Shane Daly is a History Graduate from University College Cork, with a BAM in History and an MA in Irish History. He also writes a Political/History Column for the UCC Express.
“Is fearr Gaeilge bhriste, ná Béarla cliste.” – “Broken Irish is better than clever English.”
The power of the Irish language is evident in that it is one of the main components in keeping the padlock on the doors of Stormont at present. The DUP and Sinn Féin cannot seem to agree and Northern Ireland has been without a Government now for over a year. However, there are other issues at play, the DUP’s archaic view on marriage equality being another but the Irish language and Sinn Féin’s reluctance to back down on implementing the Irish Language Act are the main reasons for the lack of a power-sharing executive in Northern Ireland. Social Media in recent weeks has been heavily focused on the collapse in talks in the North. A clip of the DUP MLA Gregory Campbell mocking the language has resurfaced and so too has a clip of talk show host Stephen Nolan doing the same. This is disappointing to see and gives at best a brief glimpse of what greets Sinn Féin at the bartering table in getting our national language respected and acknowledged. The Irish language means many different things to many different people and is something that I’ve worked very hard on myself in order that I can call myself an Irish speaker. I’m not fluent yet, ‘ach táim ag feabhsú’. Anybody that has even the smallest bit of Irish should be very proud of that and they should cling to that with whitened knuckles. A national language is imperative and I believe that in Mary Lou MacDonald we have a massively capable leader and she has in her arsenal the capabilities of finding a key to remove the padlock on the gates of Stormont. Moreover, the Irish Language Act and all the commotion that goes with it can be confusing, so what is it all about?
When Martin McGuinness stepped down as Deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland in January 2017 after holding the post for nearly 10 years, the failure to introduce legislation on the Irish language was listed as one of the chief reasons he effectively pulled the plug on the Executive. Since that collapse there have been numerous failed attempts to restore power, as well as an election, a new Northern Ireland secretary and, of course, a new leader of Sinn Féin in the North after the death of McGuinness. Talks were restarted in recently following the appointment of Karen Bradley as the new Secretary of State for Northern Ireland.
When the British and Irish leaders rolled into town recently there appeared to be a strong sense of optimism that the situation would finally be resolved. However the day came and went without a deal, and the DUP leader Arlene Foster strongly reiterated that her party will not sign off on a stand-alone Irish language Act, which Sinn Féin has been pushing for, for more than a decade.
What do Sinn Féin want?
On the broader language issue, Sinn Féin supports the restoration of Irish, as the spoken language of the majority of people in Ireland. The specific stumbling block in Northern Ireland surrounds the introduction of an Irish language Act (Acht na Gaeilge) which would give Irish equal status with English.
The party is seeking legislation which would allow for;
• The use of Irish in courts, in the Assembly and for use by state bodies including the police
• The appointment of an Irish language commissioner
• The establishment of designated Gaeltacht areas in the North
• The right for education through Irish
• Bilingual signage on public buildings and road signage
What do the unionists want?
Arlene Foster has reiterated that her party will not sign off on a stand-alone Irish Language Act. Foster shut down speculation that progress was being made on the potential enactment of such laws following yesterday’s Stormont power-sharing negotiations. British Prime Minister Theresa May met with Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, the DUP and Sinn Féin to discuss the restoration of power-sharing in Stormont. The proposed Irish Language Act is something Sinn Féin is adamant on pushing through, and an issue that has halted an agreement between the party and the DUP through the past year’s impasse.
In an interview with the Press Association, the DUP leader said: “There was a lot of speculation very recently, not least because the Prime Minister was here yesterday, that the deal was done. The deal’s not done. We still have some significant gaps to deal with and we’ll continue to work on that”. Foster also ruled out the possibility of any laws that would require bilingual road signs in Northern Ireland, Irish as a compulsory language in schools, or quotas of Irish language speakers within the North’s civil service.
The DUP has always opposed an Irish language act, with party leader Arlene Foster previously arguing that there should be a Polish language act instead because more people in Northern Ireland speak Polish than Irish.
In the run-up to last year’s election, speaking about Sinn Féin’s demands she famously told a party event: “If you feed a crocodile it will keep coming back for more.” The former First Minister later said she regretted the comments, which helped to galvanise supporters of Sinn Féin. Some unionists see the demands for the new law as a tool to be used by Sinn Féin in their quest for a united Ireland, or the latest manoeuvre in the long-running atmosphere of distrust between the two sides.
Where does that leave us?
Speaking to reporters, Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald said her party does not believe there is “anything insurmountable left to resolve” in talks to restore the Executive in Northern Ireland. However Arlene Foster said “serious and significant gaps” remained between her party and Sinn Féin especially on the issue of the Irish language. “In our view, there is no current prospect of these discussions leading to an Executive being formed,” said Ms Foster.
Sinn Féin responded to Ms Foster’s statement by blaming the DUP for the failure of the latest round of talks. The party’s leader in Northern Ireland, Michelle O’Neill, said “Sinn Féin engaged, we worked in good faith, we stretched ourselves”.
“We had reached an accommodation with the leadership of the DUP. The DUP failed to close the deal. They have now collapsed this process.”
Sinn Féin and other senior sources said an agreement had been effectively signed off on with the DUP. This included a compromise whereby there would be an Irish language act and also Ulster Scots and culture acts. It seems however that grassroots unionist opposition to an Irish language act was pivotal in prompting Arlene Foster to issue her statement on Wednesday evening. “For almost four weeks, we have been engaged in intensive negotiations with Sinn Féin. We have attempted to find a stable and sustainable basis for restoring devolution. Those discussions have been unsuccessful,” she said.
“Despite our best efforts, serious and significant gaps remain between ourselves and Sinn Féin especially on the issue of the Irish language,” she added.
“I have made it consistently clear that unionists will not countenance a stand-alone or free standing Irish language act. Sinn Féin’s insistence on a stand-alone Irish language act means that we have reached an impasse,” said Foster.
Both the Irish and British governments have expressed strong the desire that power-sharing be re-established as soon as possible. However the continued failure of the parties to find a solution to the impasse could lead to the reinstatement of direct rule from Westminster. Foster evoked this prospect in her statement but Sinn Féin has ruled it out with Northern Ireland leader Michelle O’Neill telling RTE News that it is “not an option”.
Despite Foster’s comments, Theresa May has said there was a “basis for an agreement” in Stormont and that a Northern Ireland Executive could be “up and running very soon”.
“While some differences remain, I believe that it is possible to see the basis of an agreement here.” said Theresa May.