This Is About Language, But Not A Language Act


From top: DUP leader Arlene Foster and aides in Stormont last night; Derek Mooney

Be in no doubt, the breakdown in talks yesterday is a crisis, a real crisis. This is bigger than last year’s collapse of the institutions. Much bigger.

Unlike recent ‘crises’ this is not merely about the two main Northern Irish parties playing hardball politics with each other and playing to their galleries, this is about a lot more.

While the legitimate demand for proper recognition of the Irish language may appear to be the catalyst for this crisis, the real cause is Brexit. And Brexit is the reason why this crisis, which is an existential crisis, will be extremely hard to resolve.

The architects of this crisis are not in Belfast, they are in London, specifically in Westminster. They are not just the 10 DUP MPs who have just reminded Arlene Foster and her crew that it is the MPs who now run the DUP show, they are also the slow learners in the Tory hardline Brexit fashion who have just now realised what Theresa May agreed to in Phase One of the Article 50 negotiations.

The hardline Brexiteers have just realised that the greatest threat to their Quixotic vision of a British Empire 2.0 exiting the EU institutions, Customs Union and Single market is the Irish/Irish Border.

Specifically, they have copped on to the fact that Brussels is determined not to flinch on either the letter or the spirit of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement and that staying in the Customs Union and having a Norwegian style EFTA arrangement is the only game in town.

It is as if the penny has just dropped with them that the Good Friday Agreement was not just a political document but a binding international agreement between two Sovereign Governments. An agreement whose contents and implications they had been gleefully ignorant of for years.

But now, as they come to realise that the Good Friday Agreement which they had ignored and dismissed is the one single thing that could most likely to scupper their hopes of a Britain entirely outside the EU, the Customs Union and the Single market.

So, they have concluded, they must find a way to sink or at least damage the Good Friday Agreement in order to undermine Brussels’ clear advantage in the negotiations. In this endeavour they have willing helpers, though they may see them as useful idiots, in the form of the 10 DUP MPs.

While Stormont was up and running and the British Government had a secure majority, the DUP MPs may as well have been MEPs – plenty of status, occasional forays on to the media, but absolutely no real power or influence.

But the collapse of the Executive and the suspension of the Assembly, courtesy of Sinn Féin, and the 2016 UK election result, courtesy of Theresa May and the Tories, catapulted the backwoods men of the DUP – and you can guess how deep in the back woods a DUP-er backwoodsman can be – not just into the spotlight, but into a spotlight that come complete with a driving seat with real leverage.

With those two events, the centre of gravity of the DUP party moved firmly and resolutely from Stormont to Westminster. Foster was now the King overseas, but at home. She can travel down south to give impressive speeches, she can meet gay rights groups and Irish language organisations, but the MPs were the ones with the power. Something we have seen come to fruition this week.

The DUP MPs are on the same wavelength as the hardline Tory Brexiteers and now have the ability to deliver to the Brexiteers, something they cannot get via the Tory cabinet or House of Commons, a possible way to punch a hole in the Brussels Article 50 negotiating position.

The Brexiteers want, as a good colleague of mine termed it in a WhatsApp message this week, to screw a brass plate on the coffin of the Good Friday Agreement. They want this, not because they hate the Good Friday agreement – most of them haven’t a notion what is actually in it – but because it is a means to an end, and that end is Brexit.

Not that the DUP MPs will cry any tears over the demise of the Good Friday Agreement, many of them built their early careers on opposing it, with one Sir Jeffrey Donaldson quitting the UUP to join the DUP over Trimble’s acceptance of it.

So now the fate of the Brexit negotiation, the future of the Good Friday Agreement and the return of devolution to Northern Ireland are inextricably linked.

You see now why I say this existential crisis will take a lot of work and a lot of time to resolve.

The one bright spot just now is that the place where you find the deepest understanding of the Good Friday Agreement – both in letter and spirit – is not Stormont Castle, Number 10 Downing Street or (regrettably) Government Buildings, Dublin, but the EU Commission and Council buildings in Brussels.

There are times when it seems that M. Barnier has a deeper understanding of what the Good Friday agreement is about than some of the members of our own Government (an issue I have touched on here before). It is as if members of this Government were disinclined to talk about the Good Friday Agreement for fear of acknowledging the key part played by Bertie Ahern and a succession of Fianna Fáil Ministers in bringing about political progress in the North from David Andrews to Brian Cowen to Dermot Ahern to Micheál Martin.

That will have to change. Both the Taoiseach and the Tánaiste will have to rise considerably above the petulance we saw in the Dáil today from Simon Coveney and recognise that this is a major crisis and one to which this Government and the last Fine Gael-Labour one actively contributed by taking its eye off the ball.

It will also have to change its modus operandi and seriously upgrade and improve its political antennae within Northern Ireland. It will have to take to all parties regularly and meaningfully, not just two. It will need to learn how to understand the DUP (another issue I have discussed here before).

