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Arlene Foster's attitude to Irish language casts doubt on leadership of DUP

Diversity is not a threat to social and political cohesion... tearing up mutually binding agreements signed in good faith, however, is

By Eilis O'Hanlon

It's not that I have any strong feelings about the Irish language one way or another. Even at the height of the Troubles, I never learned a word of it in my Catholic school in the middle of a loyalist area of north Belfast.

Local diehard unionists no doubt imagined that the girls inside were all being brainwashed with Provo propaganda "as Gaeilge" from morning assembly till the going-home bell rang.

If only they knew. Playing camogie was as radically nationalistic as we ever got.

And we weren't even very good at that.

Like many down the years, I've since dipped in and out of Irish classes and listened to the odd language tape, but I never stuck at it, nor lost much sleep over the fact that I couldn't pass the time of day in Irish, never mind hold a conversation.

The First Minister's insistence that she will "never" support an Irish Language Act in Northern Ireland, though, stirred something deep inside - some long-suppressed crocodile, you might say - turning my benign indifference into an unexpected indignation.

In comparing Irish speakers to Polish nationals, Arlene Foster inadvertently let slip how she views those of a nationalist persuasion.

Poles in Northern Ireland are in a foreign land. They're very welcome, but they're not from here. Irish speakers in Northern Ireland are in their own country and can expect not to be regarded as alien.

There may be practical difficulties to enacting an Irish Language Act, not least how the Police Service of Northern Ireland can operate effectively if required to provide services in Irish.

The Republic's own Language Commissioner has identified a lack of gardai with fluency in the native tongue as a major obstacle to delivering on a commitment to offering policing in Irish.

If that's the case in the south, after decades of compulsory Irish language education, it's going to be even more difficult in Northern Ireland.

It could, for a while, be used by suspects to frustrate law and order.

But these are not reasons to do nothing. They're merely indications of potential pitfalls, which can be overcome by gradually staggering the introduction of services as it becomes practical to do so.

Likewise, since there are very few people with the facility to conduct complicated Government, or legal, business through Irish, the cost shouldn't be prohibitively expensive. Nor would it be un-British to let them do so.

There are similar language acts in other parts of the UK, including Wales and Scotland. The popularity of Cornish is growing throughout south-west England and Manx is undergoing a revival on the Isle of Man.

There may be only a few hundred people with the ability to converse in Manx, but the greater cultural visibility of the language gives all on the island the chance, if that's what they want, to connect with another, older part of their heritage and identity.

On this issue, it's Mrs Foster who's out of step with mainstream British opinion.

Diversity is not a threat to social and political cohesion; what threatens it is tearing up agreements that have already been signed off on in good faith.

The DUP's Edwin Poots may have claimed last month on The Nolan Show that proposals on promoting and protecting the Irish language as included in the 2006 St Andrews Agreement were a side deal between Sinn Fein and the British Government and that his party never accepted them, but that's entirely irrelevant.

The British Government is the ultimate authority within the United Kingdom; as a unionist, he ought to welcome that fact. That being so, London has as much right and duty to protect the interests of Irish speakers here as Welsh speakers in the valleys of South Wales.

The First Minister will soon discover this is the case when talks convene after the election. She doesn't have the last say on this. Far from it.

Like all single-issue fanatics, some Irish language activists can make for tiresome company and sometimes worse; Sinn Fein has certainly politicised the language in ways that are unhelpful, to say the least.

But their extremism is only fuelled by the mindless obstinacy of their opponents, which is why Mrs Foster's disparaging statement was much more troubling than Gregory Campbell's "curry my yoghurt" jibe at Stormont.

He was speaking as an individual MLA; Arlene as a woman who was, until last month, First Minister for the whole of Northern Ireland and all its people.

The manner in which she spoke was bitter and contemptuous and nastily tribal.

If peace means anything, it should be about acknowledging that this small piece of earth belongs exclusively to no tribe, Green or Orange.

Arlene sounded as if she still resented sharing it at all.

Her mind ought to be on the bigger picture. More and more Catholics are willing to self-identify as Northern Irish.

There is no great urge towards a united Ireland. In the latest poll, four out of 10 might now hanker for joint authority; but six out of 10 just want the Assembly back, in its present or reformed state.

There's a clear moderate desire for stability. The recession has brought other priorities into focus. National questions are secondary to getting by.

These are the reasonable people in the centre that unionists should be wooing, especially with Brexit looming.

This is their opportunity to persuade the nationalist community that they have nothing to fear from remaining in the UK.

Instead, the First Minister went out of her way to deliberately belittle them and make them feel illogically demanding. Politically, it makes no sense.

The wise thing would be to accommodate Irish language and culture, thereby removing that as a weapon from your opponents. On a human level, it was just obnoxious.

For moderate unionists, who've lent the DUP their support in recent years, that has to be an unsettling echo of the bigotry of old.

What would Arlene Foster rather have - a Northern Ireland in the UK, where there is as much cultural Irishness available for any community that wants it, or to stoke a permanent disconnect amongst hundreds of thousands of her fellow citizens, just because they happen to care about keeping alive a connection to a culture which she personally finds disagreeable?

The choice ought to be a no-brainer and the fact that the First Minister fluffed it so badly not only sets a serious question mark over her commitment to non-partisanship, but also over her strategic approach to advancing the long-term interests of unionism.

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