Unionist grassroots support for Irish language could unlock North talks logjam

Any breakthrough would be a testament to he memory of Lyra McKee

 DUP leader Arlene Foster, Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald and Sinn Féin Vice President Michelle O’Neill at the funeral for murdered journalist Lyra McKee in St Anne’s Cathedral in Belfast on Wednesday. Photograph: Brian Lawless/EPA

DUP leader Arlene Foster, Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald and Sinn Féin Vice President Michelle O’Neill at the funeral for murdered journalist Lyra McKee in St Anne’s Cathedral in Belfast on Wednesday. Photograph: Brian Lawless/EPA

 

The strong and loud public demand for political movement at the funeral of murdered journalist Lyra McKee wasn’t lost on the Taoiseach and British prime minister who responded yesterday by formally announcing a new set of talks.

They said “actions and not just words” were needed and that the aim of the negotiations was to “quickly” re-establish all the institutions of the 1998 Belfast Agreement including the Northern Executive and Assembly. Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney and Northern Secretary Karen Bradley met at Stormont yesterday evening to reinforce what Leo Varadkar and Theresa May had earlier stated.

Coveney talked about a “mid-summer” deadline for a deal, later clarifying that he did not mean mid-July, not a good time to find agreement in Northern Ireland, but much earlier than that.

It was clear that McKee’s murder and the words of Fr Martin Magill in St Anne’s Cathedral, asking why it took her death to galvanise some positive political reaction, are still resonating.

Whether they can deliver a deal that restores the Stormont powersharing administration is a big and problematic question.

This being Northern Ireland, the desire in Dublin and London for a short, sharp, focused engagement prompted a cynical reaction in some quarters, with some saying the politicians still will be talking at Christmas – and no closer to accommodation.

Experience says there could be validity to such pessimism, especially in the context of two elections in May when normally politicians are not willing to contemplate compromise. Regardless, the British and Irish governments are right to challenge the Northern parties to meet the public desire for political progress.

There is a sense that this is a moment to be grasped. “Lyra symbolised the new Northern Ireland and her tragic death cannot be in vain,” said Bradley.

“These few days belong to Lyra, her partner Sara, her family, friends and the people who loved her,” added Coveney.

Irish language

Issues likely to be addressed in the talks include dealing with the legacy of the Troubles, same-sex marriage and reforming how the Northern Executive and its civil service works after the debacle of the Renewable Heat Incentive scheme. Moreover, the smaller SDLP, Ulster Unionist and Alliance parties will demand that any resolution does not lead to what they view as a carve-up of power between the DUP and Sinn Féin.

That’s a lot to get through in three weeks. But some matters could be hived off to special commissions or committees, while already there is a template for dealing with the past from the December 2014 Stormont House Agreement.

While wanting movement quickly, Dublin and London know it will take into June at least before there is clarity on whether an accord is possible. The governments are to review what progress is made at the end of May and then hope to press on to nail an agreement .

The one issue that could unlock real movement is the Irish language. In February last year the DUP and Sinn Féin almost reached a deal. According to several sources, some from the DUP, they devised a convoluted interlocking legislative framework that addressed the Irish language, Ulster Scots and cultural diversity. The problem was DUP leader Arlene Foster could not sell it to their grassroots, and the deal crashed, and now Northern Ireland is almost 2½ years without a functioning political administration.

‘Balanced’ deal This key matter isn’t just about language but

about a nationalist demand for the DUP to show “parity of esteem” to Irish and Irishness.

At Stormont yesterday evening Foster insisted there was no deal in February 2018 but she allowed that progress was made, and that more progress could be made. What was crucial for her and her unionist constituency was that the deal be “balanced”, she said. In other words, if Sinn Féin got close to or all of what it wanted on the Irish language, then she and unionism needed something in return that would be equally challenging for nationalists to concede. She didn’t specify what that might be but at least it allows for practical negotiation.

Sinn Féin deputy leader Michelle O’Neill in turn insisted there was a deal. “We did reach a deal last February [2018], so a deal is possible,” she said. There isn’t any huge expectation of a breakthrough but nonetheless O’Neill is correct, a deal is possible.

If Foster could persuade the majority of unionists to sign up to the Irish language compromise – that she must know is required – and if Sinn Féin could deliver on some as yet undefined reciprocal issue, then other matters could fall into place. It would be quite a testament to the memory of Lyra McKee.

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