Languages in conflict and reconciliation
by Brian McAteer for Shared Future News
25 January 2019
Organised by the MEITS project (Multilingualism: Empowering Individuals, Transforming Societies), and supported by Senator George J. Mitchell Institute for Global Peace and the Modern Languages Core Disciplinary Research Group, this conference brought together two panels of academics and practitioners, one focusing on Northern Ireland and Ukraine and another on contexts in Africa, South America and Asia, to discuss the role of languages in conflict and reconciliation. The entire proceedings were fittingly interpreted by sign language practitioners.
Professor Mícheál Ó Mainnín (MEITS, Queen’s University Belfast) explained how the issue of language first arose in terms of settlers and natives on the island of Ireland; the politicisation began not with the creation of Northern Ireland. He gave examples in law, such as the Statutes of Kilkenny, which attempted to proscribe the use of the Irish language. Ó Mainnín cited the 17th-century historian, John Lynch, who noted the perceived connection between the Irish language and disloyalty, conspiracy and treachery. Ó Mainnín suggested that for many this remains a central issue and a challenge of how the issue could be resolved: “The issue of the Irish language is a proxy for other issues. We are looking to get beyond that.”
Deirdre Dunlevy (MEITS, Queen’s University Belfast), whose research focuses on questions of language identity and examines how embracing multilingualism can be used to improve social cohesion in a community that has been traditionally divided, echoed Ó Mainnínin in suggesting that it is only in the recent past that Irish has been seen as divisive. She asked, “So how do we create a space and a society where those who wish to use languages other than English — be it Irish, Ulster Scots or other languages — feel comfortable to do so?” In attempting to answer this question, she has been conducting interviews across Belfast, in particular with people from a variety of political and religious backgrounds. One of the conclusions she draws is that language is emerging as a force for cohesion — this is particularly evident from the work of Linda Ervine (whose organisation, Turas, is opening up the Irish language in areas where it may not have had a presence) and Feargal Mac Ionnrachtaigh (whose organisation, Glór na Móna, is promoting language and community involvement).
Mac Ionnrachtaigh suggested that if we are trying to understand the issues around the demand for an Irish Language Act, we need to look at the Northern Ireland state in 1921, whereby the Irish language was excluded and marginalised. Those who had an affinity with the language were community activists, who established workers’ cooperatives amidst abject poverty. They saw themselves as victims of the conflict here. Partly as a response to the state’s suppression of these cooperatives was the establishment of the radio station — Radio Failte — and the newspaper Lá. Officialdom tended to sectarianise the language and blame those promoting the language for their own exclusion. Mac Ionnrachtaigh gave an example of how the Irish language body Glor Na Gael lost its funding, as it was associated with Irish Republicanism. He described his own organisation, Glór na Móna, as a grassroots movement: “We’re not an Irish language group; we view ourselves as a group working through the medium of Irish”. Mac Ionnrachtaigh said that his community “suffered the most and received the least”, and in addressing conditions of long-term unemployment and mental health, “if change won’t come from above it must come from below”.
Linda Ervine (Turas, East Belfast Mission) shared her experiences as a resident of a Loyalist-populated area, where many might view as not amenable to the Irish language. Indeed, comments she read on social media include that the Irish language is divisive; “It’s the reason we don’t have government”; “It is the language of the enemy/republicanism”. “This,” she averred, “is not my experience.” She told how she was introduced to Irish as part of a cross-community project with women from the Short Strand: “I fell in love with the language. Why does a working-class Protestant learn Irish? I wanted to make it my own.’”
At An Droichead Community Centre on the Ormeau Road where Ervine first learned Irish, she was welcomed and found that her religion and political viewpoint were not barriers: “I had a preconceived notion of who was an Irish speaker (Republican ex-prisoners). While I noted most of the class were Catholic, I met other Protestants, people from England and from all parts of the world. I received an education on the diversity of the Irish language community.”
