CULTURE: Being a working class writer in Ireland

By Dave Lordan.

On the same Easter Week of the 1916 rising, a Charlie Chaplin lookalike competition was held in Dublin. Chaplin, well-known to be a socialist as well as the world’s leading entertainer at the time, had a mass following among the Dublin working classes.

Truth be told, among many in the Dublin working class, there was probably as much interest in the Charlie Chaplin competition as there was in  what the crowd of poets with guns and big ideas were at in the GPO. There were many dozens of entries to the lookalike competition and the various merits of each were discussed in newspapers and among young and old in working class communities. For many, the Chaplin lookalike competition must have seemed a supremely important event, and the unannounced eruption of the Rising an unwelcome distraction.

The story goes that about halfway through Easter Week — while field guns pummelled the GPO from across the street, and the rebels inside did their best to hold tough and return fire — one of the most impressive of the Chaplin lookalikes decided to amble Chaplinesquely right down the middle of O Connell St, in between the hostile lines.

Both sides, it is said, ceased fire and both sides, it is said, looked on in appreciative amazement at the slick and entertaining performance — as unexpected and courageous as the Easter Rising itself.

Once he/she/they had finished the cannon-silencing performance, they turned and bowed in both directions, and a general applause broke out. No observer could have told which portions of the noise of the applause was British Loyalist, and which emanated from the clapped hands of Insurrectionary Irish.

Minutes later, once the fabled impersonator was out of range, the unresolved hostilities resumed and bullets sought heads to explode in every direction.

Art does not ask or expect of its appreciators that they subscribe to one political point of view or another; does not inquire as to whether they be on one side of the class and anti-imperialist struggles or the other.

Mozart was popular among the officers of the death camps. Trotsky recognised the avid fascist Céline as the greatest of inter-war French novelists. No contemporary liberal novelist could or presumably would claim to be of equal artistic stature to the religious reactionary Fyodor Dostoevsky.

So it’s not the purpose of this essay to dispute this fundamentally supra-political aspect of art. Great art disintegrates all borders, ignores all our divisions. Within this universally levelling effect, the aesthetic bears a radical promise of no nations, borders, classes or any kind of unequal and agitating divisions on Earth — “all the people together in harmony,” as John Lennon sings it.

Art is Utopianising in its collective effect on us as a species — it unites us by temporarily obscuring or abolishing our real divisions and without asking for a sacrifice of our individuality. Though of course it does so only temporarily, only in the realms of feeling and imagination, and without much actual impact on borders and class divisions in the here and now.

It is important not to have the illusion that making art, generally speaking, is a kind of political activism. Art is most often not political activity so much as it is the suspension or deferral of political activity.

Bertolt Brecht wrote many songs and poems and plays and novels aimed at, and enjoyed by, millions of German workers in the 1920s and 1930s. Fascism came to power anyway and would likely have done so in exactly the same way had he never in his life bothered to write a single line.

All the protest songs and singers of the 1960s and 1970s couldn’t prevent the election of Reagan and Thatcher.

There certainly are occasions when art and artists can make a centrally important contribution to social causes. The relationship between Rock Against Racism and the Anti-Nazi League is one such good news story, as is the successful resistance to the Carnsore nuclear reactor here in Ireland.

Others will have more examples, I’m sure, but all will be exceptions to a general rule of artistic creation, which is that it takes place in a separate sphere from political activity, and with its own traditions and orientations which are different to and even opposed to political activity. Activism always seeks to highlight the social divisions that anthropologists argue it is art’s social and evolutionary role in human societies to paper over and obscure.

On the other hand, this grand distinction between spheres of activity makes anyone trying to fuse them a priori a subversive. And it is obviously true that a poem on a picket-line or an artistic online video can inspire and promote causes.

But it is usually the case that artists make their best contributions to social movements in the same way as plumbers or nurses — that is, by handing out leaflets, turning up to meetings and demos etc. — by blending in rather than standing out.

Similarly, the cultural value and aesthetic quality of a work of art has nothing to with the class background or political opinions of who has produced it or who is relaying or performing it.

Nor does the personal morality of the artist have any bearing at all on whether the music they compose will be beautiful, or the book they write un-put-downable.

W.B Yeats lived a long and luxurious aristocratic life paid for by the hard labour of Irish peasants.  He owed the inspiration of many of his plays and poems to the lore of Irish peasants. The music and diction of much of his poetry is simply a refined version of the daily speech rhythms of the Irish peasantry.

Nevertheless, he enthusiastically supported the war crimes of extra-judicial torture and execution of socialist and republican POWs from peasant backgrounds during the so-called Irish civil war. Yet he remains the most melodious and memorable Irish poet of the early 20th century.

Margaret Atwood’s practical support for apartheid Israel in breaking the cultural boycott does nothing to reduce her status as one of the pre-eminent global novelists.

Conversely, some of the worst poetry ever written has emerged from council estates where a local loudmouth has discovered an online rhyming dictionary and decided to inflict their thoughts on world affairs on us in toddleresque rhymes.

So when we talk about how injustice and inequality manifest themselves in class society in relation to the arts, we are not talking about anything to do with aesthetics or the internal qualities of works of art.

Demanding increased access to art for workers

Working class people, despite the obstacles they face, make and appreciate art in countless ways and by various means. There, obviously then, is no one way of being a working class artist, and there is no ‘working-class aesthetic’ as such. Therefore, a socialist party should have no aesthetic policy or prescriptions whatsoever.

