Ulster-Scots and parity of esteem: a partisan tool?

By Nolwenn Rousvoal

Parity of esteem was used as a conceptual tool in the early 1990s in Northern Ireland during the peace negotiation process in order to accommodate the aspirations of nationalists and unionists under the framework of “two traditions”. The idea behind this concept, which is enshrined in the 1998 Belfast/Good Friday Agreement, was that both traditions should receive equal respect and equal recognition and that any political settlement should acknowledge these two traditions and their preferred constitutional arrangements.[1] Yet unionist politicians and some academics soon opposed the concept of parity of esteem: firstly on the grounds that it made equal two irreconcilable aspirations, and secondly that it made equal political recognition and cultural recognition.

In 1996, Arlene Foster wrote a pamphlet published by the Friends of the Union organisation in which she claimed that the concepts of “parity of esteem” and “the principle of consent” were deceitful and aimed at dispossessing Northern Ireland’s unionists of their British identity.[2] The unionists’ initial reaction to the concept of parity of esteem was adverse and reactive. It was decoded as a slippery concept that legitimised Irish nationalism in the name of parity for both traditions. In Foster’s opinion, it falsely equated the legal fact of British citizenship, and the constitutional and territorial status quo of the Union, with what was merely a nationalist aspiration for Irish (re)unification. She wrote: “we do not, as some may claim, object to parity of esteem, but we do object to our citizenship being treated as equal to an aspiration”.[3]

Some academics of unionist background such as Richard English also expressed scepticism towards this concept.[4] Similarly, in their report on pluralism and parity of esteem published in 1997, Tom Hennessey and Robin Wilson noted that many unionist politicians saw parity of esteem as “alienating” the Protestant community.[5] From that perspective, it was seen as a partisan tool and as a one-way process that was harmful to the unionist identity.

Parity of esteem was given an official status in the Framework Documents of 1995 which defined it as a right that should be applied at the community level. As mentioned, it was later enshrined in the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement of 1998. Interestingly, and despite their initial negative reactions, the unionist parties eventually adopted parity of esteem in the wake of the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement. The motive behind unionism’s commitment to parity of esteem is complex, however. Although unionist politicians started referring to parity of esteem in their manifestos and in political debates at the Assembly, it seems that it was used more as a tool to oppose nationalist demands, not least regarding the Irish language. References to parity of esteem on the part of unionists are indeed likely to be expressed as counterclaims.

In 2001, for example, the DUP called for “parity” between Ulster-Scots and the Irish language in its manifesto. Although the term “esteem” was not mentioned, it was the first time that a section of the DUP’s manifesto was devoted to cultural issues, and more specifically to Ulster-Scots. In 2003, the party resorted to this concept again and elaborated on measures to enhance the Ulster-Scots language (also referred to as a dialect) and culture. The UUP referred to parity of esteem just once to date, in its 2003 Northern Ireland Assembly election manifesto, as it committed to increasing the budget available to the Ulster-Scots Agency “so as to bring parity of esteem”.[6]

The idea of promoting equality of treatment between the “two traditions” forced the unionists to think again about the nature of their own “tradition” and identity, while the conflict was shifting to a more cultural ground. Not only did the concept of parity of esteem raise the question of two equal traditions in Northern Ireland, but it also raised the question of delineating the unique characteristics of unionist culture in Ulster.

In that respect, the case of Ulster-Scots is illustrative of this process of self-examination and self-definition. In the 1990s, cultural bodies were created to promote Ulster-Scots, showing a renewed interest in the language. Ulster-Scots and Irish were given official recognition by the British Government when it adopted the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages which entered into force on 1 March 1998. Under the framework of parity of esteem, some unionist activists, academics and politicians strove to promote Ulster-Scots in an attempt to anchor their unionist identity in a local history that started with the arrival of Scottish planters, thereby reviving the unique connection between Ulster and Scotland. The idea behind the promotion of this language was to articulate a more local sense of identity and culture. However, many unionists do not whole-heartedly support the Ulster-Scots language which has been described as a “DIY Language for Orangemen” or merely as a dialect whose promotion and rediscovery in the 1990s only served a convenient political purpose.[7] It appears that many in the unionist community do not really consider the Ulster-Scots language as a linguistic legacy that could contribute to shaping a Northern Irish unionist culture, and the nature of Ulster-Scots is still very much contested among unionists themselves.[8]