Ervine described how she, under the project Turas, organised her own Irish classes in East Belfast, which have continued to grow steadily. The current term is attended by over 250 learners, the majority being from the Protestant community. “When we started in 2012, we called ourselves Turas (journey), and for us it has turned out to be a journey, and not only a journey which the unionist community hadn’t had the opportunity to engage with, but also a journey of healing and reconciliation,” said Ervine. She reminded the conference of a shared language history — Gaelic being spoken in Ireland, Scotland and the Isle of Man. Her Turas presentations highlight the Irish language’s connection with the Church of Ireland, the Presbyterian Church, the Orange Order, even the Red Hand Commando. She confided that her aim is to encourage speakers at Turas to enrol on third-level courses at university, since if more Protestants obtain qualifications and attain employment within the Irish sector, this will change the perception of who is an Irish speaker. Ervine expressed her belief in the benefits of bilingualism, including children’s greater cultural tolerance and accepting of difference, and that the establishment of a Naíscoil and Bun Scoil in East Belfast is a future that is not very far away.
Rory Finnin (MEITS, University of Cambridge) reported on the situation in Ukraine, which he described as a war between the Russian Federation and Ukraine. Finnin reported that there are disinformation claims that Russian speakers are under threat — which misses the point that Ukraine is a multilingual country and language is not a source of division. He emphasised that Ukrainians are completely at ease switching between different languages, including Tartar and Hungarian. Finnin said that this paradox has been created mostly by Russian politicians but also some Ukrainian politicians: “Language has become a character in the story (people) are told about their identity.” He is interested to learn from colleagues in Belfast and across the world of ways language can be employed to create innovative ways to teach, for example, Ukrainian to Russian-speaking Ukrainians who are under the influence of state narratives of disinformation, or teaching Russian to Ukrainian-speaking Ukrainians under influence occasionally of local Ukrainian politicians who make Russian seem dangerous in its own right.
Meanwhile, Ivan Kozachenko (MEITS, University of Cambridge) described how language is connected to national memory and how there is a deep divide between public discourses on language-related topics and actual cultural practice in Ukraine.
Natalia Kudriavtseva (Kherson National Technical University) explained how language is one of the major political issues in Ukraine, citing President Poroshenko’s recent election campaign, which had as one of its slogans, “Army, Language, Faith”.
Olena Rozskazova (International Renaissance Foundation) described how at school the Ukrainian language was not taught, and Russian history, only, was on the curriculum. At university her first language was Russian, and with no Ukrainian literature or songs available, she was obliged to learn Ukrainian from her grandparents at the age of 25. The Foundation she represents, supported by George Soros, has been working with libraries to introduce young Eastern Ukrainians to their culture via writing and poetry workshops.
Patrick Colgan (Senior Advisor, Government of Ireland) spoke of his experiences with participants in the Colombian peace process and lessons they hoped to learn from the Northern Ireland experience of the Good Friday Agreement. He suggested that what is important in life is not what happens to us, but what we remember, how we remember it, what do we do with our memories and how that becomes part of our language.
Professor Hilary Footitt (University of Reading) spoke of her studies on the work of international non-government organisations in conflict zones. She found that listening is not taking place in the language of those being helped; funding is not happening if those being helped did not have a good command of English; interventions were less effective and influential because of the lack of trust, due to language interpreters were seen as an unbudgeted add-on; language difficulties created confusion about aims and data; and supporting local capacity very rarely included building and nurturing languages of the community so they could contribute to strategies.
Alison Phipps (UNESCO Professor, University of Glasgow) said that language is at the core of the Scottish Government body for new refugee integration, which she chairs, and pointed out that some refugee languages are being taught in Scottish schools. Phipps recounted her experiences In the Ghana rainforest, Zimbabwe, New Zealand and the Gaza Strip, and recalled the various greetings in the various languages she would have heard there: “To meet and greet and eat with one another — that is the work of reconciliation.”
Michael Semple (Senator George J Mitchell Institute, QUB) shared his experiences as part of the United Nations delegation in Kabul in 2001 during the peace process talks in Afghanistan. The conclusions he drew were that in the local politics, language is a key element of group identity, and the role of that in public life is contested. His view as a mediator in Afghanistan — a land whose correlations of language, ethnicity, sect and geography are only somewhat understood by intervenors — is that the politics of language and the language aspect of identity is paramount in determining whether key groups buy into any settlement.
Image source: “Peace and Reconciliation” by Amanda SLATER used by license CC BY-SA