Conradh na Gaeilge, the indefatigible advocacy group making the case for Irish language rights in Northern Ireland, in March sent all the parties in the north a position paper and a very short questionnaire requesting them to commit support or express an opinion on three issues relevant to the Irish language in the imminent local elections.
All the parties – apart from the three unionist parties, the DUP, the UUP and the TUV – responded positively to the request. Here below is the chart outlining the responses of the parties.
Whatever your position on the issues, is it really good enough for three political parties not to engage at all on the issues raised with them by a lobby group acting with courtesy and professionalism, even if the general area of the issues is contentious? This shows the blind spot of unionist parties with the Irish language and which runs counter to good practice in politics and mature behaviour by politicians. This political version of ghosting indicates that optimism expressed by the Irish Times that Unionist grassroots support for the Irish language could unlock the talks logjam.
The type of language used by DUP leader Arlene Foster talking about what was Sinn Féin’s proposal for a very diluted Irish Language Act as some sort of an unbalanced 5-0 win for the republican party is, at best, unfortunate and, at worst, downright reckless, as if she doesn’t want a deal at all. She must know as Gerry Moriarty points out:
If Foster could persuade the majority of unionists to sign up to the Irish language compromise – that she must know is required – and if Sinn Féin could deliver on some as yet undefined reciprocal issue, then other matters could fall into place. It would be quite a testament to the memory of Lyra McKee.
In my own piece about Lyra McKee and what might happen now on Irish language website Meon Eile, I argue that Arlene Foster should be seeking a commitment from SF to work towards a better life for all within Northern Ireland as her bottom line. Surely SF will continue to pursue its United Ireland agenda, but as long as it is on the Executive, its main and immediate concern should be the improvement of life for all in NI.
On the wider constitutional issues, I believe Brexit has hastened the day when we will see a United Ireland on this island but the best role SF can play in the campaign to bring this about is to participate in good faith in power-sharing. If the DUP continue to use it as a mechanism to fill their boots, as seems to have been the case with the RHI and other schemes, it won’t help their cause as they strive to maintain the Union.
The refusal to engage with the Irish language lobby group re their modest local election demands indicates that Unionist parties, with the exception of some individual politicians like Mike Nesbitt, are not prepared to recognise the vitality or even existence of the Irish language in the North.