Talks collapse will test Anglo-Irish relations

As unchallenged leader of the DUP, Arlene Foster should ignore her critics and display courage

Blaming Sinn Féin’s “red lines” and inflexibility for the collapse of talks, DUP leader Arlene Foster repeated that a compromise had never been reached in discussions involving the Irish language, in spite of informed views to the contrary. Photograph: Clodagh Kilcoyne/Reuters

Blaming Sinn Féin’s “red lines” and inflexibility for the collapse of talks, DUP leader Arlene Foster repeated that a compromise had never been reached in discussions involving the Irish language, in spite of informed views to the contrary. Photograph: Clodagh Kilcoyne/Reuters

 

By announcing that an Executive cannot be formed at this time and calling for the imposition of direct rule from Westminster, DUP leader Arlene Foster has raised the political stakes while attempting to disguise her negotiating failure. Blaming Sinn Féin’s “red lines” and inflexibility for the collapse of talks, she repeated that a compromise had never been reached in discussions involving the Irish language, in spite of informed views to the contrary.

In the North, unionists who oppose power-sharing have portrayed the development as an assault on their Britishness

It is difficult to know whether the statement was designed to pressurise Sinn Féin into making concessions or to reassure hardline DUP supporters. Whatever the reason, it is likely to inject unnecessary tension into Anglo-Irish relations. Last December, when direct rule was suggested, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar said the Government would not support such a development in the absence of “real and meaningful involvement” in the process. His comments generated a negative reaction within the DUP and caused concern in London, where the Conservative government depends on that party’s support.

Just like flags and emblems, language can be employed as a badge of identity and may perpetuate division. It doesn’t have to be like that, however. People in Scotland and Wales acknowledge a second language but don’t regard it as threatening a British identity. In the North, unionists who oppose power-sharing have portrayed the development as an assault on their Britishness. The leader of the Traditional Unionist Voice, Jim Allister, has campaigned against recognition on the grounds that the language has been “militarised” and “politicised” by republicans.

As unchallenged leader of the DUP, she should ignore her critics and display leadership and courage

Public confusion over what, precisely, a language Act might entail unsettled DUP supporters. Last Tuesday, Foster addressed two inflammatory issues when she insisted people would not be forced to learn Irish and it would not be made compulsory in schools. But she also ruled out acceptance of a standalone Irish Language Act and, in the process, unpicked months of painstaking negotiations. Yesterday, recognising that the absence of an Executive and Assembly was generating serious concern amongst both communities because of the impact it was having on health services, education and other administrative functions, she called for the reintroduction of direct rule from Westminster.

The situation is particularly unsettling because negotiators believed the basis for agreement had been reached. Three pieces of legislation, comprising an Irish Language Act, an Ulster Scots Act and a Cultural Act were proposed. They could be regarded as standing alone, or subsidiary, depending on party policy. The Taoiseach and British prime minister Theresa May went along to seal the deal. But Foster’s nerve failed. As unchallenged leader of the DUP, she should ignore her critics and display leadership and courage.

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