The politics of the language wars

The politics of the language wars DUP leader Arlene Foster (left) with Prime Minister Theresa May

The choice of language, as I’ve often observed, is a hugely significant element of politics and culture.

An example worth noting emerged over last weekend in the wake of the British General Election: the use of the toxic phrase “socially conservative”.

As it became clear that the Democratic Unionist Party would be the new kingmakers in the House of Commons – enabling Theresa May’s minority administration to govern – the no-no words was thrown around in the public realm that these people were – horrors! – “socially conservative”. This was said by everyone from Jeremy Corbyn to Scots Conservative Ruth Davidson to former Tory Chancellor George Osborne.

‘Socially conservative’ is the code-word for being anti-abortion and not supporting gay marriage. It can also stretch to being a ‘climate change denier’.


The 10 DUP Members of Parliament (Emma Pengelly Gregory Campbell, Sammy Wilson, Nigel Dodds, Jim Shannon, Arlene Foster, Gavin Robinson, Jeffrey Donaldson, Paul Girvan and Ian Paisley Jnr) have been pilloried in demonstrations outside Westminster as “anti-gay, anti-woman, anti-green”. ‘Socially conservative’, covers all that.

Jeremy Corbyn said, on BBC TV, “we have to challenge the DUP’s socially conservative attitudes”. (Had he won, of course, he would have imposed liberal abortion laws on Northern Ireland.)

The liberal-left hasn’t won the British election, but it is winning the language war.

Irish Catholics may have little reason to support or respect the DUP, which has an historic anti-Catholic track record. It’s regrettable, to many of us, that the SDLP lost its South Belfast seat to Emma Pengelly (and lost two other seats – Mark Durkan in Foyle and Margaret Ritchie in South Down – to Sinn Féin, who are abstentionist).

Nevertheless, the DUP are entitled to uphold their traditional Christian values without being disparaged at every turn for being socially conservative.

Ironically, I believe that the DUP’s presence at Westminster may be helpful to Ireland as a whole, in terms of facilitating a better deal about the border. And they’ll get more Westminster investment in the North, too, as their price for supporting Mrs May.


Sinn Féin could also have flown the flag for Ireland’s best interests, but though they run for election, they will not take their seats in a British parliament.

Well, they too must follow their consciences, and if they believe that is the right thing to do, so be it. Yet there were many long decades when Sinn Féin wouldn’t take their seats in Dáil Eireann, or would not recognise ‘Free State’ courts. They eventually changed their minds about all that, so anything is possible.

Mind you, Sinn Féin do not bear the stigma of being socially conservative, so – again, ironically – they’d probably receive a much warmer welcome at the Mother of Parliaments than the ‘Bible-bashing’ (another epithet used) DUP.


‘Manspreading’ a matter of manners

More language issues: the latest fad for putting manners on men is to object to ‘manspreading’ – that is, men sitting on public transport with their legs and posteriors taking up more public space than their fair share.


Madrid’s left-wing city authority now has public signs which forbid it. Honestly, this is what the fierce old Spanish socialist movement has come to – teaching Miss Manners rules to uncouth blokes on public transport!

Sitting selfishly in a public space is a matter of common consideration and proper manners. It’s hardly a burning political or civic issue. In any case, obese people of either gender are apt to take up more space than they might.

Public transport authorities are entitled to ask all passengers to show consideration. But they should also enforce these regulations. Travelling on Iarnrod Eireann recently from Tralee to Dublin Heuston, I heard constant reminders over the public address system to “keep feet off seats”. Despite that, there was always some uncouth youth who insisted on putting his great big shoes on the seat opposite – and no one corrected him.


Feet on seats is a rather more unhygienic practice than manspreading, so before manspreading is taken up by every city authority in the EU, I’d prefer if travel authorities would enforce their regulations on the former. Shoes and boots walk through all kinds of muddy conditions, including the remains of animal faeces, which can contain worm bacteria causing blindness.


Gardens conducive to spiritual reflections

My aunt used to have an idyllic garden painting on her wall, with the verse (by Dorothy Frances Gurney): “The kiss of the sun for pardon: the song of the birds for mirth/ One is nearer God’s heart in a garden: than anywhere else on Earth.”

Gardens are often conducive to spiritual reflections, but, at this time of the year of glorious gardens, I am more likely to be reminded of my failings and inadequacies, as I contrast the exquisite gardening accomplishments of others with my utterly hopeless tangle of overgrown grass, dandelions and weeds!