Next time, the governments must not leave it entirely to the DUP and Sinn Fein in secret

It would have been a remarkable feat if the DUP and Sinn Fein could have  struck a deal  in secret, alone and unaided.  Secrecy may be essential for last moves to reach a compromise. But over a year none of the ground had been prepared with the public and it showed. The background was too noisy – RHI, the sudden illness and death of McGuinness, minority governments in London and Dublin with other fish to fry, including monumentally,  the throwback of the border issue due to Brexit.  The UK government’s protestations that they were working hard behind the scenes lacks both conviction and result.  In defence they might add that Sinn Fein rejected them as a honest broker for too close an alignment with the DUP even before the pact with the Conservatives. And the DUP does not recognise a role for Dublin in Strand One of the GFA, the internal arrangements for government at Stormont.

Nevertheless both parties did accept a convening role for the government with Dublin on hand and talking. The claim that the British government is a player not a referee has some force and they should have been on the field.  More openness earlier and more active participation by the governments would have carried other risks  but might have made the difference. After all, SF has shown they were prepared to return to Stormont and the DUP to contemplate a clearer role  for Irish in  context. If not a trade- off within culture, then a deal linking Irish with reform of the petition of concern and greater stability for the Assembly with built-in reviews involving the two governments should have been considered. That approach would have needed – and will still need – active London and Dublin involvement. The complexities of Brexit  make it all the more essential.

Back to the ILA. I know its raking over the embers but the St Andrew’s Agreement did say clearly..

 

  • We will establish a forum on a Bill of Rights and convene its inaugural meeting in December 2006.
  • The Government believes in a Single Equality Bill and will work rapidly to make the necessary preparations so that legislation can be taken forward by an incoming Executive at an early date. •
  • The Government will introduce an Irish Language Act reflecting on the experience of Wales and Ireland and work with the incoming Executive to enhance and protect the development of the Irish language.

But there was slippage when it came to framing the Northern Ireland ( St Andrew’s Agreement) Act.  The UK government quietly washed their hands of it and tossed it over to the Assembly. This may seem entirely appropriate from a detached  position in London with little institutional memory available on Northern Ireland. There can surely be no better example of a devolved subject.

Why then was the British pledge made in the Agreement in the first place.? It must either have been because it had been brought home to the government in the negotiations that the prospects for agreement at Stormont were poor, or nobody rated its importance. An explanation is also called for from Sinn Fein  to answer the charge of opportunism to stoke a crisis. Either way, the government reverted to their priorities closer to hand.  Their mission to complete devolution and leave no untidy loose ends at Westminster overcame the local concerns – with the result of yesterday.

In the Belfast Telegraph Professor Jon Tongue asks: why did nobody notice the shift of responsibility for the ILA to Stormont?  But Sinn Fein did notice and ignored the change. Now all the balls have been thrown straight back to Westminster.

Let us remind ourselves of what has (not) happened. Annex B of the St Andrews Agreement 2006 states: “The government will introduce an Irish Language Act reflecting on the experience of Wales and Ireland and work with the incoming Executive to enhance and protect the development of the language.”

Yet this was mysteriously diluted to waffle in the Northern Ireland Act 2006: “The Executive Committee shall adopt a strategy setting out how it proposes to enhance and protect the development of the Irish language.”

So one of the parties failed to follow through over a decade ago. Ian Paisley Jnr insisted to me at last week’s hearing of the House of Commons Northern Ireland Affairs Committee that “Sinn Fein never raised an Irish Language Act once” after St Andrews.

Both main parties have questions to answer. How and why did Sinn Fein – normally good on details – allow slippage in the legislation which followed St Andrews? And why did the DUP agree to an Irish Language Act if they are so opposed?

The DUP insist of course they did nothing of the sort. But where does it say that cherry picking is allowed?  And there is a basic difference, largely ignored in the immediate  London -based commentary  between agreeing on a language  and cultural  strategy elevated to existential  status which is difficult enough, and doing so under pressure of ending Sinn Fein’s boycott of Stormont. Using the language as a bargaining chip  to return to constitutional politics was the last way to promote it. That can only achieved by full and continuous participation in  the badly bruised idea of a shared future.

 

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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

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