,
      Turbo Furbo

  2. Jake Mac Siacais (@MacSiacais) on

    Truthseeker, since you choose to remain anonymous I can’t really take you seriously. If this is a bona fide case it is appalling. If this guy is allegedly guilty of murdering a taxi driver he should face the courts. If he is serving time for attempting to murder a barman so be it. He deserves to do so. As to his breach of his terms of release under GFA there are clear mechanisms for dealing with this. If you are genuinely aggreived feel free to contact me privately. My contact details are jake@forbairtfeirste.com you may wish to contact me some other way. Take care, don’t lose hope.

  3. Irwin Armstrong on

    Unfortunately rights in NI are put forward as basic foundation of everything, there are however seldom any mentions of the responsibilities that accompany those rights. Everyone has a right to follow their culture, but not in a way that sets out to antagonise others. Orange marches or bonfires that are used by some to offend others, or the politicisation of the Irish language by SF are abuses of those rights.

    Anyone who claims a right should also openly accept the responsibilities that accompany it.

  4. George Buckley on

    I read your piece with great interest. I have often discussed with those in my community the difficulties in embracing the language of the island, largely because I feel it has become synonymous with one particular set of political goals and aspirations. I genuinely believe that if the language was depoliticised, it would be embraced across the island and by different communities. I lost a great uncle on the Somme, and when I was researching the family tree, via the 1901 census, I was amazed to discover that our, and indeed many Presbyterian families around the turn of the century were bilingual. Forgive me, but I feel that the language is increasingly used by political representatives to antagonise and points score, rather than to communicate and celebrate. Willy John an Irish speaker, died on a battle field in France, he is buried in Mont Noir with Protestant and Catholics from all over the island, possibly all Irish speakers? Why then do I feel that his and their sacrifice, part of my cultural identity, is being eroded. Just a thought.

    • Jake Mac Siacais on

      Thanks for your considered reply George. When we are fed a diet of fear it’s often hard to see the wood for the trees. In the Gaeltacht Quarter in West Belfast we have a cultural trail celebrating people as diverse as Joe McKelvey an IRA leader executed by the Free State in 1922 and Rev Richard Rutledge Kane Grandmaster of The Grand Orange Lodge of Belfast. What links them both is their love and labours for the Irish Language. Saying that the ‘politicisation’ of Irish should excuse the vitriol and approbrium heaped upon it is equivalent to saying that Protestantism ‘politicised’ by orangeism should not be tolerated. A patently absurd position I’m sure you’d agree.

      • George Buckley on

        Thanks for responding Jake. It’s obviously very difficult to bridge the gap, when positions are so entrenched. So many areas that are not contentious in other parts of the world, are the cause of conflict and division here. How do we take the heat out of such divisions.
        I’ll give one personal example of the problem if I may.
        As a head teacher, I attended a conference for principals which was extremely well attended, hundreds were present. The then education minister, Ms Ruane addressed us, in Irish…..most of the speech was beyond me and the large percentage of those present. A colleague beside me, an Irish speaker, leaned across to me and groaned.
        When the floor opened, the first question to the panel was in German, the second in French…..the hall erupted!
        You get my point.

        • Jake Mac Siacais (@MacSiacais) on

          I hear you George and appreciate totally what you say. Dialogue and reasoned debate and unrelenting civility in the face of scorn and derision always works better I find than indulging in knee jerk responses. I believe however that we as a collective are at the beginning of the end game which is the resolving of the poison legacy of the Ulster Plantation. We remain locked in our grand Pas de Deux locked in tribal distrust. Britain and its policy bequeathed us this poisonous leagacy unfortunately they won’t be any help in the unraveling of it. That’s the heavy lifting we all need to do.

  5. Jake Mac Siacais on

    When we are fed a diet of fear it’s often hard to see the wood for the trees. In the Gaeltacht Quarter in West Belfast we have a cultural trail celebrating people as diverse as Joe McKelvey an IRA leader executed by the Free State in 1922 and Rev Richard Rutledge Kane Grandmaster of The Grand Orange Lodge of Belfast. What links them both is their love and labours for the Irish Language. Saying that the ‘politicisation’ of Irish should excuse the vitriol and approbrium heaped upon it is equivalent to saying that Protestantism ‘politicised’ by orangeism should not be tolerated. A patently absurd position I’m sure you’d agree.

  6. A very interesting article. As a speaker of Scottish Gaelic – which has had official status since 2005, I really don’t see what the problem is with an Irish Language Act and would very much like to see one. It would help to normalise and depoliticise the language. The sky didn’t fall down with the Gaelic Language (Scotland) Act 2005 or the Welsh Language Act 1993 after all!.

    Can I suggest one possible way forward that might help to resolve the impasse with regard to an Irish Language Act?

    I’d suggest a Westminster Gaelic Languages Act or Minority Languages Act covering both Scottish and Irish Gaelic.


    Scottish Gaelic enjoys a measure of official status through the Gaelic Language Act but as this was passed by the Scottish Parliament, the legislation only covers devolved public bodies. This means that public bodies which are not devolved like DWP and HMRC, DVLA, Passport Agency, Home Office, DCMS, Foreign and Commonwealth Office etc are not covered and make no provision for Gaelic. The Welsh Language Act was passed in 1993 by Westminster before devolution and therefore covers all public bodies operating in Wales whether devolved or reserved. This principle has been followed after devolution.

    I would suggest that a Gaelic Languages Bill covering Irish and Scottish Gaelic would be one possible way of taking things forward for Northern Ireland. This would expand the current Gaelic Language Scotland act’s provisions to reserved public bodies and also implement the Pobal recommendations for an Irish Language Act. There might also be provisions relating to the Welsh language which could be added to the bill.

    This act would give real protection to both languages but would perhaps make it more palatable for unionists by making it not solely about the Irish language and by linking it to a language which enjoys support from the whole political spectrum.

  7. johnny.brennan@talktalk.net on

    Yeah, dridge an doras. Oscal an finneog. And thats about it! 4 years of forced Irish language lessons when all I really wanted was to learn a second language in general use. No wonder the Orangies are not on board with us if this is what they are being offered. A dead language is for cultural use only and usually promoted by those who have nothing better to do. Or get a grant out of it.

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