An element of sectarianism has surfaced in the mainstream media as extreme unionism rallied in opposition to the Irish language this week.
Several major news organisations, including the Irish Times and the Guardian, used the language of violence to claim Gaelic was being used by nationalists as “a weapon” in the peace process.
A Guardian editorial sparked anger when it said: “The darker truth here is that Sinn Fein has chosen to weaponise [the Irish language] for political ends, less to protect a minority than to antagonise unionists”, and claimed the small number of Irish speakers in the North -- a result of centuries of persecution -- justified it having no special protection.
At the same time, fringe and militant unionists were given substantial airtime to rally hatred against the language and the nationalist community in general.
The worst offender was the BBC, a public broadcaster which is funded by a television licence. Its presenter, Stephen Nolan, sought to deride the Irish language by repeating anti-Irish comments previously uttered by DUP MP Gregory Campbell.
In 2014, Campbell mocked the Irish language expression for ‘Thank you, Chairperson’ [‘Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Chomhairle’] as “Curry my yoghurt, can Coca-Cola”. The phrase has since become a catch-cry for anti-Gaelic sentiment.
On Nolan’s programme, the veteran broadcaster appeared to try to belittle Niall O Donnghaile, an Irish speaker and Sinn Fein political representative, by repeating the phrase directly into his face as elements of the audience laughed.
Nolan’s choice of commentators this week also included extreme anti-Irish unionist David McNarry, who vowed to tear down signage carrying words in Gaelic.
“What I am actually advocating is unionism taking a stand now, saying that ‘look, enough is enough’,” the former MP said. “It wouldn’t be lawful and I think that is the notice that has to go out because there will be resentment to this and there will be people who will feel as I do, don’t want to break laws, never been in trouble in their lives before but actually want to take a stand.”
Jim Allister of the North’s most extreme unionist party, ‘Traditional Unionist Voice’, is frequently interviewed by Nolan. This week he sought to increase hostility to the Irish language and claimed Irish language legislation could “destabilise Northern Ireland”.
Nolan has also regularly promoted notorious flag protestor Jamie Bryson, who is associated with widespread loyalist disturbances in 2013. His frequent appearances on the Nolan Show have been linked to a recent invitation to address a meeting of a Westminster parliamentary committee. The leader of the cross-community Alliance Party, Naomi Long, this week refused to appear before the committee because of Bryson’s attendance.
In response to the media assault on his language, Irish speaker and commentator Seamas O’Reilly wrote: “Why on earth should we indulge the whims of people so systemically racist that they are ‘antagonised’ by people speaking their native language in their own country?
“Why should that kind of small-mindedness be taken as a given?”