Ben Lowry: There should not be an Irish language act, but it is too late — the DUP has agreed one

There was a remarkable episode around an Irish language act this week.

Saturday, 27th March 2021, 12:07 pm
Updated Monday, 29th March 2021, 12:50 pm
Simon Coveney (right) congratulates Leo Varadkar as Ireland's new prime minister in June 2017. That summer, when Stormont was down due to Sinn Fein, Mr Coveney told RTE he backed their demand for an Irish language act. Leo Varadkar later said the same. Neutral British ministers said nothing in response

What Stephen Nolan described as a source from “the very top of the DUP” told him that if the Irish Sea border was not scrapped they would stall on an Irish language act (ILA).

But no-one from the party went on the programme to confirm such an approach and the airwaves were left open for politicians from other parties to condemn the claim.

Within hours the DUP had told UTV it did not plan to halt an ILA to stop the NI Protocol.

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I watched this saga with particular interest because I have long opposed an ILA. But that battle is lost now, is it not?

The DUP agreed an Irish language act (in all but name) in last year’s deal to return Stormont.

I realise that it did so under great pressure.

I realise that it was not the most extreme of the ILA proposals.

But the party agreed it nonetheless.

One day we will see how even this limited legislation is used in the courts to push Irish in places where people feel uneasy about it.

That deal was the culmination of three years in which Sinn Fein was allowed to collapse devolved government until it got its long-term, tribal goal of Irish language laws.

They said the collapse was over the Cash for Ash scandal and ‘rights’ issues. Once they had pulled the institutions down, other red lines for their permission to reinstate power-sharing came and went.

Only an ILA endured.

In mid 2017, Simon Coveney — the most scolding, pro nationalist Irish minister in years — told RTE he backed this demand. Later that year Leo Varadkar said the same, eroding any sense that unionists had potential friends in a party that was traditionally less anti British in outlook and which produced such admirable figures as John Bruton.

Neutral and weak British ministers said nothing in response about the republican blackmail over an ILA.

Julian Smith was appointed secretary of state in mid 2019 and within months had drawn up with Mr Coveney a wish list of pledges for the return of Stormont.

The commitments, such as on health and education, delved deep into what is known as Strand One — internal Northern Ireland matters that should be the domain of devolution — and were no business of the Irish government.

No unionist should have gone near a return to Stormont on such a basis, but they did.

Mr Smith even delighted Sinn Fein and surprised everyone else by including a pledge to commit to the Stormont House legacy structures that have caused such alarm to defenders of the security forces. I wrote that on legacy alone unionists should have rejected the deal.

In the end only Jim Allister held out against last year’s agreement.

There was said to have been some opposition within the DUP to the deal but it was minimal.

So it is the DUP above all who have to live with their commitment, because they are the biggest unionist party. Without their approval Stormont would not have been approved on the terms that it was.

There was plenty of warning about the Irish language. Various unionist politicians, commentators and pro Union groups stated their opposition to an ILA. But barely any of them did in a sustained way.

One exception was the distinguished literary academic John Wilson Foster (see link below), who drew on his memory of living in Canada to write on these pages about how an ILA would be a long term threat to the Union (as republicans well know).

Mostly there was silence. I remember this well, because I went on multiple broadcasts explaining the various reasons why I opposed an act. I wrote articles about it.

It was a lonely experience, and in more than one panel I was the only person making a case against such legislation.

An audience at the West Belfast festival listened in a respectful way to me making my case. But other forums were not so polite.

Every article or broadcast I did against an ILA was followed by a deluge of abuse on Twitter. No wonder that so few others spoke out against the scandal of hospitals and schools being left rudderless until the ransom of an ILA was paid.

Anyone who articulates a firm ‘unionist’ viewpoint is branded a bigot on social media by some of the most sectarian and hypocritical people in western Europe.

Peter Robinson wrote a brilliant column in this paper yesterday about growing unionist alienation (see link below).

I would add that the sustained haranguing of unionists online is causing many people to stay quiet, and thus fuelling that alienation.

There is now an emerging caucus of ‘unionists’ who are engaging in the increasingly prominent ‘new Ireland’ debate. Is it a subconscious bid to deflect hatred?

I won’t rehearse in detail the arguments I made against an ILA post 2017 except to say — in outline — that the history of republican violence, and their triumphalist use of the language made it much harder to agree legislation similar to that in Scotland.

The bullying too. When I so much as mentioned the use of Irish signage in council leisure facilities in Saintfield as a foretaste of how Irish will soon emerge everywhere, and how the reverse would not be tolerated for a moment (say official symbolism seen to be British beginning to spread into nationalist areas), there was a fresh outpouring of venom.

Wait until you see how Belfast’s radical new Irish language sign policy is seized on by republicans.

A key point of the two-state solution of 1921 was that both sides of the border had a right to be different. We are entitled to say there is no consensus that the Irish language should be as central to life here as it is in the Republic.

The Irish language will be key to the push to make NI unrecognisable as part of the UK, so that the last acceptable Britishness is Treasury funding (a form of Britishness that is in fact furiously demanded).

Another core argument against Irish legislation is that the numbers of proficient speakers are derisory, despite the money that the ever generous UK pumps at it for things such as broadcasts and Irish language schools (which are allowed to open with tiny intake when larger schools are closed).

Nationalists should perhaps learn the language before people say the demand for an ILA is like One Man One Vote.

But aside from the specific arguments against an ILA, the disgraceful tactics to get one post 2017 should have ruled it out.

If unionists had dared to pull down Stormont — say over the intelligence assessments of the IRA — they would have attracted international opprobrium, led by Dublin touring Irish America (much as it is doing over Brexit).

It would have led to punishment for unionists (ie reward for nationalists).

Yet when Sinn Fein pull it down, it also led to reward for nationalists.

Call it ‘Win Win’ for republicans.

It is a clear incentive for a future collapse.

How many times, post 2017, did you see emotive images of children demanding an ILA?

Or hear pundits blaming ‘both sides’ for the Stormont stalemate, as if unionists had issued their own non negotiable demand for the delivery of a long-standing goal?

DUP politicians insisted there would be no ILA, but they agreed one.

Retreat now will lead to punishment for unionists as a whole.

Ben Lowry (@BenLowry2) is News Letter deputy editor (other articles by him below)

• Earlier columns by Ben Lowry below

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