All this talk about language and culture sidelines much bigger problems

Alex Kane

Alex Kane

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Last Wednesday James Brokenshire stopped the talks countdown: “The restoration of devolved government remains achievable, but more time and a more focused engagement on the critical issues are required. The parties will have a final opportunity after Easter to reach agreement, building on the discussions which have taken place over the past six weeks.” What was he expecting to happen after Easter, I wondered?

Well, less than 24 hours later Arlene Foster made her move: “We do want to respect and indeed better understand the language and culture which we are not a part of … and I want to listen and engage with those from the Gaelic/Irish background … those without party political baggage or indeed demands, people who genuinely love the Irish language and don’t want to use it as a political weapon.”

Hmm. What are we to make of this? In January she wasn’t prepared to ‘feed the crocodile’; so is she now prepared to find another route? She doesn’t want to be seen to be caving in to Sinn Fein, but she does seem to want to find a means of acknowledging and accommodating the importance of Irish language and culture to fellow citizens in Northern Ireland (particularly those of them annoyed enough to vote Sinn Fein for the first time ever on March 2). And given that her announcement followed within hours of Brokenshire’s decision to extend the talks until early May, it also suggests that her response is part of a pre-heated choreography.

On the same day as she made her conciliatory noises (which were welcomed by Mairtin O Muilleoir, Linda Ervine and POBAL, the independent advocacy group) Nelson McCausland, the DUP’s front man on this issue, noted: “Ulster-Scots language and culture, Orange culture and Ulster-British culture are part of our cultural wealth, as is the Irish language, and all should be respected. Unfortunately Sinn Fein have been demanding a stand-alone Irish language act that takes Irish Gaelic culture out of that diversity and places it above the other cultural traditions. A culture act that values and affirms our indigenous cultural identities and cultural traditions, all of them, including Ulster-Scots, could well be the way forward. It is certainly worth exploring.”

It looks to me – although I wouldn’t want to overegg the pudding – as though the DUP is looking for wriggle room. Both Foster and McCausland are opposed to a stand-alone Irish language act; yet their own language since last Thursday suggests that they could live with some sort of legislative deal as long as it embraces Irish and Ulster-Scots languages and cultures.

There is, of course, a risk for the DUP. If they agree to something like that they will be accused of betrayal by Jim Allister. ‘Language enthusiast’ Ian Adamson (a former UUP MLA and lord mayor of Belfast), wrote in Saturday’s News Letter: “Amid all this talk of respect, what do DUP politicians know about the Irish language? Well, nothing – except that an Irish language act, if it happened, would be the last act of betrayal of the Ulster people.” And even some DUP ‘fundamentalists’ would be very unhappy. But since this combination doesn’t represent much in terms of electoral appeal, the DUP will probably risk their wrath.

If promotion/protection of Irish language and culture (either in the form of a stand-alone act or something broader) really is a red line for Sinn Fein then they will need something pretty substantial to get them back into the Executive. In other words, they would need an unambiguous guarantee that, in the absence of a stand-alone act (which I think the DUP wouldn’t dare agree to), there will be, albeit in tandem with progress on other cultures, major progress on the promotion and provision of the Irish language.

But will that be enough for Sinn Fein? They may hope that a period of direct rule or de facto joint sovereignty between London and Dublin would see the delivery of an Irish language act, but I think that’s unlikely. There are some things that could be ‘slipped through’ (same-sex marriage legislation might be one of them), but I’m pretty sure that London and Dublin (singly or together) wouldn’t risk the unionist uproar that would follow a forced-through Irish language act.

Similarly, even if there is a second election – an option that still has some appeal for Sinn Fein – there is no guarantee that they would do as well as they hoped. And if they had a worse than expected result then it’s likely that the DUP would actually harden their stance on Irish language.

So, from Sinn Fein’s perspective, there is a logic in accepting the authentic mammon of an act which embraces more than just Irish, rather than risking a second election (which could knock the wind out of their sails, as well as facilitating the electoral growth and clout of the DUP); or a period of direct rule which leaves everything in limbo and risks alienating British and Irish governments who have enough else on their plates for the next three years.

Personally, I think that Northern Ireland has a mountain of socio/political/economic/health/educational/institutional problems at this moment that should take priority over the language/culture issues – important though they obviously are to people in both communities. And, while not meaning to offend people in both the DUP and Sinn Fein, I can’t help but think that too many of them exploit language/culture (their own and their opponents’) for their own selfish electoral/political reasons.

Finally – and I’m not trying to be snooty or frivolous – I’d rather have a debate about why so many children leave school with such a poor command of the English language (the one most of us need to use on a daily basis), than worry about the lack of Irish language or Ulster-Scots.