Some unionist commentary on Irish language Act was hysterical and irrational

Number of Conradh na Gaeilge and Pobal contributions did not assist in persuading unionists not to fear the language

Sinn Féin vice-president Michelle O’Neill and the party’s  president, Mary Lou McDonald, at Parliament Buildings in Stormont, Belfast, on Thursday. Photograph: Niall Carson/PA Wire

Sinn Féin vice-president Michelle O’Neill and the party’s president, Mary Lou McDonald, at Parliament Buildings in Stormont, Belfast, on Thursday. Photograph: Niall Carson/PA Wire

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Up at Stormont on Thursday the day the deal crashed was being described as the St Valentine’s Day political massacre or the Ash Wednesday when the prospects of agreement went up in smoke.

If anyone was laughing, it was mirthlessly.

The British and Irish governments are now left with the conundrum of what to do next. There are a number of options but for the moment the governments and the parties must take stock, gather themselves and when some energy is restored see can anything rise from the ashes.

It is difficult to gainsay that amid all the protestations to the contrary that the DUP and Sinn Féin had reached a logical compromise on the Irish language but it was one Arlene Foster could not sell to her grassroots.

The deal, as confirmed by Mary Lou McDonald at Stormont on Thursday, involved a trinity of Acts that were separate and collective. The proposal was for an Irish language Act, an Ulster Scots Act and a respecting language and diversity Act that Sinn Féin could interpret as meaning a stand-alone Irish Act and the DUP could characterise as part of an interconnected raft of legislation.

Moreover, the provisions of the Irish and Ulster Scots Acts would be incorporated into the respect Act although Irish and Ulster Scots would remain in law as separate Acts. Like the Holy Trinity, all a bit mysterious, but surely a workable compromise that Arlene Foster could have sold to her people.

Prospective sell-out

It didn’t pan out like that, of course. Traditional Unionist Voice leader Jim Allister appeared to be on every radio and TV show on Northern Ireland denouncing the prospective sell-out. As his party’s sole Assembly member he certainly punched above his weight. He and a few other Belfast Agreement opponents managed to convey that such an Act would mean unionists losing their British birthright.

Single issue lobbyists can seem obsessive and overzealous and some of the contributions from Conradh na Gaeilge and Pobal representatives also did not assist in persuading unionists not to fear the language.

Several unionists argued they had nothing against Irish per se, just the “weaponising” of it by Sinn Féin. The argument that there were language Acts in Wales and Scotland was met with the response that these Acts did not threaten the Britishness of the people of Scotland and Wales.

There were no, or precious few, middle ground unionists going on the airwaves to challenge those fanatically opposed to any notion of a language Act. The extreme unionist voices dictated. That moderate unionist voice was badly missing.

Largely absent

As well as nerve and firm leadership, Foster needed her people around her to help her challenge those voices. They were largely absent.

It is all polarising and bad for society. Frankly some of the unionist commentary on the proposed Irish language Act was hysterical and irrational. From it nationalism will have drawn an old sectarian message about unionism.

Northern Secretary Karen Bradley could call fresh Assembly elections but why would she when the result would just confirm Northern Ireland retreating further into the sectarian trenches?

With the Tories dependent on DUP votes to remain in power the British government could introduce direct rule from Westminster. That would keep unionists relatively satisfied but further anger disillusioned nationalism. Tánaiste Simon Coveney’s take on it was that “the Irish Government is not going to be allowing a situation where we move easily into direct rule”.

Phoenix in the ashes

A British-Irish intergovernmental conference may be called to allow Dublin and London determine whether there is any phoenix resting in the ashes of Wednesday’s conflagration.

The bottom line is that there is a sensible compromise on the Irish language available that could and should be acceptable to unionists and nationalists alike. If common sense, good manners and good neighbourliness were applied then with the proper will and some political marketing, the situation at some stage should be retrievable.

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