Northern Irish people! It's time to reclaim our god-awful accent

Suzie McCracken feels like her vocal chords are haunted by the booming projections of past politicians and preachers. Surely now it's time to stop being an incessant apologist and be proud of our vowels?

The comedian Hal Cruttenden tells a joke about his Northern Irish wife’s proclamations of love being undermined by the brashness of her accent. He suggests that no matter how sweet her "I love you" truly is, it is rendered murderous by her regional intonation. Undoubtedly it’s true – to perform a good impression of me it is essential to stretch your mouth into a grimace and pepper your rendition with nasally colloquialisms.

The Northern Irish tend to be mortified by their accent. Apart from a few that boldly bellow into terrified tourists' faces, there is a general awareness that not only are we harsh but just plain old difficult to understand. I have seen people turn off the TV if someone from the province makes an appearance. I have a friend who watched The Voice UK religiously, supporting the two local girls with vigor, but then found herself muting her set each time they stopped singing.

This is by no means a unique response to hearing provincial voices on the airwaves, but the Northern Irish cringe reflex is so immediate that it makes me wonder if it’s purely an auditory issue.

I feel that my vocal chords are haunted by the booming projections of past politicians and preachers. I am truly of the first generation of peace in Northern Ireland, and yet Paisley’s shouts were so deafening that they’re still echoing through my existence. My harsh tone links me with a past I don’t remember; the relative lack of NI voices in the media ensures that its strangeness is amplified.

With so much attention being forced onto this idiosyncratic place of late, with Derry-Londonderry being UK City of Culture and the world’s eight most important people in suits playing golf on our green lands, isn’t it about time that the national media give a few more speaking parts to the NI extras? Not only would this normalise the brogue but it may encourage those who speak it not to spurn it. Perhaps if we work on associating the tone with overpaid people in the media instead of overpaid people in politics then we’ll be able to carve out an oral identity to be proud of. The accent could connote "incubator for excellent music" or "creative place" rather than "home to the small minded and threatening".

It might also help stop us all being incessant apologists. We seem to be constantly saying sorry for our accent, our past, our eccentricities and our talents. You’ll often hear of people from the region being described as "humble". That’s because we feel, as a nation/community/whatever doesn’t offend you, that we’re too brash to be allowed. And so we say sorry, we don’t get in the way and we curb our dialect. Two Door Cinema Club frontman Alex Trimble astounded me during his Glastonbury set by speaking in a tone so unlike what I heard come out of his mouth when I was 15 that I was ashamed of my own diluted, Londonified lilt.

I realised that over the past few years I haven’t simply been trying to be understood – I’ve been apologising for being where I’m from. I have resolved to start taking my lead from the resoundingly brash Phil Taggart, a recent addition to the BBC Radio 1 team. Born and raised in Omagh, he’s normalising his less-than-soothing inflection for teenagers across the land, just like Colin Murray did when I was an early teen. Hopefully, in another generation's time, the Northern Irish intonation will be truly reclaimed from the province's past. Still think the timbre is intense? Nah mate - it's impassioned. 

Now read about the death of the Cromerty fisherfolk dialect.

 

The Peace Bridge in Derry-Londonderry, UK City of Culture. Photograph: Getty Images

Suzie McCracken is a freelance journalist, occasional walking tour guide and complete novice.

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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle