Cold and stormy at ‘Cnoc an Anfa’

I was up in Stormont yesterday – Cnoc an Anfa is the Irish for Stormont – and it certainly lived up to its name.  It was bitterly cold, so cold I could feel my fingers begin to detach themselves from my body as I clutched my ‘Acht Gaeilge’ placard at the bottom of the steps of that grandiose building.

There were around a hundred of us, participating in an anti-racism pro diversity demonstration, called to demand an Irish Language Act to protect the north’s Irish speakers the same way that the Gaidhlig speakers of Scotland and the Welsh speakers of Wales are protected by having their language accorded to official status with attendant rights for citizens and responsibilities for the authorities.

It was the second such demonstration in a week – last week Pobal and Turas, the organisation established in East Belfast by Linda Ervine, had handed in a letter to Stormont politicians.   On that occasion the groups were met by a substantial delegation from Sinn Féin, a lone member of the SDLP, Dominic O Brollcháin (Bradley), members of the Alliance Party and Basil McRea.   The reception was sunnier than it was yesterday as there were no unionist politicians present to hear the demands of the Irish speakers plus the singing of the pupils of Bunscoil an Droichid.

Whether or not any real accommodation is likely on the Irish Language and the legislation promised in the St Andrew’s Agreement is moot.  In today’s Belfast Telegraph, British Prime Minister David Cameron doesn’t mention the Irish Language Act promised by the previous British Governnent at the St Andrew’s talks in 2006.  It was suspected back then that the Brtish had promised this as a threat to compel the DUP to share power in Sinn Féin.  Whatever the case back then, however, it remains an unfulfilled commitment.

One of the reasons it remains unfulfilled is the sleight of hand by the British that turned the promised legislation into a devolved matter.  The Good Friday Agreement had committed the British Government to signing up to the European Charter for Regional and Minority Languages.  This non binding charter entailed the British Government signing up to a range of commitments of support for the promotion of Irish in sectors such as the courts, the education system, public administration, youth affairs and, significantly, the media.

The Charter, non binding as it is, is an a la carte affair giving governments options which they can affirm or not and, in general, the British Government/NI Executive only signed up to commitments which were already being fulfilled or which were on the verge of being met.

This is where I declare my own interest.  Among the commitments adapted in respect of Irish in Northern Ireland was this:

to encourage and/or facilitate the creation and/or maintenance of at least one newspaper in the regional or minority languages;

Back when that commitment was made Lá/Lá Nua was being published on a daily basis.  Since 2008 when that newspaper folded after the failure of Foras na Gaeilge to come to its aid, that commitment has not been met by the facilitation/encouragment of the publication of a newspaper in Irish in Northern Ireland.   In 2009 and 2013 when the British Government was obliged to submit reports re their implementation of the Charter to the Council of Europe, they omitted the section on the implementation of the commitments re the Irish language leading to a rebuke for the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office from the Council of Europe (and a consequent reverberation down the chain of command which eventually reached Stormont, no doubt).   The deadline for the 2013 report was also missed.  The report still hasn’t been submitted.  I find it difficult to understand how a Government can stand idly by while it is being shown up for the failure of a constituent regional assembly/executive to meet international commitments.

While it’s by no means the only factor, the failure to implement and report on the implementation of the European Charter wrt Irish in Northern Ireland has fed into the growing demands for legislative protection for the Irish language in Northern Ireland where now, it seems, it is at least back on the table (if on the fringes!).  It seems to have been placed on the table by Gregory Campbell’s ill considered remarks of late though it’s not mentioned in an admittedly broadbrush article by David Cameron in this morning’s Belfast Telegraph.

While at Stormont yesterday I got a briefing from a SF source who told me that the problem with the promised Irish Language Act – as with many other matters – was the failure of the British Government to live up to its commitments under St Andrew’s.  That had a knock on effect on the Unionist negotiators who saw no need to live up to their commitments if the British did not choose to adhere to commitments such as the one made re the Irish language.

Of course you could spend the day arguing over the niceties of language.  For example the British promised to ‘introduce’ an Irish Language Act but introducing prospective suitors may not necessarily mean they wind up getting engaged or married down the line, especially given the demonstrable antipathy of most unionist politicians to the language.    In 2006, there was another game being played, of course, in that the British promise re the Irish Language Act if there was no deal was among the telling factors which compelled unionist politicians to come to the table and negotiate for powersharing devolution which would allow the very same unionist politicians to derail any proposed Irish Language Act.    Subsequently when power-sharing came about, the fact that the DUP took the DCAL Ministry, with lead responsibility for the Irish Language Act, meant that it would never gravitate to the top of the priority list.  I remember overhearing a leading Sinn Féin activist speaking at the time to a friend of mine, explaining that the party’s decision not to take DCAl, and thus responsibility for Irish language promotion across a range of areas, was deliberate and strategic as they thought then that DCAL would most likely be subsumed into another department in a planned re-organisation.   A desperate mistake, I thought, and that has been borne out by subsequent events and the fact that an Irish language sympathetic minister is now in place means that person is really fighting a losing battle in that department trying to remedy the damage already done.

How to get back on track? Well it may mean that the nationalist parties and all others who wish to see an Irish Language Act – or profess publicly that they do – having to take one step back to take two steps forward.   For instance if they were to argue for the inclusion of broadcasting responsiblities re the Irish Language in a new Act that would mean that the Act could not be a devolved matter and would be decided in Westminster, as Welfare Reform has been, and therefore Unionist politicians would not have an effective veto.  Is this likely to occur?  Probably not, given that both Sinn Féin and the SDLP are more likely to want more devolution than less.     It would be refreshing if unionist politicians could see this and inform themselves more fully about the Irish Language Act and what it should entail – they could be in a position to put Sinn Féin and the SDLP between a rock and a hard place by having a more nuanced position on the Irish Language Act – ie the Irish language is as much a British language as it is an Irish language and we Unionists are for British rights for British languages and take it from there.

This too is unlikely to happen. I was in Stormont’s Great Hall last week in the company of a prominent DUP politician who was all for the Gaidhlig and Welsh languages but drew the line of supporting the Irish language lest he be tainted. In his narrow world view, 99% of Irish language activists are in Sinn Féin and in order for the Irish language to be absolved of that original sin, each non Sinn Féin Irish speaker would have to disavow all links with Sinn Féin speakers of the language.   This was rich indeed coming from a person who sat in Government with….Sinn Féin.

What’s more likely to occur if there’s no progress at this latest instalment of the talks is more status quo and retrenchment of positions.   The DUP, split as it is internally with rival wings trying to rush like lemmings to one cliff or the opposite cliff, will only succeed in driving more people towards Sinn Féin and making proper devolution less likely.    As a result they can also expect less co-operation on matters such as marches/parades, flags and the ‘past’.     Will the ‘blame game’ succeed as it has done before in getting voters who are increasingly staying away in greater numbers from the ballot box to give them the necessary support to become kingmakers in Westmister?    Sinn Féin, with eyes firmly focused southwards on Dublin and the 2016 elections, may have to rely on the continuation of partition as the only way to hide their failures in government north of the border from the southern electorate.  Though SF is now according to some opinion polls in contention to become the main party of a new government, it’s facing stiff competition on its left flank from independents and recent political outcries over the murky past may make it difficult for them to find coalition partners after a 2016 election.  At 22%  of the polls, they will definitely need coalition partners.

It may be early to say but I think Irish language activists will need to return to Stormont and find other ways to make our language part of the talks as it seems to me there’s no likeliehood of anything more than a sticking plaster solution to the present crisis.