The Cultural War Needs to End to Give Peace its Chance – By Cathal McManus

Social share:

The failure to secure an agreement that would revive the power-sharing executive at Stormont was, if a huge disappointment, hardly a massive surprise.

There had been much public scepticism that the DUP and Sinn Féin could overcome the divisions that have led to over a year of political deadlock.

It would appear, however, that the parties did come agonisingly close to securing a deal. Indeed, Eamonn Mallie writes that an accommodation had actually been reached only for the DUP to backtrack in the face of a negative reaction amongst its grassroots members and supporters – a reaction seemingly grounded in opposition to the idea of a free standing Irish Language Act.

Arlene Foster’s subsequent declaration that there was “no prospect” of a deal was followed by Simon Hamilton’s statement accusing Sinn Féin of not respecting the British identity of unionists:

“Whether it is our flag, the military or even the very name of this country, they have not shown the respect for the unionist or British identity of the people of this part of the United Kingdom.”

The events of the past week have highlighted, yet again, the divisive role that ‘culture’ plays within Northern Ireland society twenty years after the Good Friday Agreement. It is now time to acknowledge that in those twenty years since the Agreement, our society has merely moved from military conflict to cultural war.

If we are to create the conditions that would lead to a restoration of the power-sharing Assembly then we, as a society, need to address the causes of this cultural divide.

Central to this, in the first instance, is the need to better understand the grassroots unionist opposition to an Irish Language Act and their negative attitudes to the language more generally.

Contrary to popular belief (on Twitter at least), this opposition is not grounded in mere sectarianism – though it would be naïve to suggest that this does not have a role to play.

Rather, it is necessary to understand unionist attitudes within the context of how that community has approached the peace process. Political unionism has never taken an ownership of the process or sought to put its own stamp on it.

Even when unionist leaders claimed to recognise the strategic opportunities that it has created to strengthen and stabilise the Union, they have time and again failed to build on that.

A primary reason for this is that unionism has failed to overcome its fears of their Other.

Instead of seeing the positives of peace for Northern Ireland, unionism has only ever seen threats from what appeared to be a new and confident ‘pan-nationalism’. Indeed, when the IRA called its first ceasefire in 1994, the then leader of the Ulster Unionist Party, Jim Molyneux, described it as one of the most ‘destabilising’ events unionism had experienced since 1921.

An important consideration here, is that unionism felt relatively powerless during the early developmental stages of the peace process and had little trust in those that were pushing the agenda. Central to this, of course, were the governments in Dublin and Washington who, they believed, had strong nationalist sympathies and were following a “green” agenda as mapped out by SDLP leader John Hume.

Any initial doubts they had were reinforced by events on the ground. It is worth remembering that the peace process was born into an era of significant cultural conflict around Orange Order parading. These events, when it appeared that Orange and British culture was under attack, made nationalist reassurances that unionism had nothing to fear from the peace process ring very hollow. This was particularly true of Sinn Féin’s “equality” agenda.

For many unionists, it appeared that equality meant placing limitations on “British” culture whilst seeking to promote “Irishness” – it had become, essentially, a zero-sum-game. This was reflected in David Trimble’s speech to the Ulster Unionist Party conference in 2000, when he claimed that ‘culture is going to be a political battleground’ and that by holding the Culture portfolio in Stormont his party would ‘ensure fair play for our Scots and English heritage.’

Contemporary attitudes towards the Irish language are framed by these experiences. Many believe that the language is being used, politically, to undermine what they see as the Britishness of the state. One consideration here is the fact that conflict creates long memories that reinforce negative political stereotypes of the Other.

If nationalists can still quote James Craig’s “Protestant Parliament for a Protestant People” to support their negative attitudes towards the old unionist state, so too can unionists recall the idea that “every word of Irish spoken is like another bullet being fired in the struggle for Irish freedom”. Gerry Adams, in his book Free Ireland: Towards A Lasting Peace, wrote that:

‘The revival of the Irish language as the badge of identity, as a component part of our culture and as the filter through which it is expressed, is a central aspect of the reconquest.’

Of course, such statements stem from a different context, but they have fed wider suspicions about the language and why republicans, in particular, have attached so much importance to it over the years. As such, nationalist and republican leaders need to recognise the role they have played in helping to politicise the Irish language – a politicisation that has unquestionably fed unionist fears.

The protection and promotion of Irish is an important task. It has, historically, belonged to both communities and it should belong to both again in the future. For this to happen the fear factor needs to be addressed and nationalist leaders have an important role to play in that process.

Social share:

About Author

Avatar photo

I am a regular contributor to discussion programmes on TV and radio both at home and abroad. An experienced political editor and author specialising in Politics, Security and 20th Century Art.


  1. Jake Mac Siacais on

    A slightly depressing and very deluded piece Cathal. At least you haven’t gone as far as to ask for the decommissioning of Irish speakers. Catch a grip Irish speakers are taxpayers and citizens and the moderate demand for legislative protection threatens no one.