The role of a socialist party or movement is to campaign for increased working class access to the arts, period. It is never to poke its nose into the processes of artistic creation. A Stalinist policy of interference in artistic creation and limiting artistic freedom must be totally rejected and struggled against for art as well as for politics’ sake — there are no ‘socialist realist’ novels worth reading.

None of this means that we cannot highlight and unpack some distinctive ways in which working class communities have evolved artistic traditions, and which are markedly distinct from the dominant bourgeois way of doing things — ways that might incorporate something subversively political, above and beyond the artistic.

My focus is on illustrating just this kind of politicised working class literature. For any worker to start making art is by definition to make the case that we are not born solely to consume and be exploited — that we too, just like the bourgeoisie, are capable of both creating and appreciating on the higher plane of art. It is in this sense that we can agree with Michael Hartnett when he writes, “the act of poetry is a rebel act”.

The work of art is always concrete and historical, whether it be artefact or current. Art has all the apprehensible qualities of the real, whether it is a song that passes us by in three minutes or a statue of a mother deity that has withstood 65,000 years on Earth. Because of this, we can both share an encounter with an artwork, and differ widely in our opinions of it, as we can with all other historical events and objects.

But we can say definite true things about works of art as well. We can keep in mind that the work of art is a self-contained object that can only be authentically judged in relation to other self-contained objects of the same kind. As stated above, we cannot judge art by the nature of the person or person who produces it. The work of art is supremely indifferent to the name and nature of he/she/they who made it, be they saint or sinner.

And yet class is a determining factor in who gets to make art and appreciate it in so many unjustly political ways.

For example:

1) Working class access to arts education

Access to quality arts education is not provided at all in many Irish public secondary schools, and only at the most rudimentary, amateur, and unenthusiastic levels in most of the rest. Despite the overwhelming pedagogic evidence of a hugely positive impact on teenage mental health, there is no creative writing curriculum in public secondary schools.

Even more disgracefully in the year 2019, there is no multimedia creativity education (production of podcasts, videos etc.) whatsoever in Irish secondary schools. By contrast, private schools have all of the above. Well-off parents can and do pay for additional extra-curricular arts education, giving their children a huge advantage.

2) The lack of Arts Council support for predominantly working class art forms.

Literary funding in the Arts Council goes almost exclusively to predominantly middle- and upper-class forms such as the page poem, opera, and so-called ‘literary’ fiction.

There are no funding streams for performance poetry, rap, storytelling, singer-songwriters or bands, online video, podcast, digital music production — all forms that are far more accessible to and engaged with by working class people as both producers and consumers of art.

This is nothing but institutional class prejudice.

3) The cost of being an artist.

Many successful writers (it takes 15-25 years to become a successful writer) are sustained by crucial financial support from their well-off families.

Most of us do not have such parents and so we are systematically excluded in yet another way.

So to level the playing field, we need not a few legislative tweaks, not just a token couple of panels on ‘being a working class writer’ at literary festivals few working class people have ever heard of, but a complete overhaul of education, art funding, and arts access from the bottom up — that is, a revolution.

Part Two of this essay will appear on Irish Broad Left next week.

Photo above shows Christy Moore performing to protesters at an anti-nuclear protest at Carnsore Point, Co Wexford, in 1978. Picture by Eddie Kelly.

Dave Lordan is a writer and community educator and socialist activist. Check out his work at

Being LGBT+ in the Traveller community: a personal reflection

By Lois Brooks-Jones.

I remember being sat on the armchair, nails diggings at the leather out of stress as a comfort. I was 14 years old and was preparing to tell my family that I am bisexual. I had known for years, trying to suppress myself due to a phobia of losing everyone I loved. I just wanted to be straight, and not have to worry about seeing the care in my mother and father’s eyes leave, no matter how often they professed their support for LGBT+ rights in small but meaningful ways. 

This fear increases when you come from a community which is currently experiencing mass programmes of assimilation by governments and institutional powers, where ideas of tradition and historical cultural values are clung to even harder, to feel a sense of identity in a world which has been trying for 1000 years to smite it.

You fear being rejected from a community which protects you from the pain and harm caused by wider gadjo society for your sexuality or gender identity, and then being rejected from mainstream society for not only being LGBT+, but also for being Gypsy, Roma Traveller (GRT) identifying. This is a common narrative for LGBT+ GRT youth trying to navigate their own identity as well as deconstructing the extent of their family’s love and support. This impacts mental health, emotional wellbeing, as well as potential regarding suicide victims. 

I was lucky to have my grandmother. When I was 13 years old she point-blank asked if I was gay, taking long drags from her cigarette as she looked at me with her dark eyes. Seeing my hesitation, she followed up her question by saying “Because it’s okay if you are, you know”.

This is a woman born amid 1930s fascism, who learnt what it meant to be persecuted based on an identity outside of her control, and that this level of discrimination and hatred must not happen again. Included in the mass murder under Nazi Germany, LGBT+ people were included, with up to 15,000 LGBT+ being transported to Nazi concentration camps, with 60 per cent believed to have been murdered there.

Need for a support network

When we discriminate against LGBT+ people, we discriminate and threaten the safety of members of our own, already marginalised community. My family not only fully supported me in my sexuality, but also support those without the support of their own families. In no way am I saying that GRT are intrinsically anti-LGBT+, my own family are a testimony to love and acceptance. However, we can’t deny a lack of acceptance for LGBT+ GRT youth in need of a support network. 

Changes are happening, albeit slowly, and we must celebrate the fact that this year for the first time, LGBT+ Travellers made history, as in we had official representation at London Pride. This should by no means be seen as an ends in itself, but instead a vital part in a long-running battle for recognition and acceptance; a momentum on which we can build and send out a strong message to not only LGBT+ GRT people specifically, but to our community in general. We must tackle these attitudes head-on and with pride in ourselves. 

