Cracking the deadlock over an Irish language Act will test whether a new political order is emerging

If a Tele article by Nelson Mc Causland and Newsletter reports are anything to go by, agreement on an Irish Language Act and therefore the return of Stormont are as far away as ever. The problem remains over an acht na Gaelige that stands alone. As unionists perceive it, this constitutes a claim superior to their cultural needs. It was supposed to have been sorted by the draft agreement of February last year but the DUP refused to sign off, apparently under pressure from those outside the negotiations.

The draft publicised by Eamonn Mallie provided for

three bills aimed at realising three Acts which would embrace a free standing Irish Language Act, a free standing Ulster Scots Act and a Cultural Act which would reflect DUP concerns about what they see as their ‘Britishness.’ All these acts would be ‘freestanding’ or independent of each other.

The other key elements were: to  give statutory status to the  existing Irish language regime, that is,  to shield them from the arbitrary discretion of a (DUP) minister; and to appoint an Irish language commissioner  to identify and spread “best practice” throughout the public sector – in other words to recommend its use where it would be  appreciated and affordable. This appears not to rule out a translation service in the Assembly.  But English would remain the language of the courts. This is not a formula for insidious expansion. It does no more than stabilise the status quo.

Unionists have reacted to renewed pressure for an Irish act as if the draft proposals had never been made.

I have a hunch that in their hearts they realise their own solution is inadequate.  Unionists demand “ balance” but they don’t have anything much  to balance Irish with. They know that Ulster Scots and Orange bands just don’t cut it. Bertie Ahern’s idea of the DUP trading the Irish language for Sinn Fein  backing off on  a border poll or Sinn Fein supporting financial support for retired service personnel in an Armed Forces Covenant in exchange, sound ingenious but are too farfetched for parties that like a simple narrative about a simple victory.

To go back to basics. Unionists  argue there’s plenty of Irish about already. What more do nationalists want?   Answer: the adoption of Irish by the state as a whole as distinct from separate bits of it as a “right.”  This would allow for its expansion according to demand without having a political fight every step of the way. That sounds reasonable enough doesn’t it?

But must a right disputed by unionists be enforced unconditionally just because most  nationalists want it?  This goes to the heart of the GFA.  Is “equality” to be enforced by the courts without regard to the democratic will?  The extreme case being made for a rights culture by Professor Colin Harvey will not succeed. Where would more intense pressure come from if the Sinn Fein boycott hasn’t worked? And it would take an earthquake (not now but who knows later?) for Westminster to legislate.

Could the Assembly deliver?  Ideally yes in some form and this is where it must be ratified. Is there any chance the Assembly parties can negotiate their way through? The omens are not encouraging.

Unionists are playing another  round of the zero sum game they usually lose because of the proclaimed need in the GFA to correct a historic nationalist deficit. This time they’re  furiously insisting that the balance has swung too far the other way and needs to be redressed in their favour. Both sides have picked Irish to make their stand.  Thankfully the Troubles legacy is not among the specific sticking points. it would have been even more difficult to solve as a condition of returning to Stormont.

Unionism’s intellectual case – if we can call it that – is made by the former DUP minister Nelson McCausland. He goes back to Gerry Adams in 1986 for evidence of Sinn Fein weaponising the language issue. Here we see a classic example of the unionist instinct for identifying a sinister motive and ignoring the capacity of a policy to surmount it – in other words, to consider it on its merits rather than answer the old motive with an echoing call of their own.

It is of course true that nationalists inside Sinn Fein and out see Irish as “a badge of identity” as McCausland asserts. But identity is broadening. It does not  have to remain  trapped in history as defined by Gerry Adams in 1986  or  by Sinn Fein alone today.  Like the ideal of unity, the language and culture are far bigger than than any one party’s cherished myth.

There is an even more fundamental point about culture: the need to repeat again and again the unacceptability and illiteracy of statements of cultural polarisation.  The Irish issue  highlights the need for  an inclusive approach to restoring Stormont.  The DUP head to head with Sinn Fein seems to perpetuate deadlock. A multiparty approach might come near to breaking it or at least constituting significant pressure for agreement with shoves from the two governments. “It’s our language and culture too and we don’t need to keep searching for a balance that doesn’t naturally exist, ” is the appropriate reply to Nelson McCausland.