Thus, this post will reflect on how parity of esteem has been used to promote Ulster-Scots and will try to determine, in respect to this case study, whether or not the unionist parties’ commitment to Ulster-Scots and parity of esteem allowed unionists to engage in a cultural discussion. Many took part in this multi-level endeavour: grassroots organisations, academics, cultural bodies and political parties.[9] It remains to be seen however if unionist politicians are genuinely engaged in reconciliation politics when dealing with parity of esteem, or simply seeking to frustrate nationalism’s cultural project. Unionists had long struggled to present a collective sense of culture and history contrary to the nationalists who demonstrated a more coherent cultural strategy, not least regarding language. Peter Gardner argues that the attempt to revive unionist culture came out of a sense of threat and loss of esteem.[10]

However, Ulster-Scots did not draw wholehearted support from unionist parties, at least not in all contexts. Since 1998 the question of Ulster-Scots has been rarely mentioned publicly or at party conferences by the DUP or the UUP. Even in their manifestos since 1998, the promotion of Ulster-Scots has only been very briefly touched upon. Yet, in the Northern Ireland Assembly, unionist MLAs have repeatedly called for parity of esteem between Ulster-Scots and Irish. Between 1998 and 2017, there was no debate devoted to Ulster-Scots as a standalone issue, and indeed unionist parties did not put forward any motion regarding Ulster-Scots. Unionist MLAs would only call for equal recognition and equal funding in comparison with Irish. Therefore, the promotion of Ulster-Scots always came as a response to nationalist initiatives to further promote the Irish Language. Unionist MLAs insisted that parity of esteem could be achieved only through equal funding. The DUP’s Jim Shannon claimed for instance: “Lip-service is only being paid to the Ulster-Scots language, which is completely inadequate and unfair”.[11]  Yet, the ratio for the funding of Ulster-Scots and Irish from the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure was proportional to the institutions’ yearly programmes and adapted to their stages of development.  

Instead of adopting a positive vision of Ulster-Scots and putting forward measures to further promote it, unionist MLAs tended to focus on the fact that it received less public attention and less funding than Irish. Once again, the debates devoted to the language question revolved primarily around the degree of politicisation of the Irish language and the demands for an Irish Language Act. The rhetoric of the “cultural war” was dominant during these debates on languages and the unionist rhetoric remained confrontational.[12] No concrete measure was put forward to promote Ulster-Scots, which suggests that unionist politicians, who were trying to block the way to an Irish Language Act, used it more as a tool in the “cultural war” taking place in the Northern Ireland Assembly and did not see it as a core element of unionist culture. However, some unionist politicians are genuinely committed to the defence of Ulster-Scots. Jim Shannon or Nelson McCausland for instance have been vocal supporters of this language and culture in Stormont and have worked with Ulster-Scots cultural bodies. Yet, many unionist politicians seem to share the idea that the development of Ulster-Scots is based on social and domestic transmission, and not necessarily on school instruction. When addressing voters and party members in public speeches, unionist leaders lay stress on other cultural features like parading and flags. But when sitting in front of nationalists in parliament, then equal funding for Ulster-Scots and parity of esteem become key aspects of the unionist rhetoric, which calls into question their commitment to this language. 

