Sinn Féin and DUP battle it out on Northern Ireland’s airwaves
Jim Allister leads charge to spook unionists about Irish language Act on BBC Radio Ulster
Traditional Unionist Voice leader Jim Allister: went head-to-head with former Alliance minister Dr Stephen Farry on the Stephen Nolan Show. Photograph: Pacemaker
A battle of hearts and minds will determine whether the DUP and Sinn Féin will yet sign off on a deal to restore the Northern Executive and Assembly, and that tussle continued on Wednesday on the airwaves in Northern Ireland.
Programmes such as BBC Radio Ulster’s Stephen Nolan Show and Talkback, which encourage contributions from members of the public, provide something of a barometer of the prevailing opinion or opinions in Northern Ireland.
It’s been clear for the guts of two weeks that the DUP and Sinn Féin were on the brink of a deal to restore Stormont but that ultimately Arlene Foster and her senior team of negotiators could not sell the agreement to its base – and also to some of its own Assembly members and MPs – due to the proposed Irish language Act.
As reported here and as confirmed in the 13 pages of leaked documents about the “draft agreement” published on journalist and commentator Eamonn Mallie’s website, the Irish element of the deal involved a fudge or compromise which allowed Sinn Féin to interpret it one way and the DUP another way.
It was a good Northern Ireland solution to a Northern Ireland problem, but there weren’t enough unionist voices to make that point. Instead canards were flown by hardline unionists opposed to a compromise with nationalism.
An example was how last week on Talkback one former executive member of the DUP taken in by the fake news insisted that his daughter would not be able to get a job in the Northern Ireland civil service because she could not speak Irish.
Presenter William Crawley tried to persuade the caller that what he was saying was based on a “myth”, but he would not be convinced.
Jim Allister, as the sole representative of the Traditional Unionist Voice in the dormant Assembly, is a one-man band but he beats a loud drum, and has succeeded in generating fear and suspicion among elements of unionism about the proposed Irish legislation.
On the Nolan show on Wednesday he was again leading the charge to spook unionism about the Irish language Act, but for the first time he faced a real challenge.
According to leaked draft proposals, an Irish language commissioner would be appointed to promote and facilitate use of the language throughout all Northern Executive departments, local government, public bodies and arm’s lengths bodies. An Ulster Scots commissioner also would be appointed.
It appeared implicit in the paper that the application of legislation in different areas would be commensurate with the level of the use of Irish and Ulster Scots in those areas – although it must be stated that all the documentation has yet to be seen.
Allister seized on the commissioner proposal, painting him or her as an “enforcer” and a “zealot” who would deliver an “aggressive” and “progressive” Irish language Act.
Former Alliance minister Dr Stephen Farry accused him of misquoting the document, leading Allister to harangue: “Is this Sinn Féin’s little helper again? You can always rely on the Alliance Party to bail out Sinn Féin.”
Farry retorted: “Here we go again, Jim, let’s focus on facts rather than abuse, let’s focus on the words.”
SDLP Assembly member Colin McGrath referred to how, during one of the previous failed sets of negotiations over the past 13 months, the DUP accused Sinn Féin of seeking to win a “10-nil” victory over unionism.
With a compromise on language and Sinn Féin failing to get copper-fastened commitments on same-sex marriage and a bill of rights, it seemed more like “10-nil” to the DUP, said McGrath.
And on it goes, the only difference that this time a stronger counter-narrative was heard to those who want to wreck any chance of a return to powersharing, notwithstanding that middle ground unionism still hasn’t found its voice.