When we begin to accept hatred towards others based on identity, we comply with our oppressors. We divide ourselves, define what is or isn’t GRT, and do the establishment’s work for them. 

Lois Brooks-Jones is currently studying politics and international relations. A British Romany Gypsy, she is a Gypsy Roma Traveller and LGBT+ activist. Follow on Twitter @TravellerLGBT

Áras Uí Chonghaile: Visitor centre honouring Connolly’s legacy to open on Falls Road

By Séanna Walsh.

We are delighted to introduce and welcome Áras Uí Chonghaile to west Belfast. James Connolly, that giant of Irish political and socialist thinking, is coming home to the Falls Road.

The visitor centre is testament to what can be delivered when ambition and vision collide with determination and delivery. It is a living example of what progressive people can achieve working in partnership.

The Falls Road in Easter 2019 will welcome James Connolly back.
Áras Uí Chonghaile is a modern, inspirational visitor centre that will attract visitors and locals alike, epitomising the character and fabric of the Falls Road. A place of welcome for people with all politics and of none.

James Connolly was a man of formidable ideas and remarkable vision. More than 100 years after James Connolly was executed, his values, his ideas and the example he gave us in life, are as inspiring and relevant as ever.

An exceptional individual

Our mission in this visitor centre will be to ensure that a new generation of Irish people and those who visit us from across the world are introduced to Connolly and his politics.

Connolly was born of humble origins and knew poverty at first hand all of his life. Despite having left school at a very early age, he was driven to learn and to understand the world around him.

His appetite for knowledge was ferocious. Despite his origins, he went on to write some of the most incisive and original works of political philosophy and historical analysis ever written on these islands and indeed in the world.

James Connolly Heron, the great-grandson of James Connolly, speaks at the launch of Áras Uí Chonghaile in Belfast City Hall on 20 March 2019.

Sometimes in a historical period an exceptional individual emerges who seems to grasp the key moral and political challenges of a generation.

Like Wolfe Tone and Michael Davitt, like Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, like Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King, like Fidel Castro and Nelson Mandela, like Constance Markievicz and Maire Drumm, Connolly understood the yearning for true emancipation.

Freedom without real equality, freedom without social justice, is a hollow freedom. It was and is the freedom to starve, to be evicted and driven into poverty.

Connolly was implacably opposed to sectarianism and racism, for he knew that these were used by the establishment as tools to divide one set of workers from another. He was a feminist before the word had been created.

He had a lifelong commitment to social justice, to trade unionism and trade union values.

Connolly’s journeys – organising, mobilising and establishing trade unions took him across England and Scotland – saw him travel the USA for years until he returned to Belfast and Dublin.

He had an incisive understanding of Irish history and the role of class and economics in the shaping of our past and our present.

His personal commitment to freedom, not just Irish freedom, but to the freedom of others, marks James Connolly out as one of the greatest political and trade union leaders of the 20th Century. His words continue to inspire a new generation.

Séanna Walsh is centre manager of Áras Uí Chonghaile and a Belfast city councillor for Sinn Féin. Follow him on Twitter @WalshCllr.

Áras Uí Chonghaile will feature an exhibition and library dedicated to the life and legacy of James Connolly, including artefacts from the 1916 Easter Rising. The official opening will be held on Friday 19 April 2019.

The visitor centre is located at 374-376 Falls Road, Belfast. For more information email Follow the centre on Twitter @JamesConnollyVC.

Rights denied: The implications of Brexit for Irish citizens

By Niall Muprhy.

On 23 June 2016, 56 per cent of people in the North voted to remain in the European Union (EU). They did so because it is in our best interests politically and economically. The reckless and irresponsible rhetoric that has conditioned the British government’s approach to effecting the party-political intention of the British Conservative Party has thrust the entire viability of the United Kingdom into terminal constitutional decline.

It has heralded the inevitability of a second independence referendum in Scotland and also paralysed our own society with a constitutional convulsion, which in the early part of 2016 was not on the immediate horizon of anyone – Protestant, Catholic or dissenter.

The vast majority of people in Ireland do not want Brexit. No-one in Ireland sought a Brexit referendum. The overwhelming decision of the referendum in this jurisdiction was that we want to remain in the European Union. Brexit is being forced upon us against our will.

Notwithstanding this clear democratic mandate, we as a society and a people are being dragged out of the EU against our will. We are expected to silently comply as the British government plays Russian roulette with our economic and constitutional futures and our rights as citizens. Our EU rights are being ripped from us.

Brexit is one part of a sustained attack on the concept and the practice of human rights, and one further contribution to the attempted erosion of the core constitutional values of our peace/political process.

It was therefore in the spirit of a legal, policy and political challenge and a constitutional confrontation that a group of pro-EU Irish nationalist people from disparate sectors of society – education, health, business, law, the arts, academia, the community and voluntary sector, and sports – came together to articulate our serious concerns.

We collectively invested our future hopes and aspirations in the Good Friday Agreement (GFA) and it being implemented and thereby opening up a new chapter in the history of Ireland.

The conviction of wider nationalist, democratic and progressive opinion in 1998 was that the GFA would ensure a break with the past and guarantee us and future generations peace, guaranteed rights, equality and respect in an Ireland which continued to democratically transform itself.

Nearly 21 years on, the GFA has still not been fully implemented. Some sections of political unionism still oppose its very existence. Many of the political fault lines within our politics and society remain unresolved. Our hard-won peace process and its political architecture have too often been taken for granted. We may have peace, but we have not seen enough progress, and Brexit does not occur in a vacuum.

