Mind Your Language! A Beginners Guide to Northern Ireland?

In recent months one of the issues discussed by colleagues has been the use of terms to allow people to search the range of stories that will be found in the searchable database within the Accounts of the Conflict website. In one sense this is not a major problem in that it is relatively easy to come up with a range of key words and phrases that can be adopted. However within the context of Northern Ireland the situation is slightly complicated by the fact that there is often no consensus around which terms should be used to describe many of the aspects of life experienced by those who lived through the ‘troubles’.

Such problems are not however insurmountable and it can be interesting to look at the approach others have adopted. One example of this has emerged recently as a result of ongoing work between CAIN and the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland (PRONI). The result of this partnership has been ‘PRONI Records on CAIN’ where people can find a selection of official government records relating to developments in Northern Ireland post 1968. Amongst the range of items recently made available that cover the years 1983 and 1984 is a briefing document produced by local civil servants for British government ministers newly appointed to the Northern Ireland Office (NIO). In many ways the title of the document is self-explanatory “Expressions To Be Avoided (And Notes on Other Terminology)”. The item itself is an example of a series that were traditionally given to ministers on their arrival in Northern Ireland in order to prevent any gaffes which could cause public embarrassment.

The content itself is divided under three headings: (i) the Northern Ireland population, which contains some obvious terms of abuse and of which people here would be familiar with – such as ‘Fenians’ or ‘Prods’ – but which would probably have been completely unknown to an incoming minister; (ii) geographical areas, where the advice was that the terms “the 6 Counties” or the “the North of Ireland” should be avoided and that instead it was best to use “The North” or “The Province”. In addition newly appointed NIO ministers were warned not to describe their posting to Northern Ireland as “Being out here”; and (iii) political terminology, where it was suggested that amongst other things reference should not be made to the “H-Blocks”, “Long Kesh” or the “The Kesh” when talking about the “Maze Prison”.

Whilst this particular document may not necessarily provide any direct output into the list of terms that will be used for Accounts of the Conflict it is still of some interest. This undoubtedly lies in the fact that the task of trying to “mind your language” within the context of Northern Ireland has been and will always remain an ongoing challenge.

Dr Brendan Lynn
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