Michael McGimpsey: Irish language legislation will set direction of travel, even if it doesn’t have the details demanded by SF

Michael McGimpsey at a cultural event in June 2002 at Stormont, when he was culture minister in the then executive. He says that unionists showed great generosity of spirit towards Irish in the 1998 Belfast agreement and the language prospered, but that Sinn Fein have shown their intentions with an Irish language act, which would be one of the most divisive things that could happen to Northern Ireland. Picture by Brian Little
Michael McGimpsey at a cultural event in June 2002 at Stormont, when he was culture minister in the then executive. He says that unionists showed great generosity of spirit towards Irish in the 1998 Belfast agreement and the language prospered, but that Sinn Fein have shown their intentions with an Irish language act, which would be one of the most divisive things that could happen to Northern Ireland. Picture by Brian Little

The ongoing impasse in Northern Ireland’s political process is indeed a depressing scenario.

We have no devolved government and no locally elected and accountable politicians to take the necessary steps to resolve the crisis facing our health service or our education system let alone try to attract foreign investment or speak up for Northern Ireland’s interests in the Brexit negotiations.

After the 1998 Belfast Agreement, Foras na Gaeilge, an all-Ireland body that promotes the language, was established as part of the North/South language implementation body with an initial annual budget of �11m and 70 full time employees

After the 1998 Belfast Agreement, Foras na Gaeilge, an all-Ireland body that promotes the language, was established as part of the North/South language implementation body with an initial annual budget of �11m and 70 full time employees

Sinn Fein say that unless they receive agreement on a standalone Irish language act, there will be no Stormont.

Worse still, they are demanding a blank cheque, because they won’t even state exactly what it is they want in such an act.

This is blackmail pure and simple. Gerry Adams is trying to blackmail the DUP and Arlene Foster must not give into it.

Declan Kearney’s recent comments made it perfectly clear that Sinn Fein’s real motivation is to use Irish as part of a cultural war.

Sinn Fein's Gerry Adams.
Pic Colm Lenaghan/Pacemaker

Sinn Fein's Gerry Adams. Pic Colm Lenaghan/Pacemaker

He said that an act, ‘is central to parity of esteem, and proper, official acceptance of the Irish national identity in the North of Ireland.’

The fact is that during the Belfast Agreement negotiations, there was no demand for an Irish language act. Nor was it raised with me during my tenure as Culture minister.

My issue is not with the Irish language, but I am strongly opposed to an Irish language act because I believe it would be dangerous for Northern Ireland and divide this country as never before.

Sinn Fein conveniently ignore the fact that unionism showed great generosity of spirit with regard to the Irish language in the Belfast Agreement where we provided recognition and protections.

These included recognition under the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages Parts 2 and 3; the establishment of Foras na Gaeilge, an all-Ireland body that promotes the language as part of the North/South language implementation body with an initial annual budget of £11m and 70 full time employees; support for Irish Medium Education and support for broadcasting including Teilifis na Gaeilige.

It is undeniable that the Irish language has prospered in Northern Ireland since 1998 yet Gerry Adams and Sinn Fein have sought to make it a highly divisive issue.

The bottom line is that a deal was done in 1998. It was a deal that was endorsed by the people of Northern Ireland and the Republic.

That deal was delivered and the Irish language has been well provided for since 1998. Sinn Fein’s recent campaign is about trying to unpick the Belfast Agreement and they must not be allowed to succeed.

There are genuine and sincerely held concerns that an Irish language act would have a de-stabilising effect on Northern Ireland. Irish road signs would inevitably end up being used to very visibly mark out territory and Balkanise this country.

The idea of quotas and affirmative action for Irish speakers in the public sector should alert people that something very dangerous is being proposed.

And the prospect of an Irish Language commissioner with the powers of a High Court judge, touring the country and seeking to mete out justice, should really set alarm bells ringing.

These formed the basis of proposals brought forward by Caral Ni Chuilin in February 2015 in her ‘Proposals for an Irish Language Bill’, and by Conradh na Gaeilge – The Gaelic League - in March 2017.

And let nobody be in any doubt that even if these demands were to be absent from any legislation agreed between the DUP and Sinn Fein, the direction of travel has been established.

Sinn Fein view every negotiation as part of a process. No matter what concessions they manage to force out of the DUP this time, be in no doubt that these issues will return as part of a new crisis in six months, a year, two years or whenever it is politically convenient for them, to do so.

That is what blackmail looks like.

It is little short of a tragedy that Sinn Fein turned the Irish language into a battleground.

• Michael McGimpsey was an Ulster Unionist MLA for South Belfast and Culture minister from 1998 to 2002. He was later Health minister