When more than 200 Irish citizens from the North signed an open letter to An Taoiseach Leo Varadkar in December 2017 it came at the end of a tumultuous and politically defining year.

That January the GFA political institutions collapsed amidst the political and financial scandal of the Renewable Heat Incentive. It served to confirm the growing view of northern nationalists that political unionism was not committed to proper power-sharing through the denial and refusal of equality, rights and respect towards the section of the community to which we belong, rights such as the following:

Access to justice

All victims of the conflict had the right to avail of mechanisms in accordance with European defined laws, to have access to justice.
Compliance with Article 2 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) is not an issue for Stormont. Stormont is not a sovereign entity, but Westminster is, and it is Westminster that signed the ECHR.

That Westminster sought to then derogate from its ECHR duties by alleging that its compliance with the ECHR is somehow a matter for political consensus at Stormont is a deft sleight of hand of Machiavellian proportions.

Marriage equality

Leo Varadkar and indeed the Irish government rightly speak with pride in respect of the referendum vote in 2016 which brought same-sex marriage equality to the south.

Marriage equality was promoted by the Irish government as a fundamental rights issue in the referendum, yet it is relegated to a matter of political consensus here.  Rights are not negotiable or a matter of consensus.

Many Americans voted for slavery but thankfully it was considered to be an abomination and was ended. Why is it that citizens of England, Scotland, Wales and the south all benefit from marriage equality but it is a right denied to citizens of our micro-jurisdiction?

Language rights

A clear example of the DUP’s rejection of the concept of parity of esteem is the party’s sneering contempt for Acht na Gaeilge. Our language is an intrinsic part of all of our identity as citizens, yet we endure contemptuous taunts, such as “Curry My Yoghurt” and “Crocodiles” and the cancellation of microscopic bursaries for the Donegal Gaeltacht.

The fact is that this jurisdiction is the only region in Britain or Ireland that makes no statutory provision for the protection of a minority language in accordance with the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages.

Irish is an official language in the Republic of Ireland, with Welsh given statutory protection under the Welsh Language Act 1993, with Scots Gaelic protected under the Achd na Gàidhlig (Alba) 2005.

Again – why is it that citizens of Scotland, Wales and the south all benefit from statutory protection for an indigenous language but it is a right denied to citizens of our micro-jurisdiction?

It would seem that there can be no regulatory alignment on this island, and Bangor must be as British as Finchley, unless you are gay and want to be married, or seek to live a life through the medium of Irish with statutory protection.

Rights are not British or Irish. Rights are for everyone. Everyone benefits with a strong framework for the protection of rights, and everyone loses when rights are denied.

This contempt mobilised the nationalist and republican electorate: in turn the unionist political majority in the Assembly was ended in the elections of March 2017. Increased unionist belligerence continued, and then the nationalist constituency sent a stark message during the subsequent Westminster election held in June that year, that it was turning its back on Westminster.

It has been confirmed in a parliamentary response by EU Commission President Juncker to a question posed by MEP Martina Anderson that the North would no longer be considered to be in an EU member state, and that whilst Irish citizens would remain EU citizens, benefits from UK participation in EU programmes would end with Brexit.

This position would leave Irish citizens here with access to almost none of the following EU rights, rendering us, in effect, second-class citizens, in our own country:

  • The political right to stand as and vote for MEPs. The right to vote for an MEP is normally tied into the member state of residency.
  • Continued use of the European Health Insurance Card (EHIC). Access to an EHIC normally involves billing the health authorities in the EU member state of residence – for example, the NHS.
  • Studying elsewhere and being able to avail of EU student fee rates. Access to EU student fees rates normally requires residency in an EU member state for three of the previous five years.

So without special arrangements, access in practice to these EU rights would be lost to Irish citizens resident here – unless of course they left and went to live somewhere else in the EU.

Practical Scenarios

In reality this means:

We will be disenfranchised. The democratic rights of us Irish and EU citizens in the north, including the right to direct representation in the European Parliament, need to be protected. We must continue to lobby the Irish government to ensure that right is protected by creating a mechanism for people in the North to continue to elect an MEP, i.e. by means of a single constituency.

If you are on holiday in France and fall, you will not be able to access their health service without paying or having medical insurance. An elderly person requiring medical assistance such as dialysis will in effect be grounded, as they will not be able to obtain insurance.

If you have a child wanting to study in Trinity or UCD, you will have to pay. For example QUB undergraduate annual tuition fees for NI domiciled students are £3,925; the same figure is applied for EU students – whereas the figure for international students is between £13k (classroom-based courses) and up to £34k for clinical medical courses. If you have a child aged under 16 today, who hopes to study in the south, as things stand they will be treated as a non-EU national and will be charged accordingly as you must be resident in an EU state for three of the preceding five years. So if Brexit happens in March 2019, a child now aged 16 will not have the requisite three of five years to attend Trinity or UCD.

Other rights denied include the fact that the ability to take up work is dependent on mutual qualification recognition, which will end with Brexit. The right to be joined by family members (who are not EU/EEA nationals) are an inherent part of EU treaty rights to work and study, which also end with Brexit.

On 2 November 2018, more than 1,000 citizens endorsed a direct appeal to An Taoiseach and his government to act in defence of the GFA and citizens’ rights. Individuals with varied political affiliations and none made a direct public appeal to the Taoiseach to stand by his government’s stated commitment that no Irish citizen living in the north would ever be left behind by an Irish government.

