Threats and opportunities: Unionism, and a strategic consideration of Gaelic language legislation…

Another contribution from long time commenter Willow on why unionism should develop a strategic view of its relationship with the Irish language..

Assuming that nationalists are not going to back down on their demand for an ‘Irish language act’, unionism appears to be at a crossroads whereby it has to decide which is strategically more important: restoring devolution or avoiding Gaelic legislation.

The seriousness of this situation appears to have dawned neither on the unionist electorate nor (at least publicly) the DUP (or UUP).

Let’s be generous, however, and assume that the DUP does privately realise. What sort of analysis are they applying? How are they weighing up the pros and cons of devolution-plus-Gaelic-legislation versus long-term direct rule?

First, let’s consider what it is about Gaelic legislation that unionists don’t like. Several arguments have been made: universal signage, compulsory school lessons, public sector quotas, cost, a commissioner, divisiveness, undermining the British character of Northern Ireland, and the thin-end-of-the-wedge (or crocodiles) argument.

The DUP can dismiss the first three arguments, as they can simply veto the inclusion of such measures, and according to Sinn Fein, they were not pursuing these anyway.

Cost is a more valid concern, and one that resonates most with the wider, less politicised electorate. However, if universal signage and public sector quotas are ruled out, the costs would seem to relate to the cost of a commissioner’s office, demand-led translation/interpretation and elective signage.

With fewer than 1% of people fluent in the language, demand for accessing services is likely to be low. Indeed, citizens already have the right under the European Charter to engage with government in Gaelic, and hardly anybody does. The right also exists in the Republic of Ireland and very few people make use of it.

Similarly the right to speak Gaelic in courts is rarely used in the South. How many people are really going to submit a planning application in Gaelic?

The ability to erect bilingual signage where it is requested already exists in respect of street signage, if this were to be expanded to allow, say, local councils to erect tourist-type signs, the cost would be borne by councils and not diverted from health and education.

The cost of a commissioner would be additional, but would be similar to the cost of the Children and Young People’s Commissioner and the Older People’s Commissioner, neither of which were raised as prohibitive by the DUP.

The powers of a commissioner are a separate consideration, but these could be restricted to the model in Scotland, where the commissioner is advisory. Anyone who has been to Scotland will know that, outside the Western Isles, bilingualism does not exist. Signage appears to be restricted to some railway stations and occasional road signs.

The real opposition to Gaelic legislation, I suspect, is a visceral one: a fear that the character of Northern Ireland would change and become “less British”.

But in the absence of universal bilingual public signage, how would the character change? Allowing people to conduct affairs in Gaelic, essentially in private, does not change the character of the state.

So the potentially negative impact of legislation could be significantly reduced by the DUP and the Assembly exercising its control and influence over the content, while taking the sting out of the issue by allowing Sinn Fein their symbolic ‘Irish language Act’.

So it ought to have been possible to negotiate legislation that would be symbolic, practical, but not impinge greatly on the lives of those not interested in the language.

The negative for unionists would be the visceral annoyance at coming into sight of an occasional bilingual sign and the knowledge of more money being spent on a commissioner and whatever schemes he or she recommends.

How does this weigh against the alternative of direct rule? There is, of course, an attraction in excluding SF from government, especially during this unique period of DUP influence at Westminster, but that is a short-term benefit only.

The current Parliamentary arithmetic has at most 4 years left and the prospect of a nationalist-friendly Labour government is not a good one. Even another Tory government not dependent on unionist votes is likely to become weary of perceived unionist intransigence and nationalist agitation.

SF excluded from power is likely to look South and push further the New Irredentism, as arguments for northern voting in Southern elections receive a more sympathetic hearing. This is something that is dangerous to the long-term position of Northern Ireland.

The end of the GFA institutions would be blamed on unionism and even more moderate nationalists would be more likely to give up on Northern Ireland entirely.

So which is best for the Union? Gaelic legislation or direct rule? Which is going to make a moderate nationalist or non-unionist more likely to vote in a referendum to Remain in the UK?

This is a guest slot to give a platform for new writers either as a one off, or a prelude to becoming part of the regular Slugger team.