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10 November 2014

How Gregory Campbell has handed the moral high ground to Sinn Fein over his 'curry my yoghurt' comments

Gregory Campbell
Gregory Campbell

I have sympathy for Gregory Campbell and, indeed, for all who grind their teeth when Sinn Fein representatives gratuitously introduce into public debate phrases from a language few people understand.

Which doesn't mean I thought his "curry-my-yoghurt" contribution in the Assembly was either funny, or clever.

I find Sinn Fein's petty conspiracy to wind up the Prods by any means possible contemptible, but that isn't the fault of a beautiful language, which is being used as a cultural bludgeon by unscrupulous politicians.

I hated Irish when I was growing up in Dublin.

It was difficult, badly taught, compulsory and enveloped in hypocrisy.

Under the 1922 Free State constitution, with Gaelicising Ireland an ideological priority, Irish had been given equal status with English as an official language and became a mandatory qualification for the civil service and school certificates. Although five out of six primary school teachers had to be given a crash course in basic Irish, it was given a position of privilege in schools, where it was frequently beaten into children by struggling teachers.

Although the policy of language-revival was obviously failing, under de Valera's 1937 constitution, Irish was promoted to being "the first official language", with English merely "a second official language".

Yet though politicians were as hopeless at it as their constituents, they continued with the pretence, through topping and tailing speeches and letters with a few words of Irish. This use of the "cúpla focal" (couple of words) became a standing joke.

Although plenty of money is wasted in the Republic and in the EU on the nonsense of employing unnecessary Irish translators, lack of Irish is no longer penalised and no one pretends Irish can be revived - except Sinn Fein, many of whose representatives have execrable Irish, or none at all.

Indeed, with such absurdities as the make-believe West Belfast Gaelic Quarter, they cling to old, discredited policies of the distant past.

I stopped hating Irish when I grew up and understood better the love my mother felt for it and its splendid literature.

She had learned it so well from her grandmother that people thought her a native speaker and she always despised those who used it as a political weapon.

In the days when Provo fellow-travellers used to hand out leaflets in Dublin demanding an Irish-Ireland, she used to torment them by questioning them in Irish.

She was the first person I heard disparagingly referring to Gerry Adams' "prison Irish", which he rarely ventures to use in the Dail since - unusually - the leaders of both Fianna Fail and Fine Gael are fluent Irish speakers.

I never got it together to learn the language properly, but when I chaired an organisation called the British Association for Irish Studies, I did all I could to facilitate courses for people who wanted to study the language and its literature for its own sake.

In Northern Ireland, of course, Sinn Fein use it in every area they can, from education to signage, to encourage social division.

They've also used fraud to bolster their case for financial support. Republican papers and advice centres explained that anyone who knew what "Tiocfaidh ár lá" meant was entitled to tick the Irish-speaking box on census forms.

In a discussion last week on The Nolan Show, Sinn Fein councillor Niall O Donnghaile explained gaily that the expenditure of £270,000 on translation services at Stormont so he could, if he wished, read legislation translated into Irish was a "fundamental right".

I'd have thought that a more fundamental right is to have government money spent on vital public services. And that, of course, is what Gregory Campbell (below) should have been focusing on, rather than mocking an innocent language. It is, for instance, a disgrace that John O'Dowd at the Department of Education is proposing to privilege Irish over English, or foreign languages, and that Culture Minister Caral (a bogus version of Carol) Ni Chulin's priority is Irish.

There are many valid criticisms to be made of Sinn Fein's fiscal irresponsibility and cultural imperialism. I know PR isn't his strong suit, but what on earth possessed Gregory Campbell to hand his enemies a free ticket to the high moral ground?

Ruth Dudley Edwards

© Ruth Dudley Edwards