The letter was signed by 323 business people, the employers of tens of thousands of people; 115 senior educationalists including more than 30 school principals, along with prominent figures from third-level institutions and teachers from all parts of the North; 82 lawyers; 75 healthcare professionals, including more than 20 doctors and consultants; 30 senior All Ireland medallists; doyens of our arts sector and the leaders of our communities. It was signed by dozens of senior journalists and trade unionists, seven university professors, three Olympic medallists, three Oscar winners, two men who lifted the Sam Maguire, and one man who climbed Everest.

In total, the letter was signed by over a thousand leaders from the nationalist community. This is testament to an evolving earthquake in terms of an awakening of nationalist confidence. The 1012 names are symbolic – the letter was not a petition, but a representative sample of the views of hundreds of thousands of people across the North, and indeed across the entire island.

Beyond Brexit conference

That correspondence was then followed up with a truly unique conference on Saturday 26 January 2019 [pictured above], when more than 1,500 people filled the Waterfront Hall in Belfast to attend what the Irish News described as the most significant constitutional event in a century, as the leaders of the SDLP and Sinn Féin and senior figures from the Irish government and Fianna Fáil attended to give their respective views on Brexit.

Constitutional law experts, legacy and language activists, environmentalists, economic experts and political commentators all spoke to the topic of the viability of a new constitutional arrangement.

Conversations about the future, and future constitutional change, are happening in unexpected places. In recent weeks the trade union movement and senior figures from the GAA have spoken publicly about new constitutional arrangements. Ireland has changed dramatically over the course of the past 20 years.

Catalyst for unity

The roadmap for the journey from Brexit Britain to Little England is being led by the blind, the ignorant and the reckless. Mark Twain once said that you should never argue with stupid people, as they would drag you down to their level and beat you with their experience.

Michael Gove, Boris Johnson, Jacob Rees Mogg and their ERG colleagues are indeed experienced; however we cannot stand idly by. We must avoid a hard border at all costs and as reported in the Irish Times recently, preparations are being made as we speak.

Motorists from the south who plan to drive across the Border from the end of next month will have to start applying for a so-called Green Card or risk penalties for driving without insurance. The Motor Insurers’ Bureau of Ireland has issued about one million Green Card forms, as well as electronic application templates, to insurance companies and insurance brokers in case there is a no-deal Brexit. As the realities of Brexit press home in the coming weeks, the tolerance for it will radically diminish.

On a visit to Ireland in December 2017, EU Council President Donald Tusk ruled out a hard border, saying: “Ní neart go cur le chéile” – there is no strength without unity. Our initiatives – at the Waterfront, our correspondence to the Taoiseach, and our ongoing lobbying in Europe and the US – has demonstrated a unity of confidence and purpose, and may become a catalyst for a unity not envisaged by the proponents and architects of Brexit.

Niall Murphy is a Belfast solicitor with human rights law firm KRW Law and an organiser of the ‘Beyond Brexit: The Future of Ireland’ conference.

An Dream Dearg and the ongoing struggle for language rights

By Ciarán Mac Giolla Bhéin.

On November 30 2016, a group of Irish language activists came together in the Cultúrlann on the Falls Road in west Belfast under the umbrella of ‘An Tionól Dearg’ (The Red Assembly) with the aim of reinvigorating the campaign for rights for Irish speakers.

The last major public demonstration by the Irish speaking community in the north, in April 2014, had contributed to the important, yet localised, victories in relation to Irish medium education but the longstanding demand for an Irish Language Act remained unresolved and was increasingly falling off the political Richter scale.

Furthermore, the Assembly elections in May 2016 had seen a DUP education minister installed for the first time since power-sharing was established, who immediately began matching pre-election threat with regressive deed by making a series of calculated and deliberate attacks against the Irish-medium school community.

There was, of course, nothing particularly new in that regard, or the many other childish and well-reported attacks on our community, from the renaming of boats to “curry my yoghurt”, but the frustration of the previous six months boiled over when the draft Programme for Government, produced by the Executive in October 2016, made little to no mention of the language generally, never mind an act or a strategy which had been promised as part of the 2006 international St Andrews Agreement.

In March 2016, proposals brought forward by then Minister for Culture, Arts and Leisure, Carál Ní Chuilin, were rejected by the Executive and it appeared those efforts had reached a dead-end. Simultaneously, the highly politicised Towards Building United Communities strategy aimed at fostering ‘Good Relations’ between both main traditions – but which relegated the Irish Language as a ‘single identity issue’ and therefore not worthy of funding or recognition, never mind rights – was increasingly becoming mainstreamed into every element of local government administration.

It was in this context that more than 50 activists from across Ireland came together, determined not to let the issue of the Irish Language Act slip entirely from public and political consciousness.

Laying the groundwork

Drawing from the network of activists that had organised the ‘Lá Dearg’ in 2014 and rooted in the Irish-speaking communities, or the “earthworks and fortifications” as Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci described them, there was an overwhelming sense of urgency and positivity, in spite of our frustrations and justifiable anger – and perhaps energised by them.

In the weeks that followed, important groundwork was done on agreeing on an approach, along with short and long-term aims. This cohort of activists was rebranded as ‘An Dream Dearg’ and adapted a new logo (white-circle, red-background, now synonymous with the campaign).

It is really important, from a campaigning perspective, that we allowed ourselves the space and time to agree on these fundamentals and for us to stress that the stand-out events of 2017/18, where Irish language activists swept across the northern political landscape, did not come out of nowhere. 

Beyond our control and to our immeasurable benefit, then Minister for Communities Paul Givan decided to cut a means-tested, small bursary scheme for disadvantaged young people who wanted to attend Gaeltacht courses but would not ordinarily be able to afford it.

