Belfast Telegraph

Latest fiasco has proved that 2006 'agreement' was nothing of the sort

By Jon Tonge

Another day, another fiasco at Stormont.

And to think some people thought that Theresa May's arrival would somehow improve things. They obviously slept through the demonstration of her sales skills at last June's election.

Let us remind ourselves of what has (not) happened. Annex B of the St Andrews Agreement 2006 states: "The government will introduce an Irish Language Act reflecting on the experience of Wales and Ireland and work with the incoming Executive to enhance and protect the development of the language."

Yet this was mysteriously diluted to waffle in the Northern Ireland Act 2006: "The Executive Committee shall adopt a strategy setting out how it proposes to enhance and protect the development of the Irish language."

So one of the parties failed to follow through over a decade ago. Ian Paisley Jnr insisted to me at last week's hearing of the House of Commons Northern Ireland Affairs Committee that "Sinn Fein never raised an Irish Language Act once" after St Andrews.

Both main parties have questions to answer. How and why did Sinn Fein - normally good on details - allow slippage in the legislation which followed St Andrews? And why did the DUP agree to an Irish Language Act if they are so opposed?

Sinn Fein was always likely to chase what the Scots and Welsh had been given regarding language protection. Irish may only be spoken regularly by a fraction of the population, but cultural and linguistic contests symbolise much more.

After recent years of trench-digging on the issue, the idea that an Irish Language Act could now be sold internally within the DUP as part of a tripartite package of language and culture deals always seemed optimistic.

You can try and sell a tube of toothpaste as a bargain pack of three, but if the buyer does not want any toothpaste, you won't sell it - single or treble pack.

Beyond obvious internal party unrest, the evidence is that DUP voters more broadly want their party to dig in to oppose an Irish Language Act. Indeed, they care far more about this than the DUP's quasi-religious agenda.

At last year's General Election, less than 10% of DUP voters backed an Irish Language Act, whereas 44% supported same-sex marriage and 41% backed abortion legalisation - more backing change on those part-religious issues than opposing.

Language, flags and parades seem to matter more than the 'moral agenda' for many unionists and loyalists sympathetic to the DUP.

For the DUP's base, any dilution of cultural Britishness is unacceptable. Even if this is an unfair reading of a modest protection of Irishness, the media vox pops this week confirmed the negativity towards DUP concessions within their heartlands.

And, unsurprisingly, the UUP was certainly not inclined to let the DUP off the hook, being just as robust in opposition.

Equally, for Sinn Fein's voters, an Irish Language Act has assumed vital status.

Some 84% want such a Bill, a level of unanimity within the republican base which exceeds most other political matters. Given the big two parties are genuinely representing their voters' beliefs, the room for compromise looks negligible.

What happens next? Secretary of State Karen Bradley has three options, all unattractive.

Number one is to call elections, watch the DUP and Sinn Fein win and set various deadlines which aren't met.

It's called the Brokenshire model and will perform with equal success.

Two is to ask an external broker to chair talks between the DUP and Sinn Fein, possibly an option but I doubt Richard Haass would be too keen.

Third is the endgame: direct rule, with or without a green tinge.

Direct rule need not mean the end of the Assembly. It could continue (with elected members receiving reduced salaries) as a scrutiny body, examining Northern Ireland Bills, or amending Orders-in-Council at Westminster, or exploring items referred by Northern Ireland committees at Westminster.

This might at least modify marginally the democratic deficit.

And MLAs spend lots of time on constituency work, which should continue. But it all smells of the failed 1982-86 talking shop Assembly model.

There remains incentives for the parties to revive Stormont. Arlene Foster needs power in Belfast and not just with her Westminster DUP MPs.

Sinn Fein needs decisions taken on the island of Ireland, not via a Conservative-DUP axis in London.

The latest saga means the old adage of Northern Ireland being a failed political entity remains uncomfortably close to reality.

But compromise remains a word that remains difficult to utter - in any language.

Jon Tonge is Professor of Politics at the University of Liverpool. He is co-author of The Democratic Unionist Party: From Protest to Power and directed the last three Northern Ireland general election studies

Belfast Telegraph

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