Language Act impasse leaves talks stumped

Sandra Chapman
Sandra Chapman

Theresa May arrived this week, expecting I’ve no doubt, to be able to claim a done deal with our two warring parties.

Well, she must have been sorely disappointed since, in the past, those who came before her were always able to return to London smiling like Cheshire cats, able to brag about what had been achieved, with much help from them, in the long fight for a peace process. This time there was no deal that she could take any credit for. So it was back to London and Brexit and keeping the peace amongst her own Ministers.

Prime Minister Theresa May speaks outside Stormont  in Belfast

Prime Minister Theresa May speaks outside Stormont in Belfast

Afterwards we had Arlene trying to look and sound tough over the Irish language act issue except I find it hard to take any politician seriously who thinks wearing pink gives them an air of authority. Equally I can’t take Mary Lou McDonald seriously either if she imagines that regularly wearing brilliant emerald green is a sign of her Irish-ness and resolve. It’s a colour best left for St Patrick’s Day celebrations.

Now I know colours and clothes shouldn’t really be important at what is a unsettling and disruptive time for us all – no deal is imminent that I can see which could mean months more wrangling ahead – but Margaret Thatcher was very fond of blues, navy in particular, the colour she wore that day in 1985 when she signed the Anglo Irish Agreement. That event changed politics in Northern Ireland dramatically and her authority on that day seemed supreme. History, at least, remembers her contribution to peace which was not inconsiderable.

Theresa May may have been seeking a similar fillip to her status while in the province this week. Yet she came looking drained, exhausted, as though she would prefer to be anywhere but in Ulster.She returned to London looking even more miserable. Success here could have given her such a boost in her struggles with the Brexit negotiations and bossy Barnier. But it was not to be. She will have gone back with former Royal Irish soldier Doug Beattie’s warning ringing in her ears that an Irish language act could divide our communities. “It will separate and it will alienate communities in the exact same way as flags or painted kerb stones,’’ he added.

This week David McNarry, UKIP’s former Northern Ireland leader said he was “no lawbreaker’’ but admitted he would remove an Irish language sign if one was erected in his street. Theresa May would do well to listen to the Protestant community who feel their rights are being trampled on all over again.

Sinn Fein’s insistence that there will be no deal without an Irish language act is divisive and much too soon for a community which still feels it has not justice for the evil that has gone before.

A younger generation is emerging which knows little of what went on here since 1969 and they, in time, may feel that the past is just that, and life should move on. For generations to come nationalism is not likely to be the subject that divides people. Rather they and subsequent generations face problems on a global scale not least of them being the march of migrants to Europe.

There has to be lessons learned from the creeping nationalism that Scottish Prime Minster Nicola Sturgeon encourages in that northern corner of the United Kingdom.

Two years ago whilst on my annual holiday in Scotland I was aware of this increasing number of public signs in English and Gaelic in towns and villages. Local people told me they thought the whole idea a waste of money and divisive.

Yet the man Sturgeon replaced, Alex Salmond, is bellowing from the sidelines for another independence vote for Scotland, something I suspect a majority of Scots don’t want.

Just look at how happy they were to see Prince Harry and his fiancée Meghan Markle this week. The place was festooned with Union flags not the Saltire.

Scotland has already lost one independence referendum and my Scottish friends assure me they would lose again.

Arlene Foster assures us that language wasn’t the only sticking point in the talks and that there are other ‘sticking points’. We haven’t heard much about these which probably means Theresa won’t be visiting again anytime soon.