Sinn Fein placated due to IRA firepower... hence the red line over an Irish Language Act
Successive Westminster governments kowtowed to republicans over their cultural supremacy, says Nelson McCausland
The Sinn Fein demand for an Irish Language Act as a prerequisite for restoring devolution remains the principal obstacle to forming an Executive at Stormont. It remains a major issue for them; indeed, they have made it a red-line issue, because it is central to one of the key strands in their overall republican strategy.
Decisions on the health service, the education system, job-creation and everything else matter less to them than an Irish Language Act.
But how have we arrived at that situation?
The Anglo-Irish Agreement was signed on November 15, 1985 and, buried in the text, there was a little phrase about “measures to foster the cultural heritage of both traditions”.
It didn’t mention the Irish language, but the term “cultural heritage” covered it and, in practice, that was all that it covered.
In the wake of the agreement, the Westminster Government and the Northern Ireland Office, encouraged by the Dublin government, began to make commitments on the Irish language and, year after year, those commitments increased.
The Anglo-Irish Agreement spoke about the Government fostering “the culture heritage of both traditions”, but there was only one cultural tradition that mattered and that was the one that had the Provisional IRA as its patron.
A decade later, talks were underway that would lead eventually to the Belfast Agreement and the IRA set off the Docklands bomb in London, causing £150m of damage and reminding everyone that they hadn’t gone away.
The following year, they reinstated their ceasefire, but the message was clear: the IRA were putting pressure on London to secure political and other concessions.
That was the background to the Belfast Agreement, which was signed on April 10, 1998 — an agreement that made major commitments to the Irish language.
The agreement spoke about “cultural wealth” and “diversity”, but the only cultural expression to receive specific commitments was the Irish language.
Once again, the cultural expressions of the unionist community were ignored.
In the period leading up to the Belfast Agreement, the Irish language was on the agenda and a Northern Ireland Office official, J Anthony Canavan, wrote a briefing paper on language issues.
In it, he referred to the political talks that were then taking place and said: “The Irish language is given particular importance by the Irish government, the SDLP and above all Sinn Fein. Though it is unlikely to make or break the process, concessions on Irish could help make a settlement package more attractive to nationalists.”
Canavan went on to say that concessions on the Irish language “could be presented at an early stage as a confidence-building measure for nationalists”, or “retained as a possible relatively minor concession at a later point in negotiations”.
The focus was on placating Sinn Fein and the reasoning is obvious. Sinn Fein had the bargaining power that came from the firepower of the IRA and so they had to be placated.
Meanwhile, the cultural concerns of the unionist community were simply ignored.
In both the Anglo-Irish Agreement and the Belfast Agreement, the Westminster Government created a cultural traditions hierarchy and, in both cases, it was because of the threat from republicans and pressure from Dublin. Unfortunately, both agreements have bequeathed the people of Northern Ireland preferential treatment for one cultural tradition and Sinn Fein see an Irish Language Act as the way to enshrine that in law.
A stable society has to be a shared society and that has to be based on principles of equity, diversity and independence.
Unfortunately, Sinn Fein seem reluctant to go down that road and seem to prefer a path that preserves their cultural supremacy.
Of course, demands for Irish language “rights” are nothing new. During the IRA border campaign from 1956 to 1962, some republican internees in Crumlin Road prison formed a branch of the Gaelic League (Conradh na Gaeilge).
They complained that there were no Irish-speaking prison officers and the Gaelic League took up their case, commenting that the RUC had little difficulty finding Gaelic-speaking policemen to raid people’s homes.
That is the same Gaelic League which is now at the front of the campaign for an Irish Language Act.