  2. Interesting article. The “Protestant Parliament for a Protestant people” quote always ignores that next door Ireland was being created as a Catholic State for Catholic people, without the threat of a sizable minority to destablise the government.
    Here is a question I asked my kids (who are the product of a marriage that is cross cultural and cross nationality (North and South). “there is a sign – one person wants it to be dual language, one person doesn’t – how do you decide?”
    There is a lack of understanding about what Unionism fears across all the people of NI. The fact is that there is an assumption that the Union has a limited life span. The Union has been under attack from the day and hour it was implemented. The Unionist is not pretty and has no romance whereas Ireland and the Irish are have both and people who have no connection to Ireland want to be Irish!
    The attacks have been political and violent. The IRA campaign that I lived through had the aim of establishing a United Ireland. Towns and cities were bombed to achieve this aim, now the protagonists of that campaign are now seen to be using the language as a weapon. The Unionists are again seen as sectarian and unaccomnodating. T
    he cultural wars have a similar objective. The aim is still a United Ireland, a completely ligitimate ambition. OK, but when you have a population that sees itself as under attack, and let’s be honest, has very few defenders including the British Government, it is no wonder that they are digging in and rejecting anything that is seen as another step on the road to the inevitable.

  3. Patrick Dorrian on

    The Irish Language was politicised when the English decided to obliterate it and Catholicism. With the old Penal Laws. When there was an attempt at a revival in the 1800s there was again a determined attempt to wipe it out. So in this respect the cultural war you described was not initiated by SF. Your article would imply that this cultural war is one sided, forgetting that nationals have been on the receiving end of Orange Cultur for more than two centuries. You seem to give credence to the believe that British Culture is being hollowed out, however, British Culture is transmitted into the homes of people who watch British tv and that would be the majority of people. British sports, British soaps, British comedy, British Drama, British News, and British Royalty,
    It very difficult to avoid it, even if one watches only RTE programmes, they too have lots of British Culture.
    So this cultural war of which you speak is more about the decline of Loyal Marching Orders. Their membership numbers have fallen. Perhaps because there are fewer confrontational marches. Maybe the attraction to belong was the bear baiting of the taigs that went along with it.
    Eamonn, in his article about the “agreement ” was correct, on the face of it the DUP gained more from the negotiations that SF did. SF had withdrawn the red line about Foster as FM, they gave SSM over to a vote in Assembly and they alone would persue May for the Legacy Inquest funds,
    their stand alone ILA had become a leg in the tripod. So she reneged.
    Or rather the rump of her supporters would not buy into it. Whatever way one reads it does not come out as a love for one’s neighbour.

  4. I have heard the type of position taken by Cathal argued by unionists of the more moderate variety before. The essence of the argument goes like this – the Irish Language would be fine if Republicans didn’t use and promote it!

    It is only that Nationalists have been so brow beaten into submission that some actually accept their second class designation in society here in the North.

    Should those second class Nationalists actually reflect on the argument it is an equivalent to Black South Africans being afraid to use a beach in South Africa or move into a white neighbourhood lest the whites move away! The beach like the Irish language is there to be shared. Sharing hurts nobody but enriches all! Why should the good of wider society be allowed to be stymied by the intolerant and the paranoid?

  5. There is no “Cultural War”.
    There has been Cultural Genocide carried out by UK & Unionist Planters for centuries.

    There is no “Old Unionist State”.
    There IS this Unionist State which has its Unionist/Britishness manifested Officially at all times by BBC/UTV/MSM et al – a “Derry” never slips out first.

    There IS a 2 Day 16th Century-style HateFest of Orange Anti-Popery every July & a 2 day Public Holiday so as defeated Nationalism cannot forget where they are – and Why! So we leave and go abroad or across the border.
    Many of us are closed out of our places of work for a fortnight – left without choice about the timing of our main annual holiday

    There is barely any GAA on the TV channels which are supposed to be “ours too”.

    And a game of 3,000yr old Hurling (which attracts near 2% of this islands population to its Final) has NEVER been shown by BBC/UTV. Yet its descendent Golf is on TV all the time.

    And BBC have admitted to me in an E-mail that they use the term “Northern Ireland….any noun” and not “Northern Irish….any noun” for political reasons! Even though it is not correct use of The Queen’s English and in spite of the guidelines issued by BBC HQ to all journalists – yes I have a copy.
    Such a sentence is never heard on Radio Four.

    Nationalists do not have to look far to find daily insults in this Putrid State.

    Obviously Cathal like many others have become so adapted to these insults being the Norm that they no longer notice. But most Unionist will notice when this looks like it might change, even slightly- like a tough negro slave whose constantly whipped back has developed leathery scar tissue skin which numbs the pain of each subsequent whipping.
    But enuff of us want Equity – not Equality but Equity – to ensure we and all here will have it.

  6. Edit!!!
    For my Comment in last para it should read>>

    Obviously Cathal like many others have become so adapted to these insults being the Norm that they no longer notice – like a tough negro slave whose constantly whipped back has developed leathery scar tissue skin which numbs the pain of each subsequent whipping. But most Unionist will notice when this looks like it might change, even slightly

Leave A Reply