Ulster speak: The confidential advice to Tom King on 'bad words'

By Nuala McCann
BBC News

image captionBewitched or bewildered: Tom King does the language limbo dance in Northern Ireland

It was 1985 in Northern Ireland.

The Troubles raged on. The Anglo-Irish Agreement was waiting to be signed by Margaret Thatcher and Garret Fitzgerald in November.

The coal miners called off their year-long strike and the mines continued to be closed.

It was the year of Live Aid when Bob Geldof inspired the pop world to raise millions for famine relief and ended up a Sir.

In Russia, Mikael Gorbachev became the new Soviet leader and the Cold War thaw set in.

The first mobile call in the United Kingdom was made on a phone that weighed just over 11 lbs.

Hair was big and people could blame it on Duran Duran. The Cabbage Patch dolls, skateboards and care bears were big too.

And one Tom King was about to travel over to Northern Ireland and take up the mantle of the new Secretary of State.

In preparation, civil servants drew up a list of expressions never to trip off his tongue in Northern Ireland. It was confidential back then, but has now been released by the Public Relations Office of Northern Ireland (Proni).

Many words are deemed "unacceptable".

Talking about "the mainland" was not acceptable. "The six counties" was also "to be avoided", as was "the north of Ireland".

Mr King could take refuge in referring to the United Kingdom as "these islands" and the words "the north" and "the province" were acceptable - although the latter was "not strictly accurate".

Colour proved a big issue. The incoming secretary was warned that whilst it was common shorthand, the words "orange" and "green" should not be used in public.

Londonderry/Derry proved another conundrum.

"Londonderry is correct terminology for the city as it is enshrined in a Royal Charter, although usually used by Protestants and 'Derry' by Catholics. Both communities are, however, proud to be called 'Derrymen'," the brief states.

When it came to the Republic of Ireland, calling it the 26 counties was "not acceptable", calling it the free state was "unacceptable" as was "Eire" and saying Ireland was "best avoided". Saying the "32 counties" was to be avoided as well.

Stick with calling it the republic or the south, the civil servants advised.

Various terms for Catholics and Protestants were taboo, the missive said - no Taigs, no Prods, no Fenians and no Orangemen (but feel free to say "Blackmen").

The word loyalist was "best avoided" as was the term "republican". If this did not leave Tom King a tad tongue-tied, there was plenty more.

He was advised that the political leader of the Republic of Ireland (see copious advice above) was to be called the taoiseach - and this, they advised, was pronounced "Tee shuck".

Under the heading "Security", it was pointed out that calling the Army, the "British Army" or "the Military" was not on.

The Maze prison was the Maze, never the H-Blocks, Long Kesh or even the Kesh.

There is also advice on the "UDR/UDA" - under that joint heading. The UDR, King was informed was an "important but controversial constituent of the Security Forces".

The UDA was the "largest loyalist paramilitary group: several UDA members have been convicted of serious terrorist crimes".

And when it came to politics beware the words "mainly Catholic SDLP" and "non-sectarian Alliance," he was warned.

At that stage, he may have felt like taking a little well-known local advice: "Whatever you say, say nothin!".