Belfast Telegraph

Irish language deal could be fudge-flavoured so that both sides can swallow it

By Suzanne Breen

After a year of saying no to an Irish Language Act, and a very loud and definitive no at that, speculation is mounting that the DUP could be preparing to say yes.

Well, yes to some form of legislation that may well stretch its grassroots members and voters. The Irish language remains the major stumbling block to signing off a deal to see Stormont up and running very soon.

So after taking such a stern stance on the issue for so long, is Arlene Foster now preparing to eat her words and "feed the crocodile"?

Taken at face value, the positions of Sinn Fein and the DUP are irreconcilable. Mary Lou McDonald's party has insisted on a standalone Irish Language Act which Mrs Foster has ruled out in no uncertain terms.

But a fudge that would give both cover has long been under consideration, with civil servants reportedly tasked with drawing up several possible concoctions which would enable the leaders of both parties to save face.

Speculation at Stormont yesterday centred on the possibility of three separate Bills on the Irish language, Ulster-Scots and Culture and Respect. They would be brought separately to the Assembly but would later be fused into one Act. Sinn Fein could argue that it had bagged a win on its red line issue. The DUP could maintain it was a hybrid Cultural Act.

The problem for the DUP leadership is that the camouflage hasn't so far convinced the wider unionist community.

There is no great passion in loyalist areas for extra measures for Ulster-Scots. Indeed, a founding member of the DUP, Wallace Thompson, last year said he viewed it as a dialect and didn't equate it with the Irish language.

A more effective sweetener for the unionist community in any legislation would focus on the Orange Order. Perhaps the deal will include a financial package tailored at Orange culture.

Conradh na Gaeilge has costed an Irish Language Act for Northern Ireland at £19 million over five years, although unionists claim this is a major under-estimation. The Irish language organisation has cited the cost of establishing and running a translation unit, responsible for translating official documents, to be £100,000 for initial set-up and £500,000 per year after that.

But the key question centres on how comprehensive the proposed legislation at the heart of the Sinn Fein-DUP deal is likely to be. Will it apply solely to Irish, or be more of what one Stormont insider calls "a mish-mash" which puts that language on an equal footing with Ulster-Scots?

The role of a commissioner is the most vital component.

Will they have judicial powers - like the Welsh equivalent does - or advisory powers as in Scotland? The former would see the appointment of a figure with powers to order government departments and public bodies to take certain actions. The latter would entail a more toothless commissioner with the power only to make recommendations.

The fear of Irish language street signs popping up in loyalist areas is unlikely to be realised. Councils currently introduce such signage only if a majority of residents support it.

But, regardless, any extra funding for the Irish language will remain highly controversial in our divided community.

Many grassroots unionists see it as unnecessary and argue that the money would be far better spent on health and education, while for nationalists the issue has become increasingly central to recognising their identity.

Belfast Telegraph

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