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Aer LIngus Buckle Under Invisible Pressure

22/12/07

The recent announcement by Aer Lingus that its on-flight staff will be banned from using Irish while operating to and from their new Belfast hub may seem trivial in light of the outrage of that company’s recent privatisation and its subsequent mistreatment of workers.

However, as with most developments in the Six Counties, looking at the context in which the decision was taken is crucial to understanding the significance of the move.

“Go mbeannaí Dia daoibh, tá fáilte romhaibh ar bord na heitilte seo (Hello and welcome to your flight)”, is the offensive wording that has been removed from Aer Lingus’s Belfast services.  This greeting is used habitually by Aer Lingus workers to greet passengers in every other part of the world.

But in Belfast the company has engaged in a shameless act of self-censorship.  Nobody demanded the language ban, publicly at least, but Aer Lingus were happy to oblige the unwritten rule that the Irish language is not to be given an official veneer of legitimacy in the Six Counties.

In providing the explanation that their greetings in Belfast would either have to be given in three languages (Irish, English and Ulster-Scots) or one (English), Aer Lingus showed an intimate understanding of the modus operandi of the Six County state in opting to use the single, English greeting.

The use of Irish in public arenas is not about people’s sensitivities – it’s about the sensitivities of a system. 

The cultural basis of the Six County state is that of a foreign monoculture, i.e. Britain’s, to the exclusion of all other cultures, particularly the native, Irish culture.

Examples of this colonialist approach have been seen all around the world in the creation of ‘little Britain’s’, where the culture of the native is deemed beyond the pale.

The fact that the Irish language, Gaelic games and Irish music continue to flourish in the British occupied area is a testimony to the resistance of a community – not the liberalism of a state.

The spinelessness of Aer Lingus is one example of a three-pronged approach to the exclusion and isolation of the national identity, which continues to this day.

Firstly, there is the attitude of the state and its institutions.  The open hostility of ministers in Britain’s Stormont executive is their way of saying that the Six County state is British and unionist and can be nothing else. 

The refusal by the Six County minister for culture to implement legal protections for Irish speakers, his failure to attend a single GAA game in his time in the post and the mocking and racist tones used by his colleagues in reference to the Irish language are the official manifestations of the state’s negative identity.

Secondly, as in most colonial situations, ‘private’ follows the lead of ‘public’.  So, for decades, this meant private employers refusing to employ large numbers of catholics on the back of instructive statements from Stormont ministers.  Today, the open hostility of the Stormont institutions to the national language results in private airlines dropping seemingly ‘offensive’ greetings.

Last but not least, the actions of the unofficial bigots provide a warning that the assertion of rights and a national identity can come at a cost.  As recently as Wednesday (December 19) a GAA club in county Fermanagh was subjected to a sectarian arson attack, while this month alone, several GAA clubs in county Down have fallen prey to pipe bomb attacks or bomb scares.

Also, in the last week, a 12-year-old catholic boy and his friend were assaulted by men in the county Antrim village of Stoneyford.  It is believed that the bigoted ringleader behind the assault, and other recent attacks on the 12-year-old’s family, has close links to several unionist politicians.

Of course, sectarian attitudes and behaviour are not a totally one-way process.  Any republican worthy of the name must continue to challenge any manifestations of sectarianism, physical or otherwise, which emanate from the broad nationalist community.

But the reality, which cannot be ignored, is that sectarian attacks are a manifestation of a greater ill and inevitable in a society created as crude sectarian state where the settler colonial force is in economic, political, social and cultural control of the affairs of the state.

It is essential that Britain appear to be removed from the above-mentioned tactics.  So, despite the fact that they finance the Stormont institutions, direct the death squads and provide the framework for private companies to operate in, they can portray themselves as disinterested referees, frustrated by their perpetual attempts to implement peace and stability.

The success of this public portrayal is essential for Britain to cement its continuing occupation.
 

This is the context in which Aer Lingus buckled under an invisible pressure and dropped its calling card.  In the battle between rights and reaction, the ‘national airline’ has now placed itself on the side of reaction, in both the cultural and economic fields.

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