Ben Lowry: An Irish language act cannot be granted to stop abortion

If unionists had dared to collapse Stormont after the 2015 paramilitary report on an ongoing IRA and Army Council, they would have faced immediate and enduring international opprobrium
If unionists had dared to collapse Stormont after the 2015 paramilitary report on an ongoing IRA and Army Council, they would have faced immediate and enduring international opprobrium
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On Monday, after I wrote an article for that morning’s News Letter on Proms in the Park not playing Rule Britannia, I talked about that BBC decision on the Nolan Show.

After the radio discussion, I received a deluge of anonymous republican mockery and abuse on my twitter timeline.

There is no equivalent in social media to those so-called Shinnerbots. If far right abuse happened in such a consistent way, there would be outrage and a determined effort to stamp it out, or at least expose it.

Part of me had not wanted to bother criticising the BBC decision to strip the regional version of Last Night of the Proms of its British celebratory essence, as I had done last year, when my column attracted the same mockery and abuse.

But the BBC’s scheduling of things so that the Belfast audience did not get to join the Albert Hall in London for the fun, rousing rendition of Rule Britannia, or indeed for the striking Benjamin Britten arrangement of the (normally rather drab) national anthem was so predictable that I did write the critical piece last weekend.

At home on Monday evening, as the row was dying down, I was slumped in front of the TV when a fascinating BBC documentary came on about the Nazis and Hitler’s reluctant execution of a one-time friend and ally Ernst Röhm, a story I remembered from school.

Then the channel moved on to a John Toal programme in Irish.

And immediately I was pleased that I had made the effort to challenge the BBC decision on Last Night of the Proms (see link below to the article).

Someone, somewhere has decided that Last Night in its regional Proms in the Park versions in Scotland and Northern Ireland is to be stripped of its essence, in case some people might be offended, despite the fact that it only happens once a year, and despite the fact that there is no other event like it.

Yet there are very significant amounts of Irish language broadcasting on BBC TV and radio in which the great bulk of the population has no interest.

Most of us accept that such programming is part of the diversity of Northern Ireland. When we come across it we turn over or switch off.

Why can’t someone who finds Last Night of the Proms objectionable stay away from the Belfast version of the concert, and let others enjoy its silly but harmless nature?

The Irish language is the sole obstacle to the return of Stormont.

Other reasons have been cited by Sinn Fein for their decision to collapse devolution: the RHI scandal was the initial one. Others have come and gone, including same-sex marriage and a Bill of Rights.

The party that was once considered to be inextricably linked to the IRA is so confident that proposed legacy structures will satisfy republicans it even for a while cited their establishment before power sharing could return.

But the only real red line is an Irish language act. Stormont would be back tomorrow if it was agreed, so central is such legislation to the republican project and its attempt to change the very character of NI.

Last year devolution almost returned on the basis of such an act.

I am not saying that an Irish language act would necessarily further the republican aim, as they wish. It might, and some people such as the distinguished Ulster-born academic, John Wilson Foster, drawing on his experience of living in bilingual Canada, think it would (see link below to an article by him).

David Trimble, however, in an interview I did with him last year said we can’t just do nothing on language, which would be the uncompromising response to the problem of how to resolve this dispute (see link below).

But one thing can be said now: to grant an Irish language act in the context of Stormont having been collapsed is an intolerable concession. No one else would be allowed to collapse Stormont. No one else would even dare.

Despite a long list of republican misdeeds, from spying at Stormont to the Castlereagh break-in to the murder of Robert McCartney to the Northern Bank heist, republicans have never faced specific sanction.

If unionists had dared to collapse Stormont after the 2015 paramilitary report on an ongoing IRA and Army Council, they would have faced immediate and enduring international opprobrium.

Dublin, in tandem with nationalist Ireland, would have gone berserk, London would have applied pressure on unionists to return in a way it would never dare with Sinn Fein, and Irish America would have intervened forcefully.

Yet none of this has happened since 2017. No specific pressure has been applied to republicans and we all know that hospitals and schools will be rudderless until Irish language laws are in place.

This is despite the huge funding that goes to Irish language broadcasting and the special assistance that Irish language schools are given, such that they are opened with derisory pupil numbers when much larger schools have to close.

I have lost count of the people, often apolitical or in the political centre, who scold ‘both sides’ and urge compromise when only one side has set red lines for the return of Stormont.

There is no doubt that the RHI scandal has helped give cover for this appalling state of affairs (I have just finished my colleague Sam McBride’s excellent book on that saga). But RHI was no excuse to collapse devolution. A major inquiry was instigated into cash for ash.

It has never been so important that London takes back power, and makes clear that collapsing Stormont and then setting non negotiable demands for its return is such an abuse of the peculiar system of mandatory coalition that it will never get reward, regardless of how upset the Irish government might be at the prospect of direct rule.

Predictably, London has been far too spineless to take this course.

I have huge respect for Christians such as Sid Garland, who wrote to this paper urging the DUP to grant Irish language to stop abortion liberalisation.

Such Christian principles remind me of an evangelical friend whom I would have expected to be unionist but who was indifferent to Irish unity. That was temporal he said, and ultimately unimportant.

But some of us are more focused on the here and now. The DUP, whatever its faults, has been put in an intolerable situation.

It is at least arguable that abortion liberalisation is coming anyway and NI laws lead to local women having later term abortions in Great Britain, with its horrifically slack laws. I think if reform is coming in NI we should also try to tighten those GB laws, as is in the US.

All of this should be irrelevant to the language debate, but it was MPs who used abortion to apply pressure to restore Stormont.

The various bullying should be resisted, in the interests of the long-term stability of the Province.

• Ben Lowry (@BenLowry2) is News Letter deputy editor

• Ben Lowry: BBCNI again decides no Rule Britannia

• David Trimble: There may be scope to learn from Scottish experience on Gaelic

• John Wilson Foster: Irish act is threat to Union