Gregory Campbell, MP and MLA for Londonderry East, enjoys courting controversy on dog-whistle issues in Northern Ireland. He’s good at it – he’s got a lot of wit and can be genuinely funny, but there is a bite and a bitterness to his politics which could only ever have come from the complexity and tragedies of the troubles as they played out in his constituency.
Most recently, his performance at Stormont’s troubled assembly has raised hackles, when he used what might be called doggerel phonetic Irish to recognise (more accurately denigrate) the speaker, and the Minister for Culture, Cáral ní Chuilin, whose Question Time it was.
He rose to his feet and appeared to go briefly mad.
What he actually said appeared to sound like ‘Curry my yoghurt, a can coca coalyer’ – a ‘version’ of ‘Go raibh maith agat, a ceann chomhairle’ (essentially ‘Thank you, Mr Speaker’ in English), which should really sound more like ‘Guh ra mah-agat, a kyawn core-lyah’. Sinn Féin benches were aghast, in uproar. Mr Campbell looked very pleased with himself. His colleage Peter Weir MLA (North Down) seems to have almost wet himself. Campbell went on to ask what, on the face of it, was a perfectly logical question, wondering if an inclusive minority languages strategy might be more inclusive than an Irish language and Ulster Scots strategy.
Reaction to Mr Campbell’s intervention was swift. The minister refused to answer his question, and accused him of ‘pure ignorance’.
What Mr Campbell really seems to have been saying was ‘I think speaking a foreign language in our assembly is nonsense and political, and I am making fun of people who do it.’
Whether or not you consider Irish to be a foreign language in Northern Ireland, Mr Campbell’s political reasoning works for him and his party. He believes that Sinn Féin use the Irish language as a dog-whistle signifier of Irishness – that people speaking it in the chamber are doing so to Irish-up the place. In doing what he does, Mr Campbell achieves what seems to be a central approach of the DUP – pissing off non-unionists and being seen by unionists to piss off non-unionists. On this score, it has absolutely worked – an absolute direct hit has been scored, angering Sinn Féin, SDLP and others.
(If you want to see evidence of this, check out the politics.ie thread or the video below:
(Look at his face. Loving it.)
I suspect, however, that this direct hit may open up other political logics which had been heretofore only dreams for the DUP. I suspect Mr Campbell has punctured the language-issue consensus, which has held together with extremely slow progress for sixteen years until this week.
The language-issue détente argument goes something like this: in the lead up to the Belfast Agreement, the Irish language was en-route to be recognised in Northern Ireland, but only if the Ulster-Scots language was recognised and resourced alongside it. This was a feel-good measure, on the basis of ‘parity of esteem’ and written into the actual Belfast Agreement as “the importance of respect, understanding and tolerance in relation to linguistic diversity”.
The DUP did not sign the Agreement, but nonetheless, the basis of Northern Ireland’s political and governmental system is based on it. There is an argument to be made that the DUP isn’t bound politically to abide by the terms of the document, but that government is – in that sense, an MLA speaking at Stormont is under no obligation to pay even lip service to the agreement.
People getting upset at Gregory Campbell therefore need to calm down – this is his ‘they haven’t gone away, you know’ moment – something being said which solidifies his base and angers the other side. It’s boorish, ostensibly unsophisticated and infuriating, but it’s genuinely brilliant politics; also, it says something about Northern Ireland’s current settlement; there isn’t a united people there; the desire to beggar the neighbour is alive and well there.
Sinn Féin’s full response was as prickly as it was unimaginative – Rosie McCorley MLA, Sinn Féin Irish language spokesperson, said: “Unfortunately this is nothing new from the DUP who have blocked the development on an Irish language act, and whose representatives have a long history of insults to the Irish-speaking community.
“While this might be funny in Gregory’s little closed world, it is hugely insulting to all of those who promote the huge benefits of endorsing and enhancing bilingualism in our society.”
The DUP line is now fairly clear – they can continue to score with skirmishes like this and shut down the possibility of an Irish Language Act, because they can fairly convincingly argue that a Minority Languages Act is the more inclusive solution. It’s not nice, but it’ll work.
Full disclosure: tá cúpla focal gaeilge agam, ach níl mé eireannach. Is ás Tuaisceart Éireann mé, agus tá mé Saoránach na Breataine bródúil. Ní raibh mé riamh a vótáladh i gcóir an DUP.