Ben Lowry: Now more than ever, at this fraught time, it would be wrong to force through an Irish language act
Leo Vardkar and his deputy, Simon Coveney, have tried to reassure unionists after Boris Johnson’s volte face gave Dublin what it wanted on Brexit.
The Taoiseach and Tanaiste emphasised that there is no constitutional threat to Northern Ireland’s position in the United Kingdom.
Leaving aside the fact that the planned border in the Irish Sea is the biggest constitutional change towards all-island arrangements since 1921, bigger than the 1985 Anglo Irish Agreement, it is a relief that Mr Varadkar and Mr Coveney are being magnanimous in victory.
It would have an incendiary impact if they were crowing at this fraught time.
If Mr Varadkar is determined to mend fences, he could say this:
‘The Irish government has been preoccupied since 2016 with preventing a hard border on the island of Ireland. With that close to being achieved we want to emphasise that we never sought an Irish Sea border and we want to see Stormont return.
‘To that end, we now accept that in a system of mandatory coalition no one party should set red lines before the return of devolution.
‘We realise that previous comments by the Tanaiste suggested that we think an Irish language act is needed for Stormont to return.
‘As a Brexit resolution nears, we can see things more calmly, and now concede that any Irish government would be outraged if unionists collapsed power-sharing and issued terms for its return. So we will now support the UK restoring Stormont without preconditions’
OK, so the chance that Mr Varadkar will say that is almost zero.
But is there anyone in Ireland’s Department of Foreign Affairs, which has sway over this province, or in Dublin’s political establishment, who can see how much anger would be alleviated by such a statement?
To grasp unionist frustration, go back to David Trimble’s 1999 plea to Sinn Fein, the year after the Belfast Agreement: ‘Mr Adams, it’s over to you. We’ve jumped; you follow.’
The Ulster Unionist leader was endorsing setting up power-sharing with SF ahead of IRA decommissioning, hoping that the latter would follow (it didn’t, until 2005).
Remember also how in 2002 direct rule was imposed by London after IRA spying at Stormont and the Castlereagh break-in (and ongoing foot dragging on getting rid of weapons), because Tony Blair refused specific sanction against SF.
Recall March 2005 after the Northern Bank robbery and the murder of Robert McCartney, when all Northern Ireland politicians were dis-invited to the White House on St Patrick’s Day, instead of just republican ones.
Go forward to autumn 2015, after the murder of Kevin McGuigan, and security force assessments of an intact Provisional IRA structure.
The DUP would have been justified in refusing to continue to share power with republicans then but would not have dared, knowing that global opprobrium would follow.
A widespread sense within unionism that republicans are allowed to do things that unionists are never allowed to do is why even many moderate pro Union voters want Nigel Dodds to defeat Sinn Fein.
When Martin McGuinness wrote a letter explaining SF’s decision to collapse Stormont in January 2017, disrespect to Irish culture was mentioned in passing, but his big complaint was Arlene Foster refusing to stand aside over RHI.
This newspaper long ago made an editorial decision that the cash for ash scandal was worthy of daily scrutiny, via Sam McBride’s excellent coverage. We saw off critics who said a unionist paper was making things hard for unionists.
But RHI was never a reason to collapse power-sharing, particularly after a public inquiry was agreed.
It soon emerged that Sinn Fein’s enduring red line to return was an Irish language act (ILA).
Sure enough, hospitals and schools have been rudderless for three years and will remain so until such legislation is in place. The DUP agreed an ILA in February 2018, but was unable to sell it to unionists.
Many people sombrely say that all MLAs need a pay cut but get confused as to the source of the stalemate. All parties, goes the criticism, must “drop their red lines”, as if unionists saying no to ILA blackmail is equivalent to the demand itself.
If anyone is still under this misapprehension, consider it like this:
Think of an imaginary divided society in which the political aspirations of that society can be scaled from 0 to 10, with 5 the status quo.
Side A would like society to move to point 10 in the scale, while Side B would like it to be at point 0.
But they agree to disagree, and stay at the compromise of point 5.
Side A then says, right, we’re unilaterally moving the status quo to 6, but Side B says, no you’re not.
Side A has issued a non negotiable red line demand. Side B has resisted that non negotiable demand.
It is not the same thing.
For both sides to be equally culpable, Side B would have had to say: we are unilaterally insisting that the status quo moves to 4.
But it has not done that.
Some people will be outraged at a journalist writing an article such as this against an ILA.
Yet I see no criticism, or even concern, at the way that the media class has accepted there has to be an ILA, despite the fact that Irish already enjoys positive discrimination such as Irish language schools with far lower pupil numbers than larger schools that have to close.
A respected commentator wrote recently that an ILA was viewed as “pivotal” to Stormont’s return.
It is often said that an ILA is harmless, yet even last year’s watered down proposal included a language commissioner.
As if NI needs another commissioner!
Does anyone think that, even if Irish is visible everywhere, such a person will be issuing reports five years from now, or 55, saying all is well with language provision?
Or that such reports won’t be seized on to justify legal actions for even more widespread use of Irish?
Isolated Protestants in the west of NI believe some councils are being triumphalist when they use Irish as the first language in signage, despite the fact it is spoken well by a tiny minority of NI’s population.
It is often said that Protestants should appreciate Irish as part of their heritage, but the fact is that many unionists are uncomfortable with how they perceive it is used. Similarly there are aspects of unionist culture with which many Catholics are uncomfortable, and there would be unremitting uproar if unionists demanded protection for such culture before Stormont could sit.
Sinn Fein had ample time after 2017 to reassure people as to its intentions. Instead it used an ILA in a way that fanned fears.
If Stormont returns on the basis of ILA, it is a precedent for a future collapse based on fresh demands.
If it is restored without pre-conditions, MLAs can debate the merits and de-merits of such legislation without the lasting rancour there will be if an ILA has been achieved by ransom.
• Ben Lowry (@BenLowry2) is News Letter deputy editor