Belfast Telegraph

Nelson McCausland: Stormont deal an opportunity for unionists to champion their culture - they can't squander it

Republicans have seized on the Irish provisions, now pro-Union people must do the same, says Nelson McCausland

Arlene Foster and Michelle O’Neill after the parties agreed a deal at Stormont
Arlene Foster and Michelle O’Neill after the parties agreed a deal at Stormont
Nelson McCausland

Nelson McCausland

The New Decade, New Approach document runs to 62 pages and the accompanying legislation runs to 51 pages. It took me several hours to read both documents through and then read them again in order to get an overall sense of what had been agreed.

That is why I was somewhat surprised by those who felt able to provide an opinion within 10 minutes of publication.

There are many aspects of the deal which will receive general approval, especially Part 1, with a series of priorities for an incoming Executive.

There is a strong focus on health reform and education, with a commitment to address educational underachievement and a section on investment for the future.

These are all important for Northern Ireland if we are to build a strong and stable society.

The section on governance in Northern Ireland will also receive a general welcome.

After decades of direct rule, the operation of Stormont has been difficult; a situation made worse by the periodic crises that have occurred ever since the restoration of devolution 20 years ago.

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As a result there will be strengthened codes for transparency and accountability in the Executive and other pertinent measures.

Much of what has been agreed is uncontroversial and will be for the common good.

However, there are aspects of the deal which have received a more mixed reaction, both among unionists and nationalists.

Some unionists have been unnerved and at the same time some nationalists are unhappy. The republican commentator Chris Donnelly tweeted: "This isn't a deal that will sit well with Sinn Fein."

Annex A contains the UK Government's commitments and these include the extension of the Armed Forces Covenant to cover Northern Ireland, something which Sinn Fein has always opposed.

Irish language activist Padai O Tiarnaigh, one of those who met the Secretary of State at Hillsborough, was clearly dissatisfied with the Irish language provisions and tweeted: "This legislation is miles away from 2006 promises, has a DUP veto & other very weak parts. We will test it every single day."

That disappointment was exacerbated by the announcement that Peter Weir had been appointed Minister of Education.

The Irish language campaign group An Dream Dearg tweeted. "This is a huge concern! Following a brief 2016 in the job as Education Minister we know EXACTLY what to expect. This will be the first main test of the 'new Assembly' on the Irish language."

An Cumann Gaelach QUB, the Irish language student organisation at Queen's University Belfast, also took to Twitter to complain about a statement Peter Weir had made about Irish language signage in 1997.

That was almost 23 years ago, before most of the Queen's students were even born. For some people, the past is just something you mine for new grievances.

Meanwhile, some unionists have been asking: "What do you make of it?" It is a good question and one response could be: "What can you make of it and what will we make of it?"

I have read and reread all the cultural aspects of the deal and I have no doubt that Irish cultural enthusiasts will seek to maximise and realise the opportunities in it. They have already said that.

However, there are also commitments that are of particular interest to most unionists, including the section on the centenary of Northern Ireland and the commitments to Ulster-Scots culture and Ulster-British culture.

There are also specific projects, such as the Castlereagh Foundation and the restoration of Craigavon House.

These provide a great opportunity to build cultural confidence and capacity within the unionist family.

However, with every opportunity there comes responsibility and there is now a responsibility on the unionist community to seize the opportunity, maximise the opportunity and realise the potential. There is a responsibility on unionist parties, whether at community level or in councils, Assembly and Westminster. There is also a responsibility on the unionist people and on cultural organisations.

Many cultural activists may feel "worn down and worn out", as a rural unionist recently observed to me, by past decades of disappointment, but it would be a mistake to let the opportunities pass.

When a door of opportunity opens, you can stand inspecting the grain of the wood, or you can walk through the door and seize the opportunity.

I think I prefer the latter.

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