While Mick has presented the glass half full argument that Sinn Fein have at least indicated a willingness to return to Stormont, attention is bound to be more focused on hopes dashed or at least seriously dampened . But there’s no point in railing against Arlene Foster for bursting out in public with a negative message against an Irish Language Act (“however packaged”) or speculating that DUP supporters with Jim Allister perched on their shoulder were “spooked “ by Theresa May ‘s visit with Leo Varadkar in tow. The “standard reply to queries” for elected representatives strongly suggests a leadership under pressure (or making it appear that this is so). Just as there’s no point in railing against Sinn Fein for elevating Irish to a first order, political strike issue after a decade of ignoring it since the St Andrew’s Agreement and then talking up the prospects for a deal in order to present a new leadership full of sweet reason.
The charmless comprehensiveness of Arlene’s slapdown, leaving little or no room for wriggle room, is in character and Conor Murphy’s rejoinder is in the same vein. Back in the laager Arlene even dismissed her ally the prime minister – herself no slouch at messing up a negotiation – as a mere “distraction.” So much in the end for prime ministerial prestige when the tribe is restive- and judging from appearances -deeply suspicious of Sinn Fein’s motives, under-educated in the subject on its merits and under-informed, partly as a result of compulsive secrecy.
Speculation about why they were so near and yet so far is equally pointless unless someone can spot grounds of hoping that a deal may yet be done. Arlene has listed some of the no, no, nos.
.. we have always made that very clear, people aren’t going to be forced to learn Irish, there isn’t going to be Irish compulsory in schools, there’s not going to be bilingual signs or quotas in the civil service.
What if any are the negotiables? Are they telling us they haven’t gone through them properly? Wider debate is long overdue, messier and longer perhaps, but able to expose more clearly what is reasonable and what is not. Agreement between the two governments on joint recommendations would amount to serious pressure but it’s all too clear that is not how they intend to proceed. For good or ill, the DUP-Sinn Fein duopoly however fractured, survives. From the parties the Alliance party’s fairly generalised proposals are a basis for negotiation – regardless of their source.
recognition of Irish as an official language of public and legal authorities;
provision for public signage in Irish in line with local demand (in practice, this requirement would specifically be for cross-community assent in the case of traffic signage);
establishment of a Commissioner to design and implement standards for meeting the requirements of this legislation, and to provide oversight of the quality of Irish translating and interpreting services;
placing of a duty to respond in Irish to correspondence in Irish (and recognise legal documents); and
placing of a duty to ensure Irish-language education is open to all those who want it (through shared facilities where necessary)
There is then a proposal for legislation covering languages and associated culture and heritage in general, including:
- recognition of Irish and Ulster Scots as indigenous spoken languages as per the Council of Europe Charter;
- recognition of English as the common language of law and administration;
- placing of a duty on public authorities to ensure no one is unduly disadvantaged by having a native language other than English;
- recognition of Ulster-Scots language, culture and heritage in the education system and academia and of the desirability of meeting best practice in linguistic development; and
- addition of functions to the Ombudsman to ensure that public authorities meet the duty to respond to correspondence in the language in which it was sent and provide services in languages other than English in line with demand.
What could happen in a few weeks or months time to make it happen?
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