DUP MP warns of renewed rioting if Irish act imposed by London

A DUP MP has warned any decision to side-step Stormont by imposing an Irish language act via London risks more and bigger unionist protests – and ups the risk of renewed riots.

Thursday, 17th June 2021, 6:30 am
Updated Thursday, 17th June 2021, 8:02 am

Gregory Campbell said that Boris Johnson’s government needs to understand just how “dangerous” it would be for the UK central government to once again over-ride devolution.

He was adding his voice to a warning from colleague Sammy Wilson on the News Letter front page one day earlier, who had said if Boris Johnson and his Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis do force through measures on the Irish language via Westminster, unionists may simply decide to walk away from devolution altogether.

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PACEMAKER, BELFAST, 7/4/2021: 
The burning remains of two cars which loyalist rioters used to ram the security gate at the Lanark Way interface as they fought with nationalist rioters
PICTURE BY STEPHEN DAVISON
PACEMAKER, BELFAST, 7/4/2021: The burning remains of two cars which loyalist rioters used to ram the security gate at the Lanark Way interface as they fought with nationalist rioters PICTURE BY STEPHEN DAVISON

Mr Campbell’s comments came as Mr Johnson indicated on the floor of the Commons yesterday that he is minded to do just that.

Former Northern Ireland Secretary Julian Smith told the Prime Minister that he must be ready to push through legislation himself to fulfil 2020’s New Decade New Approach agreement, if it looks like Stormont has reached an impasse on the issue.

In response, Mr Johnson appeared to agree.

THE BACKGROUND TO THE 2000 DEAL:

Boris Johnson in the Commons on Wednesday

The whole saga dates back to January 2017 when Sinn Fein walked out of Stormont.

It was said that the party’s price for returning to power-sharing was a new law bolstering the status of Irish.

In January 2020, the DUP agreed a bunch of measures to shake Stormont out of its three-year limbo – the New Decade New Approach deal.

It included plans to provide official recognition to the Irish language, and set up a special commissioner to oversee efforts to encourage it – alongside very similar measures for Ulster-Scots.

With Arlene Foster having now vacated her seat as First Minister, Sinn Fein is threatening to scupper the continuation of Northern Ireland’s government by not nominating a Deputy First Minister – unless the DUP give a guarantee of bringing in “acht gaeilge” (an Irish language act) as soon as possible.

This week Sinn Fein president Mary Lou McDonald called on Boris Johnson to impose such an act directly, saying she has no faith that the DUP would do it if left to their own devices.

In the Commons yesterday Tory MP Julian Smith, who ran the Northern Ireland Office between July 2019 and February 2020, said: “Would the Prime Minister agree with me that it’s vital that parties stick to the agreements that have been made – the New Decade New Approach [deal] which he and I negotiated 18 months ago?

“And that, in failing to do that, ultimately (and I know he doesn’t like this concept) the UK government does act as a backstop?”

The Prime Minister replied: “I do agree that it’d be a good thing for the whole package to be agreed, and I certainly support the approach that he’s set out.”

Gregory Campbell later tried to press Mr Johnson on the matter, asking if he will “take great care in the next few days and weeks not to even further jeopardise devolution in Northern Ireland”?

Mr Johnson replied by saying “what we want to do is strengthen Northern Ireland and Northern Ireland’s place within the UK, and that’s what we’re going to be doing”.

‘NORTHERN IRELAND CAN BE A VOLATILE PLACE’:

Speaking to the News Letter afterwards, Mr Campbell (who has been MP for East Londonderry for the last 20 years) said: “If his non-answer today is indicative of them going to take steps in over-riding the devolution project yet again – as they’ve done previously on other matters – to implement Irish language legislation, then that would be a very dangerous step.

“And I don’t just mean dangerous for the whole process of New Decade New Approach.

“It could be very dangerous for the future of devolution.

“Because many in the unionist community would say there’s no point in devolution, ‘cause every time there are hard choices to be made (and there are hard choices to be made) and the government feel they’re not being made, they simply step in, over-ride devolution, and implement whatever it is.

“Abortion’s a devolved matter. They stepped in and enacted it!”

Asked if he would regard staying in Stormont as pointless in the event that the London government does intervene again, he said: “I’m a strong devolutionist. But I would find it very, very difficult to argue against that proposition – that there’s no point.”

On the question of whether a London-enforced language act could re-ignite disorder, Mr Campbell said: “I warned about that. I’ve repeatedly raised that very potential outcome...

“A month ago there were several hundred at anti-protocol demonstrations. Last week there were several thousand.

“At what point does the penny drop with the government that they have to take action before this spills over?

“Thankfully, all those protests by-and-large have gone peacefully. But we all know what Northern Ireland’s like; it can be a very volatile place...

“If the government were to intervene at this critical stage on an issue that is exceptionally divisive – ie, the language issue – that would have the potential for A) More protests,

“B), Larger protests, and

“C) More fundamentally than anything, the potential for those to turn violent.

“The government appear to think unionists want devolution at all costs.

“I want devolution as a preferable way of doing business, but not at all costs.”

The Northern Ireland Office was asked if the government will indeeed legislate for an Irish act from London.

It referred the News Letter to a statement from Brandon Lewis in which he said: “The New Decade New Approach deal which was agreed just last year was a phenomenal achievement...

“It is vital that the balanced cross-community package of identity, culture, and language commitments, are provided for and implemented in full.”

More from this reporter:

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