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.

Photo: Getty
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Who will win in Stoke-on-Trent?

Labour are the favourites, but they could fall victim to a shock in the Midlands constituency.  

The resignation of Tristram Hunt as MP for Stoke-on-Central has triggered a by-election in the safe Labour seat of Stoke on Trent Central. That had Westminster speculating about the possibility of a victory for Ukip, which only intensified once Paul Nuttall, the party’s leader, was installed as the candidate.

If Nuttall’s message that the Labour Party has lost touch with its small-town and post-industrial heartlands is going to pay dividends at the ballot box, there can hardly be a better set of circumstances than this: the sitting MP has quit to take up a well-paid job in London, and although  the overwhelming majority of Labour MPs voted to block Brexit, the well-advertised divisions in that party over the vote should help Ukip.

But Labour started with a solid lead – it is always more useful to talk about percentages, not raw vote totals – of 16 points in 2015, with the two parties of the right effectively tied in second and third place. Just 33 votes separated Ukip in second from the third-placed Conservatives.

There was a possible – but narrow – path to victory for Ukip that involved swallowing up the Conservative vote, while Labour shed votes in three directions: to the Liberal Democrats, to Ukip, and to abstention.

But as I wrote at the start of the contest, Ukip were, in my view, overwritten in their chances of winning the seat. We talk a lot about Labour’s problem appealing to “aspirational” voters in Westminster, but less covered, and equally important, is Ukip’s aspiration problem.

For some people, a vote for Ukip is effectively a declaration that you live in a dump. You can have an interesting debate about whether it was particularly sympathetic of Ken Clarke to brand that party’s voters as “elderly male people who have had disappointing lives”, but that view is not just confined to pro-European Conservatives. A great number of people, in Stoke and elsewhere, who are sympathetic to Ukip’s positions on immigration, international development and the European Union also think that voting Ukip is for losers.

That always made making inroads into the Conservative vote harder than it looks. At the risk of looking very, very foolish in six days time, I found it difficult to imagine why Tory voters in Hanley would take the risk of voting Ukip. As I wrote when Nuttall announced his candidacy, the Conservatives were, in my view, a bigger threat to Labour than Ukip.

Under Theresa May, almost every move the party has made has been designed around making inroads into the Ukip vote and that part of the Labour vote that is sympathetic to Ukip. If the polls are to be believed, she’s succeeding nationally, though even on current polling, the Conservatives wouldn’t have enough to take Stoke on Trent Central.

Now Theresa May has made a visit to the constituency. Well, seeing as the government has a comfortable majority in the House of Commons, it’s not as if the Prime Minister needs to find time to visit the seat, particularly when there is another, easier battle down the road in the shape of the West Midlands mayoral election.

But one thing is certain: the Conservatives wouldn’t be sending May down if they thought that they were going to do worse than they did in 2015.

Parties can be wrong of course. The Conservatives knew that they had found a vulnerable spot in the last election as far as a Labour deal with the SNP was concerned. They thought that vulnerable spot was worth 15 to 20 seats. They gained 27 from the Liberal Democrats and a further eight from Labour.  Labour knew they would underperform public expectations and thought they’d end up with around 260 to 280 seats. They ended up with 232.

Nevertheless, Theresa May wouldn’t be coming down to Stoke if CCHQ thought that four days later, her party was going to finish fourth. And if the Conservatives don’t collapse, anyone betting on Ukip is liable to lose their shirt. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.