Language activists, such as members of the the Ulster-Scots Agency, also lament the lack of initiative on the part of unionist politicians and feel that it is undermining their work. They see Ulster-Scots being reduced to a political tool, while they have tried to rehabilitate the language and show that Ulster-Scots is more than an entirely fabricated cultural weapon. From the perspective of scholars who work on Ulster-Scots and language activists, developing knowledge about this language is a way to ensure symmetry between the two traditions, in line with the principle of parity of esteem, and also a way to reconcile the Protestant/unionist community with their own unique cultural identity. As Wesley Hutchinson wrote: “The challenge was to use this base to encourage people to construct a linked narrative focused on the ‘Ulster Scots’ whose particular destiny would be disentangled from the mass of ‘Irish’, ‘British’ and ‘American’ history and set at the centre of a self-standing narrative […]”.[13] Besides, Ulster-Scots could provide an interesting medium for cultural connection between Northern Ireland and Scotland. The Scottish cultural dimension is a key component of unionist culture, especially at a time when the British dimension of the unionist identity is going through what many have called a “crisis of Britishness”.

This also testifies to the difficult endorsement of parity of esteem by unionists. During the debates on the Flag Protests of 2012 – 2013 in the Assembly, the parity principle was again targeted by unionist MLAs, going back to the aforementioned reactive interpretation of the early 1990s, demonstrating unionism’s complex, wavering commitment to this concept.

This case-study shows that unionists have failed, at this stage, to endorse a coherent cultural strategy and Ulster-Scots is a good case in point in that respect. Although some unionist politicians are genuinely committed to the development of this language, many others still see it merely as a dialect not worth promoting. The case of Ulster-Scots exemplifies the limits of the self-exploration process the unionist parties have tried to engage in since the 1990s.[14] They have struggled to promote a unionist cultural agenda on a par with the nationalist cultural strategy. Ulster-Scots is used more as a tool in the cultural war in the Assembly and is not perceived as a key element of Northern Irish unionist culture which could help articulate a new sense of cultural identity rooted in Ulster and distinct from British unionism.

(Image: Wikimedia Commons)

Nolwenn Rousvoal completed her PhD in British studies at Université Sorbonne Nouvelle – Paris III, with a specialisation in Northern Irish and Scottish politics and discourse analysis. She is carrying out research in the field of unionism and comparative studies, and her academic interest lies in the historical and contemporary connections between Northern Ireland and Scotland.

[1] See Jyrki Ruohomäki. “Parity of Esteem: A Conceptual Approach to the Northern Ireland Conflict”. Alternatives: Global, Local, Political (Vol. 35, No. 2, April-June 2010, pp. 163-185).

[2] Arlene Foster. “‘Parity of Esteem’ and ‘Consent’ and How Words Deceive”. Friends of the Union (November, 1996).

[3] Ibid.

[4] Richard English. “Unionism and Nationalism: the notion of symmetry”. The Idea of the Union (Belcouver Press, 1995, p. 135).

[5] Tom Hennessey and Robin Wilson. “With all due respect: pluralism and parity of esteem”. Democratic Dialogue (1997, p. 49).

[6] UUP. Northern Ireland Assembly Election manifesto, 2003.

[7] See Carolyn Gallaher, After the Peace: Loyalist Paramilitaries in Post-Accord Northern Ireland (Cornell University Press, 2007, Chapter 4: “Fighting with History instead of Guns”).

[8] Ibid.

[9] The Ulster-Scots Language Society was established in 1992 and published a journal titled Ullans: The Magazine for Ulster-Scots. The Ulster-Scots Heritage Council was founded in 1995 to promote understanding of the Ulster-Scots tradition in literature, language, music and dance. 

[10] See Peter Gardner. Ethnic Dignity and Ulster-Scots (Palgrave Macmillan, 2020).

[11] Northern Ireland Assembly. Debate on Languages, statement by Jim Shannon, 3 July 2000.

[12] See for instance: Northern Ireland Assembly. Irish Language, 9 October 2007.

[13] Wesley Hutchinson. Tracing the Ulster-Scots Imagination (Ulster University Press, 2018, p. 33).

[14] David Trimble helped establish the Ulster Society for the Promotion of Ulster-British Heritage and Culture as early as 1985 for example.


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