Belfast Telegraph

Malachi O'Doherty: So, you've got an hour with Theresa May to discuss inequality. And you are going to talk about the lack of an Irish Language Act? Really?

And, no, it's not today's big civil rights issue either. If it was so important, the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association would have said something at the time, writes Malachi O'Doherty

Hundreds of British MPs, offered a chance to meet Theresa May to discuss equality, would have put the chance to better use than our local parties did on Monday.

Not that they would have changed her mind on how to make our society more equal; that would be a lot to hope for. But they would have told her straight that we have enormous problems, which most of us do not trust her Government to resolve.

In fact, the Tory leader may have thought she was getting an easy ride on her trip to Northern Ireland. Granted, that is not the common understanding. She had come to nudge through a pre-cooked agreement and found to her horror, once again, that the DUP always needs more time. That's getting through to her.

But given that she is presiding over horrendous inequalities which energise her political opponents at home, it would not be surprising if she found all this dithering over an Irish Language Act somewhat quaint.

That was Tony Blair's assessment of Northern Ireland's parties. They presented him with questions he had never come up against before and he felt that his only job was to humour them.

For example, when he understood a unionist delegation to be demanding the closure of the Murrayfield rugby ground, he was on the brink of assenting, taking time to worry later about what rugby clubs would think of that.

He was spared the need to import Northern Irish irrationality into the political field in which he operated with more passion when it was explained that the delegation was talking about the Maryfield Secretariat, which gave Irish diplomats a toehold here.

However exasperating deadlock here was, Blair found that occasionally you could only laugh.

Now imagine May, who gets harangued in Westminster over the depletion of the National Health Service, over the failure to build houses for an expanding population, over cheap and nasty employment practices like the zero hours contract, the erosion of the state pension, the generational opportunity gap - got it? I could fill the rest of the page with examples of inequality that a properly informed and competent politician would seek to nail her on.

But she was spared all that. Conservative Governments don't believe in equality; they believe in the market solving problems. They are the ultimate Millenarians, looking ahead to a golden age when capitalism has poured its bounty over us all - even as this generation turns out to be poorer than the one before.

So, there is much to talk about when you get an apologist for the fanciful myth of trickle-down in front of you.

So, annoying as wee Ulster is proving to be, it still must have felt like a comforting respite from the real world, the one in which she has to be passionate every day about how things are just getting better and better in every way, when they just aren't.

Really, you get the Prime Minister in the room and what do you want to talk about now you have her attention? An Irish Language Act. A stand-alone Irish Language Act. Insist that it can't be a part of a more comprehensive Act. And that's it.

Same-sex marriage and funding for inquests? "Well," she may well have said. "I don't see the problem." Until Arlene would have explained that she could no more get away with that than she could have got away with accepting a border down the Irish Sea back in December, when she had had to phone up Mrs May and butt into her meeting in Brussels and get her to come home and rewrite her entire Brexit policy.

Personally, I don't know whether I want an Irish Language Act, because I don't know what would be in it. I do quite fancy bilingual street names. They might intrigue tourists. I have seen them in Brittany, as in Dublin.

Then again, the danger is that they would become markers of sectarian distinction, the nationalist areas having them and the unionist areas not. We wouldn't then need murals or flags to tell us where we were.

So, perhaps we should put that on hold until we have greater cross-community affection for the Irish language.

I have heard other journalists say that the question of an Irish Language Act is the civil rights issue of today. It matters as much to nationalists as One Man, One Vote did in 1968.

I don't believe that for a minute.

If it was such a big civil rights issue, why did the Civil Rights Association not think of it at the time?

True, some issues were sidelined for the sake of not alarming the religious-minded, who had greater influence then.

There were people in the civil rights movement who wanted what was then called "homosexual equality" and formed connections to campaigning groups in England.

There were some who wanted abortion on demand, even the reform of divorce laws. And, maybe, for all I know, there was a coterie at the heart of the movement who wanted the right for Irish to be recognised as a state language on a par with English. But I doubt it.

In those days Irish wasn't as cool as it is now; it was too much associated with chauvinism. That kind of greenery was regarded as an embarrassment.

Today Irish has a much higher profile on shop fronts and even on bank lodgement slips in some parts of Belfast that still have bank branches - another equality issue worth making a fuss over. And that's great.

I just think that if you are going to go to the wire and pull down a government over a key rights and equality issue, there are bigger issues than this and more to be achieved by winning on them.

If you live in the Shankill Road, you are expected to die about seven years earlier than if you lived on the Somerton Road. Is that not an equality issue?

Ask somebody facing into the last decade of life if they would rather have more time on Earth or an Irish language translation of the report that explains why they can't.

Ask young people who can't afford a home if they feel a state whose economy depends on rising house prices is respecting them as citizens and if an Irish Language Act would ease the pain a little.

Another generation - and this one, too, if it had any sense - will look on that meeting with Mrs May as indicative of how farcical our politics has become.

This is only about inter-communal rivalry and it is driven by politicians who think - perhaps correctly - that that's what we would rather have.

And Theresa May has good reason to be content that we are not bothering her about anything that really matters.

Belfast Telegraph

Daily News Headlines Newsletter

Today's news headlines, directly to your inbox.

Popular

From Belfast Telegraph