How did it miss the power shift from Stormont to Westminster – how did it allow itself to be both convinced of – and then become a persuader for – the idea that a deal on devolution was imminent?

It also needs to recognise that it does not have what Albert Reynolds, John Bruton and Bertie Ahern had in their day: a capable and committed partner in the British Government.

May’s government is not merely dependent on the DUP, it is dependent day-to-day on the most antediluvian faction of the DUP – its MPs. That compromises May’s government in its political dealings with the Irish Government and Irish Ministers and SpAds need urgently to wake up to this fact – I think the Irish officials have long since copped on to this, but it seems they are not always listened to.

It does not make the British Prime Minister or NI Secretary of State untrustworthy, it makes them something much worse, it makes them weak. Negotiating with a weakened partner across the table is a problem as you can never know that they can sell what they agree with you back to their people.

The first step in bolstering the chances of a real partner in this process is, as both Micheál Martin and the SDLP’s Colum Eastwood have proposed, must be the formation of the British Irish Intergovernmental Conference.

It is the key element of the Good Friday Agreement – and the protection of the Good Friday agreement and the principles on which it is based – must be the priority for both devolution and Brexit.

Derek Mooney is a communications and public affairs consultant. He previously served as a Ministerial Adviser to the Fianna Fáil-led government 2004 – 2010.  Follow Derek on Twitter: @dsmooney

Eamonn Farrell/Rollingnews


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31 thoughts on “This Is About Language, But Not A Language Act

  1. RuilleBuille

    This was an internal putsch within the DUP by the Westminister MPs against Foster.

    Foster had agreed a deal with SF and the two governments but was attacked by the MPs.

  2. Scundered

    The real problem is the Irish and British obsession with identity and political parties driving these as important issues gaining support via fear, putting that before health and education is obscene.

    If only they could agree on the fact they’re just human, exactly the same as their neighbour, and be content with that.

    (Cue some John Lennon on a white piano)

    1. some old queen

      There is no British identity, it is three nations who collectively call themselves that while England rules the roost. Albeit a different Irish to the rest, NI is Ireland but here is a question: How is it that rich people playing a sport called Rugby can get along just fine yet poorer Irish people can’t? The real problem is that SF and the DUP have distilled it down to zero sum politics on a language that should have no place in a political arena.

      Interesting that equal marriage rather than as gaeilge was thrown under the bus?

      1. Scundered

        Whilst most people want devolution, if the local politicians can’t get past these idiotic priorities then I think most will be happier with direct rule and let someone else have a go.

  3. Shayna

    One point that Derek didn’t pick up was that SF will not consider Arlene Foster as First Minister until the RHI scheme debacle has been put to bed, she being The Finance Minister at the time responsible. The withdrawal of a £50,000 p/a bursary to Líofa – prompting Mrs Foster’s infamous “Crocodile” comment still resonates.
    Mary Lou MacDonald’s press conference this afternoon revealed that there was an agreement in place establishing an Irish Language Act, together with an Irish Scots Act and an Act on Respect of Diversity – which Arlene Foster later this evening denied being the case. The trouble is, no documents have been released by neither the DUP nor SF to illustrate exactly what was going on during the past 13 months of “negotiations”.
    I agree with Derek that mention of The Good Friday Agreement may give cause to some members in The Dáil to shudder for fear of being found out that they may not be overly familiar with the details of the document. It is a stumbling block for a legal Brexit, in so far as London is concerned. It seems they think they can steam ahead and hope that no-one in the EU will notice that The Good Friday Agreement is a contract between both the British and Irish Governments.
    As a resident of The North, the best thing about the past 13 months is not having to hear MLAs on tv news every night. A civil servant acquaintance mentioned to me recently that the MLAs generally turn up to their offices in Stormont, but because they have nothing to do, they have become a tad diva-esque, complaining about lighting in the building being too bright/dim, floors being slippy?
    Realistically and fairly, another Assembly Election should be called, before any consideration should be given to a return to London Rule. Talks between The North’s two main parties and London and Dublin Governments will simply and surely lead to further frustration, without a solution?
    P.S Derek, I did enjoy your “– and you can guess how deep in the back woods a DUP-er backwoodsman can be – ” comment.

    1. some old queen

      Assembly politicians would put The Kremlin clientele to shame when it comes to diva drama, even when they were actually doing some work. An election would not make a blind bit of difference because people will still vote tribal.

      Indefinite full pay is a nice gig.

      Let’s start there.

      1. Shayna

        The pay issue is certainly a consideration when pondering a career as an MLA. It’s similar to the holidays teachers enjoy which perhaps makes their profession appealing.
        The last election was neck and neck DUP/SF, with other parties, merely also-rans. Another go, may spread the vote a little more evenly among parties, given the non-event of the past? But then again, as you say – voting is very much tribal, perhaps, it’s merely postponing the inevitable. Boris Johnson could be the new Mayor of The North of Ireland and introduce mandatory Latin for all schools in the Six Counties – a language compromise?

