Sinn Féin has never wanted an Irish language Act

Stormont stand-off is based on a misrepresentation of the party’s position

Sinn Féin president Gerry Adams. File photograph: Clodagh Kilcoyne/Reuters

Sinn Féin president Gerry Adams. File photograph: Clodagh Kilcoyne/Reuters

 

There are many issues involved in the latest Stormont stand-off, but an Irish language Act has become the sticking point between Sinn Féin and the DUP.

It seems absurd, certainly to outside observers, that this argument has stalled over whether such legislation should be standalone or bundled in with unionist cultural concerns.

There is something of Swift’s Big-Enders and Little-Enders about such a semantic dispute, which has now thrown devolution and talks on restoring it into limbo - and the absurdity does not end there, because an Irish language Act is something Sinn Féin has always had to be bounced into supporting.

Irish received official recognition in the North, as well as protection and funding, under the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, with reference to the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages.

As far as Northern Ireland’s parties were concerned, that settled the matter.

The idea of enhancing and enshrining all of this in separate legislation came from the Irish language sector, whose umbrella body in Northern Ireland, Pobal, began lobbying for an Act in 2003.

Sinn Féin's draft Bill was considered so over the top that it was opposed by supporters of Irish language legislation

It drew inspiration from Wales, which had introduced similar legislation a decade earlier.

Sinn Féin, then still the smaller party of nationalism, was barely in this picture.

Stormont had been suspended the year before, so lobbying was targeted at direct-rule British ministers.

Sinn Féin was subsequently pressed to include an Irish language Act in the 2006 St Andrew’s Agreement talks, which restored devolution.

However, the party settled for a bizarre fudge, in which the British government promised to pass an Act at Westminster while handing the relevant powers back to Stormont, meaning the DUP would inevitably drop a spanner in the works - which it duly did in 2007, scrapping all the progress made under direct rule.

This is the deal Sinn Féin now claims was reneged upon, justifying its withdrawal from Stormont. Yet it did nothing about it for seven years.

Pobal continued to lobby, while the SDLP tried a private member’s Bill on the Irish language in 2009 - but Sinn Féin did not attempt an executive Bill on the issue until 2014, three years after it took the Department of Culture.

This draft Bill was considered so over the top that it was even opposed by the Alliance Party, which supports Irish language legislation.

Funding cuts

Stranger still, at the start of 2014, Sinn Féin’s then minister for culture cut critical funds to Pobal. It all looked like politicking designed to make the Gaeilgeoirí awkward squad go away.

This is the key to understanding where we are now. It is the Gaeilgeoirí awkward squad who put an Act back on the agenda.

Sinn Féin did not raise the subject in the run-up to collapsing Stormont this January, despite Irish becoming an issue when a DUP minister cut a Gaeltacht bursary.

The demand for an Act arose spontaneously from campaigners and the wider nationalist community.

Sinn Féin then spent several months trying not to call an Act a red line in Stormont talks, before being forced into doing so by a grassroots campaign.

Naturally, there was some overlap between this campaign and Sinn Féin’s membership - just one reason unionists find this version of events hard to credit.

Last week, TUV leader Jim Allister said Irish language legislation was a long-standing objective of the IRA army council - and even moderate unionists assume Sinn Féin and an Act are inextricably linked.

Yet for almost 20 years, the party seemed happy to pursue whatever linguistic agenda it had via the Irish-medium education sector - with the party holding the education portfolio from the outset of devolution until last year.

Everything else it seemed to view as an irritating distraction.

Sinn Féin may have believed that the Irish language lobby’s core demand - a bilingual public sector, achieved through preferential recruitment of Irish speakers - was next to impossible to deliver, politically and practically.

Profound implications

The implications of all of this for the current Stormont deadlock are profound.

In a classic Northern Ireland negotiation, Sinn Féin clings to some supposedly immutable republican or socialist principle - decommissioning, for example - but its supporters recognise this as brinkmanship, and accept it will end in compromise.

With an Irish Language Act, however, Sinn Féin has been forced to adopt a nationalist principle its supporters really do consider immutable. The Act has become a true sticking point - the party genuinely fears giving ground.

Perhaps Irish language groups should be involved in political talks

Unionists could accept that republicans need an outright win on this, and settle for compromises elsewhere.

There is no sign the DUP is tempted to veto an Act, even in its current mood of Westminster-inspired hubris, to see if Sinn Féin is punished by its supporters.

But nor is that mood conducive to the DUP giving ground - and we are still at the Big-Enders versus Little-Enders stage of debate.

The contents of any Act have barely been discussed, beyond Sinn Féin placing the hopeless 2014 Bill back on the table.

Perhaps, in the breathing space over the summer, Irish language groups should be involved in political talks.

Ultimately, their demands are the latest spanner to fall into Stormont’s works. They could be asked to help dislodge it.

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