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War of words over who coined fighting talk

WHEN it comes to discussions surrounding unionist opposition to the Irish language it doesn't take long before somebody cites the saying: "Every word of Irish spoken is like another bullet being fired in the struggle for Irish freedom".

The phrase emerged in the early 1980s, although it is not clear in which setting, nor by whom the words were first used.

It has been attributed to many people over the course of the past 30 years or so, including - incorrectly - Sinn Féin's former director of publicity Danny Morrison.

In the 1997 book Nationalists and the Irish Language in Northern Ireland: Competing Perspectives, author Camille O'Reilly attributes it to a "prominent member of Sinn Féin who is also an Irish language activist" but does not elaborate.

In discussions with Sinn Féin one gets the sense that republicans are keen to move away from the phraseology that dates back to the days of the so-called 'armed struggle' .

More certain of its origins, however, is former culture minister Nelson McCausland, who recently addressed the saying in his blog.

The North Belfast MLA and former Stormont minister says the context for the phrase was the Sinn Féin strategy of "broadening the battlefield".

Mr McCausland says the phrase was first used at a seminar in west Belfast's Conway Mill by then Sinn Féin cultural officer Padraig O Maoicraoibhe - also known as Pat Rice - who later represented the party on Belfast City Council.

In the 2011 book Religion, Religion, Civil Society, and Peace in Northern Ireland, Queen's academic John D Brewer notes: "DUP MP Sammy Wilson famously said that every word spoken in Irish was like a bullet from a republican gun".

Professor Brewer insists that he is not suggesting that Mr Wilson coined the phrase but is merely highlighting how it became common currency. "My point is about cultural dissemination and popularisation," he told The Irish News. "The phrase became popular as one of the iconic terms of the conflict - like 'even the dogs on the street know' or 'whatever you say, say nothing' - and thus its usage transcended its origins (whatever they are), and unionists politicians helped popularise it."

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