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Brian M Walker: We will not get another Assembly up and running without settling Irish language question once and for all

The most recent inter-party talks collapsed in acrimony in February and, while the mood music has improved of late, this issue still has the potential to derail their resumption, says Brian M Walker


Irish Language Act campaigners at Stormont in February

Irish Language Act campaigners at Stormont in February

Arlene Foster

Arlene Foster

Irish Language Act campaigners at Stormont in February

Since the collapse of the recent inter-party talks, politics in Northern Ireland are clearly in a state of impasse. It is urgent that efforts to re-establish a power-sharing government should start again.

We hear regularly about job losses, shop closures and severe problems in the health service.

A properly functioning Executive is needed to tackle these problems.

In spite of the gloom, however, it is possible that at present, there may be an opportunity to bring a resolution to our political difficulties.

Some new factors are relevant. As well, analysis of the reasons for the collapse of the original talks could help to overcome the problems.

In the period following the fall of the Executive, there was good reason to believe that the main parties involved were not enthusiastic about restoring this power-sharing system.

The main interest of Sinn Fein shifted south and northern matters did not seem very important for them.

Holding the balance of power in Westminster meant the DUP was not so concerned about Stormont.

Things have now changed. Sinn Fein is very keen to enter as a partner in a future Irish Government.

The southern parties are opposed to such a move, primarily on the grounds that Sinn Fein is not fit for such a role.

The failure of the Northern Ireland Executive is presented as evidence of the party's unfitness. This will be an incentive for Sinn Fein to make future talks work successfully.

In spite of its role at Westminster, the DUP faces a serious threat.

If the current impasse continues, the Assembly will be dissolved and all the MLAs made redundant.

This will lead to a hollowing-out of the party. They will still have 10 MPs at Westminster, but they will have lost their 28 MLAs, including their party leader.

The DUP needs to get Stormont operating fully again.

The previous talks sank primarily due to controversy over the Irish language.

Sharp division remains over this issue. People on both sides of the argument feel very strongly about the matter.

It must be realised, however, that unless we are willing to work out a suitable compromise, our political situation will remain deadlocked and the serious problems we face will not be dealt with.

An important factor in the debacle over the Irish language was the heightened level of exaggeration and misinformation over the issue.

On the one side, some language enthusiasts called for extreme measures, such as bilingual names of every street and road, including the Shankill Road, the right to receive a service in Irish in every GP surgery and quotas for Irish speakers in the public service. On the other side, it was claimed that promotion of the Irish language was part of an ongoing IRA plot.

Some of the more extreme proposals for the language were reported in parts of the media as serious possibilities without any real challenge.

Matters became so hyped-up in the Protestant community that Arlene Foster felt it necessary to reassure Protestants that they would not be forced to learn Irish.

This controversy helped to collapse the talks. Sinn Fein allowed itself to be over-influenced by a relatively small number of language activists.

It made no attempt to present a more reasonable case for the Irish language.

The DUP failed to inform its followers about the need for compromise, to counter the fake news and to reassure its base.

Future efforts to resolve this matter must involve the parties not only developing together a moderate settlement, but also making greater efforts to bring their supporters with them.

The point should be stressed that if this problem is not dealt with, we face a bleak future.

How can the language question be resolved? It is worth noting that there is already use of the Irish language in various public areas.

My rates notification from the Land & Property Services also carries its title in Irish.

It gives me information where I can go to see the bill in Irish, or other languages.

In some areas, councils use their Irish language name as well as the English version.

In streets where there is majority approval, it is possible to have the street name in Irish.

Resources are readily available to promote Irish language-medium schools. Any new legislation can include and build on these developments.

The question of a separate Irish Language Act has been a matter of controversy.

In fact, from what we have learnt about the earlier discussions between Sinn Fein and the DUP, it had been suggested that language legislation could embrace Irish, Ulster Scots and other language and cultural matters. Such an imaginative approach to this problem should be tried again.

The parties need to discuss these issues once more and in a positive fashion.

There are some encouraging signs that today people appreciate the need for better understanding and respect on the language question.

Recently, Paul Reid, the mayor of Mid and East Antrim Borough Council, hosted a special event in Ballymena to celebrate Irish Language week. Dr Niall Comer, president of Conradh na Gaelige, thanked the mayor for his role.

Last month, Antrim and Newtownabbey mayor Paul Hamill spoke Irish when he welcomed nearly 200 guests to the Theatre at the Mill for a special Irish language event.

It is critical that republicans and nationalists present moderate proposals. On the unionist side, it is essential that they demonstrate respect for the Irish language.

All parties must work hard to bring their voters with them. Politicians must be prepared to compromise and to move from "red line" positions in aid of the common good.

There are many reasons to urge progress on the language issue. Success or failure may well have an impact on the future of the parties.

We will not get an Executive up and running until this matter is settled. Besides all this, a successful settlement would reflect a new level of tolerance and common sense in our community.

Professor emeritus Brian M Walker is the author of A Political History of the Two Irelands: From Partition to Peace (Palgrave Macmillan)

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