Unionists should come together to thwart Adams' plans to impose culture fatwah on Northern Ireland
The Sinn Fein demand for an Irish Language Act remains at the heart of the political stalemate in Northern Ireland, with that demand being rejected by both the DUP and the UUP — and rightly so.
In recent weeks, both Sinn Fein and UUP politicians have referred back to what was, or was not, in the Belfast Agreement, but to understand why Northern Ireland has reached the current impasse on language and culture, we really need to go back to the notorious Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1985.
In it, London and Dublin agreed to “consider measures to foster the cultural heritage of both traditions”. This referred to “both traditions”, but subsequently London did nothing to foster the cultural heritage of the unionist community, while at the same time, under pressure from Dublin and the SDLP, the Westminster Government introduced measures to support the Irish Gaelic language.
While unionists, including myself, were protesting outside the gates of the Anglo-Irish Secretariat at Maryfield, officials from Dublin were inside the gates, pressing for more commitments on Irish.
All this was in the context of the ongoing IRA campaign of terrorism and the demands that were emerging from a re-energised Sinn Fein cultural strategy.
Indeed, Dublin used the argument that concessions on Irish would shore up the SDLP and prevent support leaching away to Sinn Fein.
The next major milestone on the road was the Belfast Agreement of 1998.
Sinn Fein went into those negotiations with a clear cultural strategy and emerged with commitments to “facilitate and encourage” the use of Irish in public life, “encourage and facilitate Irish medium education” and “support Irish language film and television production”.
There were eight specific commitments for the Irish language, as demanded by Sinn Fein, and they emerged as 8-0 winners.
The commitment on Irish-medium education was then incorporated into the Education (Northern Ireland) Order 1998.
Paragraph 89 was a short paragraph, buried in an Order that had 91 paragraphs and six schedules, but it placed a duty on the Department of Education to “encourage and facilitate the development of Irish-medium education”.
Indeed, that was at the heart of a recent court case, where the court overturned a decision taken by the former DUP education minister.
Meanwhile, work was under way to create an Irish Language Broadcast Fund and increase the number of Irish language programmes on radio and television.
The Belfast Agreement created a preferential position for Irish language and culture and embedded it in law.
It established a position of cultural superiority for Irish language and culture and we are still living with the cultural legacy of the Belfast Agreement.
Today, unionists can look back and see the outworking of 30 years of cultural discrimination.
Meanwhile, Sinn Fein, aided and abetted by the SDLP and Alliance, are demanding an Irish Language Act that would further entrench and empower that cultural discrimination.
Unionism faces a difficult task as it seeks to redress the cultural discrimination imposed by the Belfast Agreement.
It is right to say no to an Irish Language Act, but if that is all that unionists do, then they are allowing Sinn Fein to set the cultural agenda.
Instead of being reactive, unionism needs to be proactive and that requires a coherent vision for culture and identity.
That is essential if we are to deal with the cultural legacy of 30 years of cultural discrimination.
Simply maintaining the status quo is not good enough, because that would mean accepting the current discrimination.
In a recent article in The Ulster-Scot, Arlene Foster wrote about a future for Northern Ireland where all our cultural traditions are treated on a basis of “equity, diversity and interdependence”.
That is a vision which all unionists would do well to consider and embrace, because equity should lead to equality and an end to Gerry Adams’ dream of cultural supremacy.
It is time for unionists to demand cultural equality, in education, in broadcasting, in arts and culture and, indeed, across every aspect of society.
That should be a priority for the unionist parties and the unionist people.