    2. david

      I disagree with Mooney its not brexit
      Its two different mentalities that were killing each other before the US and the UK decided enough is enough
      We still have two mentalities that hate each other
      Gerry would not kiss the queens arse but would kiss the frau’s arse
      Mary lou would gradually swap a British master for a German master
      Meanwhile brexit looms and Sinn feinn are throwing childish tantrums
      And we have foster who now can unseat the British PM
      Holding the future of the UK by the balls why would she share power with Sinn feinn in stormont
      Meanwhile little Leo verruca has not one clue of the potential tinderbox which can drag Ireland back to the days before the peace process
      And remember when the peace process was derailed and that was under a fine Gael led government
      I think micky martin hit the nail on the head

  4. italia'90

    And not even one kick from your soldier of destiny boots into the exposed SF rib cage…
    You must have lost your usual set of notes Derek?

    1. david

      And when an army is sent over to keep both sides from killing each other you do get boots
      Look at all places armies go into
      The provos bombed kneecapped assassinated murdered raped and the unionist crowd also did the same
      And it might just happen again
      I do not trust Sinn feinn who cannot even be honest about their past

  5. Catherine costelloe

    Jaazus… an argument over the Irish language when over 99% of islanders in whole of Ireland can’t be bothered their arse to use it. Remember the past but look to future guys.

          1. david

            So to be an Irishman you must speak Gaelic?
            Maybe the republic should also acknowledge the unionists Scots Irish and have it on all our signage and everything our Gaelic is printed on and used in our dail

          2. Tony

            Assuming you mean ‘Ulster Scots’, that’s not a language like Gaelic. It’s a dialect, like Geordie or Scouse.

        1. ahjayzis

          It’s more about the DUP stomping on the neck of any expression of Irishness in Northern Ireland.

          They want to be free to burn nationalist politicians in effigy and the Irish flag on their bonfires, but the ‘natives’ can’t have the same language and culture rights as those hotbeds of separatism, Wales and Scotland.

          Societies are about more than economic indicators and Northern Ireland needs to learn to live with the fact there are two cultures and traditions that we all had (we thought) agreed should be treated equally.

          1. Iwerzon

            This whole parity of respect for one another’s culture is a joke. Connor Murphy summed it up really well recently:
            “I often reflect, as I drive up to Stormont, over Queen Elizabeth Bridge, along Prince of Wales Avenue, past the statue of Carson, into a building with Brittania written on the roof, many days with 2 union flags on the roof, park next to where Craig is buried and where his statue resides at the top of the stairs; and I think to myself: we really must do more to reflect unionist culture in this place.”

          1. some old queen

            Take the gays cruising. Where are you from? East Belfast.

            ‘East Belfast’ turns out to be Ravenhill Road (which is way more south than east). Them ‘n us | us ‘n them. It is so ingrained that the action of moving to London or Dublin in itself becomes a breath of fresh air.

      1. david

        Not sad reality
        But we now have a new master Germany and republicans are eager to kiss its ass like when Russell went over to kiss Hitler’s
        Sounds unpatriotic but that’s the reality
        Look at what the troika did
        And look at our varadka a man who cannot even deliver broadband thinking he can deliver a 40 year plan based on not sound actual money but hopes and pipe dreams
        Brexit will put paid to his chequer is in the post 40year plan

    1. shitferbrains

      To hell with the future and long live the past, may the lord in his mercy look down on Belfast.

    2. Scundered

      Exactly, I’ve been living in Dublin over twenty years and have never heard irish used in day to day language. So to make it a deal breaker is outrageous, it’s just political football.

    3. david

      Exactly and in the EU do any Irish EU ministers use the Irish language when addressing the parliament?
      No they speak english

  6. Truth in the News

    This real issue is how long Madam May survives and with the Tories split on Europe
    what chance an agreement getting through the House of Commons, there will be an
    election and Boris and co will end up on the backbenches, the British are split on the
    issue, and will end up with a Labour administration who will negotiate different terms
    but still leave….as to the DUP they will be ditched, and its not not really about the Irish
    language, its about trying to restore Unionist domination, those days are gone for ever.

    1. david

      The British do not re run referendums because it dose not suit others unlike us
      The UK is leaving full stop and any hint of weakness is being exploited by pro Reich interests
      Remember when they try to shaft the UK we will be the ones that suffer
      Just like we did when they bailed us out

    1. david

      I would say but has Leo the cheques in the post varadka learnt his lesson yet like the not informing the unionists about the customs deal made regarding the border being on the coast of northern Ireland? No
      He still dose not get it and micky martin pointed that out

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