Mick has rightly just pointed out how tantalising easy the language issue could be to solve, were it not for the politics that expresses a far deeper mutual ignorance ( in both senses) than is often recognised and which 20 years of supposed power sharing has failed to reduce. Politically there must be limits to the management of the voluntary apartheid state we appear to be creating before cohesion collapses altogether. That moment may not be as far off as the more complacent elements of civil society appear to believe.
The controversy over a sustainable statutory role for the Irish language shows the impossibility of achieving a perfect balance. Nobody I take it expects equal treatment for Ulster Scots and marching bands. (Incidentally I’d love to know what are Arlene’s other elements of British culture). How then should unionists be compensated? Or can the very idea of compensation be questioned at last, to be replaced by merit? That seems too tall an order.
And yet the zero sum game has been tested to destruction. It makes everybody unhappy, crosser and more suspicious of the other. Incrementalism is better. Instead of ”either or” we need more of “ both and ” to acknowledge the degree of common purpose essential for running an area with a large dependent welfare state.
We cannot rely on equality and other rights alone. However equitably constructed, democracy means making choices collectively and sticking to them by agreement. Somebody loses but essential rights and mutual respect limit the impact of loss. Winner- take- all is long dead although some on both sides haven’t clocked it yet.
Where is civil society in this? For a wee place where everybody is supposed to know everybody else’s business, there is monumental ignorance of the other side. The role for education – not goody goody indoctrination – is massive. It is a truism that of themselves, Irish culture and language represent no threat to the Union while promoting a sense of civilised Irishness. Something for everybody if they make the choice. Culture British or Irish has no final border beyond the self-imposed if you have the language. The caricatures of rival politicians have for too long dominated general awareness.
But how is that apolitical ideal to be reconciled with their background in the Irish nation building of a century and more ago that the contemporary Sinn Fein would love to recreate? We can’t duck this.
The support of unaligned educators for a civil society is essential to begin to neutralise the toxic political content. The problem has been that too few are interested in the language on merit while too many care about it as the current political symbol of “ respect.” It cannot carry the weight of a proxy in the continuing war by political means.
The confusion over Brexit has greatly inflamed tensions. Sinn Fein were bound to seize on the re-emergence of the border issue and the DUP to exploit the chance of the Westminster election result to consolidate their position independently of the fine balance of the parties in Stormont. The politics of both national parliaments have been at least as influential. None of this will have made an agreement easier to reach. The two governments have also had bigger fish to fry.
And yet “respect” could hold the key. Mutual respect. It is possible to envisage one big final trade-off. A sustainable diverse Irish cultural policy supported by civil society, combined with a new Pledge of Office to sustain the Assembly without boycott and with regular reviews of performance conducted alongside the two governments . The model already exists in tentative form in Fresh Start.
Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London