Analysis: unionist politics has painted itself into a corner
Shared future for both British and Irish traditions appears to have no space for Irish
In 2014, the DUP’s Gregory Campbell singled out the Irish language in the Stormont chamber by replacing the phrase “go raibh maith agat, Ceann Comhairle” with the words “curry my yoghurt can coca coalyer”. Photograph: Alan Betson
Decades ago the decline of Charlestown in Co Mayo was chronicled by John Healy in No One Shouted Stop, where he railed against the ravaging of his town by emigration and economic hardship.
Locals were angry until they saw that Healy was ringing an alarm bell. Unlike Healy, however, it seems there is no senior unionist politician prepared to shout stop at a time when Northern Ireland is changing rapidly.
Unionist politics has failed to keep pace. In fact, Brexit is seen by some unionist politicians as a means of halting change by creating a hard border and forcing a deeper economic dependence on London.
There are voices within unionism who know that this tactic cannot work. Some will have backed the proposed deal to restore Stormont, but they seem to have been drowned out for now.
Almost 20 years since the signing of the Belfast Agreement, there is a real risk that it is being undone. How has this happened and how has the Irish language become the focus of disagreement?
In 2007, Peter Robinson and Ian Paisley led the DUP into government with Sinn Féin, despite internal party tensions. Robinson and Paisley saw the strategic need to make the move and so pushed on.
But the seeds of this latest crisis were sown in what happened next. The DUP knew that the historic unionist majority in Northern Ireland was threatened by the growing Catholic/nationalist community. The party had a plan to woo nationalists, but never put it into action. Recurring financial scandals undermined the DUP position and forced it to shore up its base.
A series of weak Conservative Party governments after 2010 began a long courtship of the DUP, while in Dublin, government parties became obsessed with the growth of Sinn Féin, viewing the peace process through that prism.
Northern nationalists came to believe the DUP was using Stormont to prioritise unionist interests and that Sinn Féin was unable to counter it. This is where the Irish language comes to the fore.
Calls for an Irish language Act to cater for the growing Irish language community and Irish-medium school sector dated back to at least 2006, but the issue remained on the political backburner. It was the actions of DUP Ministers that turned up the heat.
In 2014, the DUP’s Gregory Campbell singled out the Irish language in the Stormont chamber by replacing the phrase “go raibh maith agat, Ceann Comhairle” with the words “curry my yoghurt can coca coalyer”. He repeated the jibe at his party conference, adding: “We will never agree to an Irish language Act at Stormont and we will treat their [Sinn Féin’s] entire wish list as no more than toilet paper. They better get used to it.”
In 2016, a DUP minister renamed a fisheries boat, replacing the Banríon Uladh title put in place by a Sinn Féin minister, with the English version Queen of Ulster.
On December 23rd in 2016, DUP Minister for Communities Paul Givan cut a £50,000 grant that helped poor, young Irish speakers to attend lessons in Gaeltacht areas of Donegal.
His letter to Irish language groups ended: “Happy Christmas and Happy New Year.” Irish language activists organised public protests. The political temperature soared.
On the back of the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) controversy, Martin McGuinness pulled the plug on Stormont. During the subsequent campaign, Arlene Foster compared an Irish language Act to the feeding of crocodiles.
The touch paper was lit. Today, the origins of the Irish language dispute are lost in a public debate about how an Irish language Act – one promised by Tony Blair, not unionism in the St Andrew’s Agreement, might work.
But the reality is that 20 years after the Belfast Agreement promised “parity of esteem” for the British and Irish identities, an Irish language Act has become nationalism’s acid test.
The clumsy debate has fogged the deeper question: if a shared future does not have room for both the British and Irish traditions, then what does a shared future look like? Unionist politicians have painted themselves into a corner.
If they baulk at a compromise now, and pursue policies likely to deliver a hard Brexit, then Northern Ireland will be entering uncharted territory. Is no one in unionism ready to shout stop?
Steven McCaffery is editor of The Detail investigative news website based in Belfast