Mike Nesbitt is the former leader of the UUP and is the current MLA for Strangford
How do you think you would react if you heard that a unionist leader – Robin Swann, or Arlene Foster, for example – was refusing to deal with the NHS waiting lists, or the funding crisis in our schools, unless everyone else agreed to an Ulster Scots Act? I know what my response would be and it wouldn’t be pretty.
Yet that’s what Sinn Féin are doing with their call for a stand-alone Irish Language Act. At a time when the people of Northern Ireland are craving political stability, enter Gerry Adams, the King of Chaos, the self-styled specialist in “agitational activities” – not my words, but his from his 1986 book The Politics of Irish Freedom.
For Gerry Adams, agitation means that issues are not issues for their own sake, but instruments to use like sticks to beat your opponent with. The Irish Language is but the latest in a long list. For example, in 1997 he talked of “scene changes that we have to focus on and develop and exploit”. Sinn Féin thrive on being opportunistic, always seeking to exploit a situation with the aim of furthering the Republican cause.
Almost three years ago Gerry Adams made one of the most telling comments about the current republican strategy. It came during a party meeting in Enniskillen that ended in much public derision for the Sinn Féin President after he swore during the rant.
But most worthy of attention was his claim that “the Trojan horse of the entire republican strategy is to reach out to people on the basis of equality.”
The original Trojan horse, of course, was a weapon of war dressed up as a gift and embraced by an unsuspecting enemy to their ultimate ruin.
At the time, his remarks were brushed off by Sinn Féin representatives as simply being a demonstration of the Republican commitment to equality. However, given Adams’ history, it would be foolish not to view it as another candid moment, just like his boast that protests against loyal order parades didn’t just happen but were the product of years of planning for agitation – bonfires are clearly next on the list.
Over the last eighteen months Sinn Fein rhetoric around “equality” and a “rights based approach” has gone into overdrive. At the same time, a parallel campaign has stepped up as Sinn Fein increasingly try to pit “unionism” against everyone else.
This is not only self-serving manipulation but also a total perversion of societal attitudes in Northern Ireland. The attempt to style themselves as the defenders of minority rights is a shallow attempt to cover up for their stuttering political project. Issues around rights and equality are increasingly being used by Sinn Féin as no more than proxy wars against unionism.
Their abject failure up to now to convince the wider population of the benefits of a united Ireland means Adams must continue to agitate, thus denying the majority from both traditions the stability they crave in the political landscape. That broader society in Northern Ireland can see the contradiction of a party preaching rights on one hand while attending commemorations for a terrorist organisation that was responsible for gross human rights abuses against the population of this country for decades.
There are uncomfortable truths for Irish Republicans who demand the implementation of previous agreements, because those agreements were clear in separating identity from sovereignty. Yet Sinn Féin deliberately confuse and conflate the two, hence Michelle O’Neill’s false statement in Manchester last week that Northern Ireland isn’t British. It is! It’s Michelle who isn’t British and unionists accepted her right to define her own identity in 1998, just as she signed up to the constitutional status of Northern Ireland. But of course, Sinn Féin cannot even bring themselves to call the country by its proper name, an act of deep disrespect.
It goes much deeper than that. Sinn Féin want an Irish Language Act, pointing to existing language acts in Wales and Scotland and accusing unionists of double standards. Unionists must point out that nationalists in Wales and Scotland can still offer the respect of taking their seats in Parliament while arguing for an end to Westminster’s influence on their country – and all the rest. Sinn Féin’s policy is firmly in line with Boris Johnston’s “have cake, eat cake” remarks about Brexit.
There is, however, a challenge for unionism in how to respond to this. For me it is clear that we must demand and defend equality and the protection of human rights for both ourselves and others, not as a means to an end, but because it is the right thing to do. The issue must be the issue, not an implement for agitation.
The future of Northern Ireland will depend on us being a fair and equal society that offers respect for all citizens. I know that unionists can offer this.
Republicans often take a stance in a hope of provoking a knee-jerk reaction from unionism. Sadly, history shows they have a more than even chance of getting one. We must learn to resist the agitation of those who simply view equality as a tool to impose their ideology and take ownership of the values that will secure a fair future for all.