In Northern Ireland’s so-called decade of centenaries, a line from the first World War has proved sadly relevant.
“It’ll all be over by Christmas,” people said – and even sang – throughout 1914, only for this to become a dark quip over the next three years.
Since the Titanic's centenary year of 2012, Northern Ireland has plunged into a series of crises leading to three sets of Christmas talks in a row, culminating in 2015's Fresh Start Agreement, heralded as a lasting armistice.
The yuletide cycle is not a coincidence – it is a function of Stormont’s assembly terms and budget deadlines, combined with the nervous pause of the summer marching season. This creates a natural “talking season” between the beginning of September and the end of October, when the money really starts running out.
Add in November for the usual brinkmanship and you have jingled all the way to another Christmas spectacular.
The cycle seemed set to repeat itself in the latest Stormont crisis. Sinn Féin and the DUP have known the outline of a deal for months. Chilly rhetoric over the summer warmed noticeably when talks resumed two weeks ago.
Then suddenly, last weekend, the DUP blew cold again – leader Arlene Foster accused Sinn Féin of seeking to “humiliate” unionists and attack “the British way of life” with an Irish language Act.
For both parties, a focus on the Act serves as a useful distraction from all the other supposedly “red line” issues Sinn Féin initially put into play.
Two-thirds of DUP voters are opposed to an Irish-language Act, and fewer than half would support one in a DUP-backed deal to restore devolution
The DUP has been ready to concede on Irish for a Stormont restoration since March. On the last day of August, Foster made a keynote speech ahead of negotiations saying: “We have nothing to fear from the Irish language, nor is it any threat to the union.”
Now she has apparently said the opposite, regardless of hair-splitting over the difference between language and legislation. Meanwhile, DUP sources have briefed journalists that direct rule is imminent.
Why the change of heart? Last week, a survey found two-thirds of DUP voters are opposed to an Act, and fewer than half would support one in a DUP-backed deal to restore devolution.
This suggests a slight hardening in unionist attitudes since the last survey in April. Crucially, the latest poll was conducted over three days from September 8th, after Foster had made her conciliatory speech on Irish and exactly as she was setting out what unionists should expect in return.
On September 9th, in a widely trailed article, the DUP leader called for “a new cultural deal to provide a comprehensive and long-term approach to the sensitive issue of identity”.
The centrepiece of this, for unionists, would be Ulster-Scots. “Ulster-Scots culture, heritage and language needs to be researched and promoted, embedded in our education system. It needs a strong presence in the media, it needs to be developing the teachers to pass on its traditions to the next generation and it needs to develop hubs of activity out in the community,” Foster wrote.
The DUP has failed to find or create a comparable, deliverable unionist demand, or engage properly with republicans to moderate their demand
Ulster-Scots legislation, either matching that for Irish or combined with it, was clearly implied. But as the survey results showed, there is a problem: Ulster Scots is not a prize to compare with Irish. It is a load of nonsense, and everyone knows it. To the extent there is such a thing as the Ulster-Scots character, it would take a particularly dim view of making schoolchildren study tripe for appearances’ sake.
Unfortunately, since March, the DUP has had no other idea on how to sell an Irish language Act to its supporters. It has failed to find or create a comparable, deliverable unionist demand, or engage properly with republicans to moderate their demands.
Sinn Féin’s negotiating proposals for an Act are highly aggressive: they include active discrimination against Protestants and unionists in public sector jobs, an Irish language commissioner with the powers of a high court judge, and a new criminal offence of failure to co-operate.
The DUP could have conceded promptly to the concept of Irish language legislation then begun detailed work on making it more palatable, but it did not. An increasingly hard sell on Ulster-Scots is all that has been attempted.
The rejection of this by DUP voters is a disaster for Foster and her team. For all their bravado about direct rule, especially under the DUP-Tory deal, they know it is a brief illusion; their Westminster influence will pass and as a Northern Ireland party without devolution they will slip into irrelevance.
Yet the DUP cannot return to Stormont at a price higher than its voters consider reasonable. Sinn Féin tried that in 2015, bringing us all to our present point.
So it looks as if the Christmas timetable has slipped. The best hope for devolution now is that Sinn Féin will want it restored in good time for an Irish general election next summer.
In other words, it will all be over by Easter.