Putting DUP and Sinn Féin back in same room won’t work

If Belfast Agreement is to be saved, it must be rewired, not rewritten

Parliament buildings at Stormont: the parties, people and governments can’t continue with the pretence  everything will just fall into place.  Photograph: Clodagh Kilcoyne

Parliament buildings at Stormont: the parties, people and governments can’t continue with the pretence everything will just fall into place. Photograph: Clodagh Kilcoyne

 

On Monday, February 12th, it was pretty clear that key elements within the Democratic Unionist Party were seriously spooked. They believed that a deal had been done on an Irish Language Act.

Monday came and went, leaving Theresa May and Leo Varadkar looking like idiots. Tuesday came and went, with Arlene Foster telling one media outlet after another what wouldn’t be acceptable to the DUP.

By Wednesday, when there was no sign of the DUP being any less spooked, she announced the talks process was over. Since then there have been accusations in leaked documents – denied, albeit not persuasively by them – that the DUP was ready for a deal, but got cold feet.

So, where do we go from here? Well, the first thing which needs to be considered is this: do we finally have to face the fact the Belfast Agreement is, to all intents and purposes, dead? The institutions may be allowed to remain in situ, yet any chance of them being deployed to promote reconciliation, consensus, stability and inter-community progress seems to have vanished.

It’s time to move from mandatory to voluntary coalition, ensuring it doesn’t allow one side to be excluded

The DUP and Sinn Féin have ring-fenced their positions and don’t seem capable of finding solid accommodations with each other. And it’s worth noting – because it tells the real story – that their respective hardening of positions has seen both of them continue to expand their vote. They’re taking chunk after chunk from the Ulster Unionist Party and the Social Democratic and Labour Party, while Alliance seems trapped in the same small electoral space it has occupied for decades.

So putting the DUP and Sinn Féin back in the same room won’t solve anything. It’s time to bring all the parties in, plus the two governments – maybe even a panel of “outside” experts on conflict resolution – and undertake the official review that should have taken place in 2000. It’s time to find a way of separating the everyday business of government from the potentially toxic stuff that is difficult to agree and will take years to resolve. We must move from “nothing is agreed until everything is agreed” because that brings everything to a crisis too quickly.

Irish language

It’s time to move from mandatory to voluntary coalition, ensuring it doesn’t allow one side to be excluded. It’s not about rewriting the agreement, more rewiring it after assessing the problems from the Belfast Agreement, St Andrews et al. Twenty years on – having tested it to the very point of destruction – the people of Northern Ireland have to decide if they want it saved.

I don’t think unionism does have a major problem with Irish. Language matters. It’s what ties us together. We should promote and protect it. Most unionists acknowledge the cultural footprints around them and accept that no one should have to dilute or sideline their personal identity and culture. The problem they have with Sinn Féin’s approach is that it seems to be arguing in favour of compulsion, even for those who have neither interest in nor need for the Irish language. Unionists believe that Sinn Féin hopes to use a language – in which the vast majority of Protestants, Catholics, unionists and even republicans, have no fluency – for political and electoral ends only.

It didn’t help that the DUP – having aggressively said no to an Irish Language Act all the way along – seemed to be preparing to bounce their base into accepting one at the last minute without any apparent effort to sell it to them. So, of course, it looked like a cave-in to Sinn Féin.

Extremists and culture

Maybe both parties should have heeded the words of TK Whitaker: “If as a result of indifference the Irish language were allowed to die, the loss would be irreparable . . . The government must not allow extremists to capture the Irish language . . . Far better to find more effective ways of advancing an acceptable bilingualism, neither embarrassed nor embarrassing but founded on love and respect for Irish and a resolve to keep it alive.” Actually, change ‘bilingualism’ to biculturalism and Whitaker’s approach could be helpful in a host of other areas too.

On Wednesday, Arlene Foster ruled out an Irish Language Act after meeting Theresa May. Sinn Féin ruled out a return to Stormont without one. How is that impasse resolved? Is stable, consensual government between unionism and republicanism now possible?

One thing is certain, though: the parties, people and governments can’t continue with the pretence that somehow, in some way, everything will just fall into place. It won’t. Hard, honest work is required. More reality and less pampering is also required.

Alex Kane is a commentator based in Belfast. He was formerly director of communications for the Ulster Unionist Party

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