This decision – taken at a time of increasing tension in the Executive as a result of the now famous RHI scheme, which implicated the DUP in the squandering of £500 million of public money – was the ‘organic political crisis’ we were waiting for that propelled our cause in the political spotlight. Had we not, however, been organised prior to Givan’s now famous Líofa-cut, which failed to fulfil the most basic and statutory equality assessments, the campaign for an Irish Language Act could not have grown to be as strong as it was, in as short a time as it did. 

DUP discrimination fuels movement

It is worth stressing that the discriminatory decision taken by Givan was by no means unique or rare but rather followed a trend whereby DUP ministers would continuously take pop-shots at the Irish language, even if it meant targeting the most marginalised in our society, particularly at times of inceased oversight on the DUP, such as before elections or during crises.

With the attack on Líofa, however, coming as it did as disturbing details of the RHI fund were becoming public, the consciousness of the broader community was pricked and more and more people came to agree with the analysis that strong legislation was needed to insulate Irish speakers against outrageous abuses of power.

It is worth stressing at this stage that it was the constant sneering, ridiculing and discrimination faced by the Irish-speaking community by the DUP in particular, that kept the issue of the Irish Language Act in particular, and the status of the language in society more generally, in the public eye.

They, more than any other player, helped (conversely, it must be added) keep this issue alive. It is ironic in the extreme that it is political unionism’s obsession with the Irish language which has, more than anything else, undone the deliberate, politically motivated attempts at creating cultural consensus and conformity through the Towards Building United Communities and Good Relations initiatives, which afforded no space to it!

But in early 2017 there was no certainty to this. While the pressure brought by the Irish-speaking community eventually contributed to the collapse of Stormont, with the language being referenced by Martin McGuinness in his resignation letter which precipitated this collapse, originally there was a feeling that this would be short-term.

With every month that passed during 2017, however, whatever optimism existed that a quick deal could be reached dissipated and was replaced by a grudging acceptance that this was a crisis unlike that of late 2015, which led to the Fresh Start Agreement.

Commentators and pundits alike talked of a “fundamental shift” in politics, driven partly by macro political issues like Brexit and coalitions in Westminster, alongside the re-emergence of protest and community-led campaigns on the streets.

Undoubtedly the biggest, most consistent and most vocal of these campaigns was that of an Dream Dearg for an Irish Language Act. An issue which had spent the previous three years on the margins and was rapidly falling off the political Richter scale was undoubtedly the main political issue of 2017. It was also the issue upon which the last attempt at securing a deal collapsed in February of 2018, with the journalist Eamonn Mallie sharing the draft agreement that was never (according to the DUP) agreed upon!

Barometer for measuring exclusion

In 2019, the question of the Irish Language Act remains the barometer by which large swathes of society here are using to assess how sincere the DUP and indeed the British government are about building the shared future we have heard so much about in the last 10 years.

Given the inability of the DUP to agree to an incredibly weak language act as proposed in February 2018, (which would have been widely rejected by the Irish speaking community), you don’t have to be a cynic to question their sincerity.

Our campaign has helped lay bare the sectarian nature of political unionism’s opposition to the Irish language and simultaneously, at a deeper level, caused more and more people to begin to look beyond Stormont. If the DUP can’t agree on something as small as this in spite of the international commitments made and clear public support, people ask, what hope do we have for the brighter future we have heard so much about but seen so little of?

Behind all the pseudo-progressive rhetoric there is exclusion: what does a ‘brighter future’ mean when Irish schools are denied any specific Special Educational Needs provision and have to overcome enormous hurdles just to get off the ground? What do ‘shared spaces’ mean when Irish is banned from public signage? And what does ‘respect’ mean when our language and community are constantly sneered at and ridiculed by the largest party in the state?

Our campaign has irrevocably changed the political landscape. The attempts by the DUP and others hostile to language rights to reduce it to nothing more than a ‘Sinn Féin red line’ ignores the reality that those parties (Sinn Féin, the SDLP, Alliance, the Green Party, People Before Profit, and a majority of MLAs) calling for an Irish Language Act did so as a result of a powerful organic campaign.

Likewise, Arlene Foster’s dehumanisation and delegitimisation of the activists, citizens and young people, by dismissing us ‘political activists’, as she did in April 2017, will not discourage people from fighting for their rights.

The fact remains that any minority community engaged in a struggle for rights and recognition are quite consciously involved in ‘political activism’. This doesn’t diminish or undermine them or their campaign.

As many language communities across Europe and throughout the world will testify, it is the denial and disavowal of rights which is controversial and ‘political’ and not the assertion of those rights. The right and opportunity to “learn and use” your native language, according to internationally acclaimed language expert Fernand de Varennes, “flows from a fundamental right and cannot to be considered as a special concession or privileged treatment”.

Adam Ramsay summed it up best when he stated: “Of course the Irish language is political: it’s always political for marginalised minorities to express themselves. It’s always political to defend diversity in the face of those who demand a monochrome society.”

Ciarán Mac Giolla Bhéin is advocacy manager for Conradh na Gaeilge. Follow Ciarán on Twitter @crogallmorglas and follow An Dream Dearg @dreamdearg.

Why unionists should be reclaiming the Irish language

By Linda Ervine.

I always find it interesting when unionists who value the links between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK reject the Irish language. As one of the family of Celtic languages, the Irish language connects us to Scotland, the Isle of Man (other Gaelic speaking regions) to Wales and Cornwall as well as other parts of England where a Celtic language was spoken at one time.

