State papers: Irish language a political issue in 1994

By Éamon Phoenix

  • Published
Dick Spring and Patrick Mayhew meeting in London in 1996Image source, PA
Image caption,
Tánaiste Dick Spring meeting Patrick Mayhew in London in 1996

Divisions over the Irish language and identity issues are nothing new, according to recently released confidential papers.

Dublin's lifting of the Sinn Féin broadcasting ban and cross-border roads dominated a meeting of the Anglo-Irish Intergovernmental Conference in 1994.

The Irish side said the British response to identity issues was "disappointingly slow".

Irish Deputy Prime Minister Dick Spring referred to several unresolved issues.

These included the promised repeal of the legislative prohibition on Irish placenames, the revision of the Jurors' Oath and the availability of RTÉ in Northern Ireland.

Other issues included the flying of the union flag which, the tánaiste (Irish deputy prime minister) claimed, was "out of line with that in GB" and failed to take account of nationalist sensitivities.

Northern Ireland Secretary Sir Patrick Mayhew advised that he had already approved the removal of the ban on Irish street names during the meeting in January 1994.

The tánaiste said plans for an Irish language television station would be of interest to the many thousands of people in Northern Ireland - of both traditions - who were interested in that aspect of their heritage.

In response, Northern Ireland Office Education Minister Michael Ancram agreed it was desirable to extend the availability of RTÉ broadcasting in Northern Ireland.

Broadcasting ban

Sir Patrick referred to the British government's concern and disappointment at the Irish government's recent decision not to renew the order under Section 31 of the Irish Broadcasting Act (1960), banning interviews with Sinn Féin and proscribed organisations.

Image caption,
From 1988 to 1994 Sinn Féin politicians' voices were dubbed on television in Northern Ireland

He believed this had sent the wrong signal to terrorist organisations.

The British view was that Sinn Féin could only be brought within the democratic process if and when it renounced violence.

For his part, Mr Spring pointed out that a recent poll showed only 1.5% support for Sinn Féin in the Republic of Ireland.

In October 1988, the British government announced that organisations in Northern Ireland believed to support terrorism would be banned from directly broadcasting on the airwaves.

The ban affected 11 loyalist and republican organisations, but Sinn Féin was the main target.

The restrictions were lifted in 1994, following the announcement by the IRA of a ceasefire.

On the question of the use of lethal force, Mr Spring expressed disappointment at the British treatment of the issue.

Cross-border roads

This was "a matter of crucial importance for nationalist confidence in the security forces" and had been highlighted by the recent acquittal of two Royal Marines for the killing of Fergal Caraher in south Armagh, he said.

Responding, Sir John Wheeler, the security minister, said that while this was a difficult and complex issue, no deaths of this nature had occurred since 1992.

Irish Justice Minister Marie Geoghegan-Quinn raised the issue of the reopening of cross-border roads, claiming that Sinn Féin in border communities had used the issue to hype up fears.

However, Sir John stressed that any changes would be driven by security factors and not by socio-economic considerations.

Dr Éamon Phoenix is a political historian, broadcaster and commentator.