Was an Irish Language Act really a bridge too far?

What a week.

The DUP Leader, Arlene Foster has brought the curtain down on the current round of talks. It is commonly assumed that selling a stand alone, Irish Language Act is just something that would be a bridge too far for any Unionist leader.

However, just taking a stroll down memory lane I wonder is this actually a fair representation of where Unionist voters actually are.

Do I think they want an Irish Language Act? No.

Would it be difficult to sell? Yes.

But this does not make it an impossible sell for a party as accomplished as the DUP. There is a working majority in the current Assembly for an act. Only issue is the Petition of Concern (which is another issue in itself).

However, it needs to be highlighted that one of the reasons the demand for an act is so loud is due to the actions of the DUP in the final weeks of the Executive and the comments made during the election campaign.

Part of the problem facing the DUP is one that is of their own making, it wasn’t any of the Irish Language bodies who urged Paul Givan to cut Liofa funding, nor did any of them make any reptilian references during the campaign.

Unionist leaders have in the past been slow to adapt and change. Fight like hell against something and it merely grows, we are witnessing this right now with the Irish Language Act. Had this been acted upon a few years ago, we would likely have something that would be in place in Scotland (Nationalist parties have failure here too).

Look at issues from One man, one vote, power-sharing, reform of policing and North-South institutions, all of which were fought against and ended up happening anyway. The notion of “either you’re at the table or you’re on the menu” seem to have gone out the window.

Unionist voters might not have liked all of the changes, but they responded and adapted. Remember when a DUP politician wouldn’t even sit with a Sinn Fein politician in a TV studio? Did they suffer when this approach was changed? No.

Remember when going into government with Sinn Fein could see the new TUV take the DUP place within Unionism? Aside from the 2009 European Election, the DUP decisively beat the TUV at every poll since.

This would have been hard for the DUP, not impossible. They have a loyal/resilient voter base, whom have rewarded the party in the past for taking risks, but now the party is left to the mercy of the confidence and supply agreement that it negotiated at Westminster. History shows, this does not always work out well for Unionist leaders.

The DUP could have shaped an Irish Language Act and a wider Culture Act. I am not sure, where this all fell apart but an opportuntiy has been missed here to really kick start a proper conversation about culture. Nationalists will see a route for this change as lying in Dublin and London and this could see something imposed at a future stage.

I’ll leave the final word to Peter Robinson;

“For unionism to prosper in the decades to come it must be inclusive and not exclusive. I want to see a broad and inclusive unionism that can embrace all shades of those who support Northern Ireland’s present constitutional position.Unionism must reach far beyond its traditional base if it is to maximise its potential. That means forming a pro-Union consensus with people from different religious and community backgrounds.”


David McCann holds a PhD in North-South relations from University of Ulster. You can follow him on twitter @dmcbfs