It fascinates me that the Gaelic word for river, abhain (pronounced ‘owen’) has links to the River Avon in England as avon is the celtic word for river or that the Gaelic word dobhair (pronounced ‘door’) which means water has links to Dover. The language is a linguistic link between the peoples of these islands.

As someone who grew up with no knowledge of the Gaelic language, I was shocked to discover that it was all around me in place names such as Belfast – ‘mouth of the sandbank ford, Finaghy – ‘the white field’, Lisnasharragh – ‘the fort of the foals’; in surnames, McCullough – ‘son of the hound of Ulster’, McCoy – ‘son of fire’, Campbell – ‘crooked mouth’.

It can be found in our local vocabulary: ‘brogue’, ‘poteen’, ‘dulse’, ‘whiskey’, and ‘banshee’; and also in the structure and syntax of our everyday speech, expressions such as ‘He be’s here’, ‘She’s after doing that’, and ‘I’ve the cold on me’.

I was unaware the that the largest Gaelic-speaking area is not in Ireland but in Scotland where the majority of speakers are Presbyterians, or that the people who came here from Scotland during various times in history were not only Scots speakers but also Gaelic speakers, or that the Scots language contains many Gaelic words.

I didn’t know that in the 1830s the Presbyterian General Assembly termed the language “our sweet and memorable mother tongue”, or that during the 1840s they made it a requirement for all of their trainee ministers to have a knowledge of the language, or that the Church of Ireland Church has its own Irish language group, Cumann Gaelach na Eaglaise.

I was not aware that leading members of the Orange Order, people like Richard Rutledge Kane, Grand Master of Belfast and Canon John Crozier who founded the Holywood Loyal Orange Lodge, were also members of the Gaelic League. Like many people from the Protestant faith, I believed that I had no link to the language and I had no realisation that it was a part of my own cultural heritage.

Over the past few years I have met many Protestant Gaelic speakers from Ireland, Scotland and the Isle of Man. I even went to a Rangers Club in Stornoway and was given an official Rangers T-shirt with the Gaelic motto ‘Sinne na daoine’ – ‘We are the people’ emblazoned on it.

Not a ‘foreign language’

Unfortunately there are people within the unionist community who reject the language and regard it as a ‘foreign language’. I would encourage them to have a look at their British passport. They’ll see that it is written in three languages; English, Welsh and Gaelic. For me Gaelic is a language of the British Isles.

To those who fear that learning the language will somehow change a person’s political viewpoint I would state that it has given me a renewed pride in my Presbyterian heritage and made me more aware of the links between Ulster and Scotland.

I would also ask if I should be denied access to the language because of my religious background. Should I be discriminated against because I am a Protestant? Perhaps it would be better if I denied the existence of the Presbyterian Gaels of Scotland or the Methodist Gaels of the Isle of Man? Instead I have chosen to embrace the language and to share it with others in a way that does not compromise their religious or political viewpoint.

I manage a very successful cross-community Irish language project based in east Belfast by the name of Turas (pictured above), the Gaelic word for journey, and over the past six years in my role as Irish language development officer, I have provided opportunities for people from the Protestant/unionist/loyalist (PUL) community to learn Irish within their own area.

For the people who attend the classes it has turned out to be not just a journey into a language that the majority of people from the unionist community have never had the opportunity to engage with; it has also turned out to be a journey of healing and reconciliation as people sit down together and share the experience of learning a new skill.

The project, which began in 2012, has attracted hundreds of people from all walks of life who have attended classes with us. Of the 255 learners who have registered for classes this year, around 70 per cent are from PUL backgrounds. Five of the learners, all Protestants, have applied this year to do degrees in Irish at both Ulster University and Queen’s University and I have set up a scholarship scheme to help them to fund their journeys into third-level education.

Rather than discouraging people from learning Irish, I think it would be advantageous to both the language and to Northern Ireland to have a diversity of people mixing and working within the Irish language sector. I would like to see qualified Irish speakers from PUL backgrounds applying for and obtaining posts within Irish-language organisations.

My hope is to see integrated Irish-medium schools in neutral and unionist areas where people from all backgrounds can send their children so that they can benefit from a bilingual education. Don’t ask me to tell PUL parents that they should be denied such opportunities because of the tradition they come from. Don’t tell me that Protestants shouldn’t speak Irish because of a statement made by someone from Sinn Féin over 40 years ago.

Instead I would ask those with influence to help me to create as much diversity as possible within the Irish language community by encouraging more Protestants and unionists to learn Irish.

Let us make this our new mantra for the language – every word spoken in Gaelic is another brick in the bridge which unites us as peoples of these islands.

Linda Ervine is an Irish Language Development Officer at Turas, which she founded and directs, at the East Belfast Mission. Follow her on Twitter @ErvineLinda, and follow Cairde Turas @CairdeTuras.

Boycott Eurovision 2019: ‘Dare to Dream’ of freedom and justice in Palestine

By Zoë Lawlor.

Last May, Netta Barzilai won the Eurovision Song Contest for Israel in Lisbon. The Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu rushed to congratulate the winner, calling her “Israel’s greatest ambassador”.

Just two days later, as Barzilai took to the stage at a victory concert in Tel Aviv, a few miles down the road in Gaza the Israeli military – under the command of this same prime minister – was mowing down non-violent Palestinian marchers, killing 62 and injuring thousands more.

Their ‘crime’ was protesting for their legally guaranteed right of return to their homeland. Three days after this slaughter, Barzilai was an honoured guest at Netanyahu’s residence where they ‘chicken danced’ for the world’s media.

The two things might at first seem unrelated, but in fact they are closely intertwined: the Israeli state brazenly uses culture to whitewash its war crimes and human rights abuses against the Palestinian people, who have lived under its apartheid system for decades.

It is a policy that was openly declared as far back as 2005 by the former head of the Foreign Ministry, who said Israel promotes “culture as a propaganda tool of the first rank” and does “not differentiate between propaganda and culture”. This culture/propaganda relationship highlights how crucial it is to refuse to normalise Israel’s attacks on Palestinian civilians with a ‘culture-washing’ event such as Eurovision.

It is for this reason that as soon as the Eurovision result was announced, Palestinian civil society called for an international campaign to boycott the competition scheduled to be held in Israel in 2019.

Support from Ireland’s artists and musicians

Responding to this call, we in Ireland were quick to establish a national campaign, initiated by the Ireland-Palestine Solidarity Campaign (IPSC), PalFest Ireland and Trade Union Friends of Palestine (TUFP).

The campaign was officially launched in June, with the support of scores of celebrities, artists, human rights activists and public figures including former Eurovision winner Charlie McGettigan; Irish broadcaster and former Eurovision commentator Mike Murphy; and former Eurovision presenters Carrie Crowley and Doireann Ni Bhriain.

Also supporting the campaign are musical legends Christy Moore, Mary Black, Paul Brady, Mary Coughlan, Andy Irvine, Luka Bloom, Kíla, Frances Black, Donal Lunny, Honor Heffernan, Cormac Breatnach, Gráinne Holland and Steve Wall; actors Stephen Rea, Sorcha Fox and Donal O’Kelly; artists Robert Ballagh, Jim Fitzpatrick and Felim Egan; comedians Barry Murphy and Kevin Gildea; composers Raymond Deane and Trevor Knight; media personalities Ellen Cranitch and Betty Purcell; and poet Catherine Ann Cullen.

Considering the special role that Eurovision plays within Ireland’s LGBTQIA community, it is also important to note the support from veteran LGBTQIA activists and allies such as Ailbhe Smith, Senator David Norris, Max Krzyzanowski, Senator Ivana Bacik, Kieran Rose and Cathal Kerrigan, and Ireland’s first two openly gay mayors Cian O’Callaghan and Fintan Warfield.

Also quick to endorse the campaign were the Musicians’ Union of Ireland (MUI) and the actors’ and dancers’ union Irish Equity, along with Mandate General Secretary John Douglas. On 29 January this year the National Union of Journalists Dublin Broadcasting Branch committed to supporting members refusing to cover the Eurovision contest due to Israel’s “continued attacks on journalists and on freedom of expression”.

To date some 15,000 members of the public have signed a petition calling on RTÉ and potential participants to refuse to attend the contest. Last September the petition was presented to Director General of RTÉ Dee Forbes, and at that meeting RTÉ’s representatives committed to refusing to sanction any worker who does not wish travel on conscientious grounds.

RTÉ’s representatives also noted that they were “well aware that the Irish people are very concerned about and supportive of Palestinians” and that they will not merely be covering it as an entertainment event.

While this obviously falls far short of the call for a boycott of coverage of the Eurovision, it nevertheless represents an important acknowledgement by Ireland’s national broadcaster that there is broad Irish support for, and empathy with, the Palestinian struggle for freedom; that any international event held in Israel is not to be treated as ‘normal’; and that working on it presents an ethical difficulty for people of conscience.

As the competition date nears, the campaign momentum continues to grow. Last month more than 60 queer and trans liberation organisations from across Europe and beyond called on global LGBTQIA communities to take a stand for Palestinian human rights by joining the boycott.

In Britain stellar names such as Peter Gabriel, Vivienne Westwood, Roger Waters, Wolf Alice and Mike Leigh have recently called for Eurovision not to be held in Israel. As performers are announced, appeals and protests will be stepped up and the call for a boycott will become louder and stronger.  Alternative Eurovision parties in solidarity with the Palestinian people enduring their 71st year of dispossession and apartheid will be held across Europe.

In what is a huge embarrassment, and should really lead to Israel being disqualified from holding the competition this year, a plagiarism settlement has given musician Jack White a songwriting credit for Barzilai’s competition winning song ‘Toy, with the track deemed to be a rip-off of the White Stripes’ Seven Nation Army – yet another theft by the apartheid state.

Built on ethnically cleansed land

Last week we learned that the 2019 Eurovision Village is set to be built on the ruins of the Al-Manshiyya quarter of Jaffa, ethnically cleansed of its roughly 12,000 Palestinian inhabitants in 1948 by Zionist paramilitaries.

Following the dispossession – known in Arabic as ‘al Nakba’ (the Catastrophe) – large parts of the quarter were ultimately demolished and turned into a public park. Now, to facilitate this exercise in culture-washing, it will be turned into a site where contestants and their entourages lounge around on ethnically cleansed land, which once consisted of the homes and businesses of Palestinians families that remain refugees to this day.

We in the Irish campaign to boycott the Eurovision in apartheid Israel reiterate our call for RTÉ, all workers and performers, and all who care for human rights to seize this moment, to stand on the right side of history and to listen to the cry for solidarity from the Palestinian people.

We must refuse to take part in any pink-washing or art-washing of Israel’s decades of oppression of the Palestinian people. The slogan for this year’s Eurovision is ‘Dare To Dream’, and daring to dream of their own freedom, justice and equality, Palestinians have asked for our solidarity. We call on all people to heed their call to boycott the 2019 Eurovision – it is the very least we can do!  

Zoë Lawlor is the Cultural Liaison of the Ireland-Palestine Solidarity Campaign and is also a member of Gaza Action Ireland. Follow the IPSC on Twitter @ipsc48.