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Unionists can't cherry-pick bits of an accord they find easiest to swallow


Daithi McKay

Daithi McKay

Kevin Scott / Belfast Telegraph

Daithi McKay

So the DUP 'never agreed' to an Irish Language Act at St Andrews. But they did agree to the St Andrews Agreement that proposed an Irish Language Act.

Do you follow? Yes, it's another example of constructive ambiguity more commonly known as the political 'fudge' that has been needed to get our political deals over the line. But the thrust of what was agreed remains as clear as crystal.

The St Andrews Agreement was a foundation stone of the Assembly of 2007 to 2017. It included a ground-breaking commitment that Sinn Fein sign up to policing in word and act - a move that challenged their republican base and resulted in some activists leaving the party altogether. The deal that was made was not a pick and mix, even if the DUP wish to present it as such now.

A quick glance at what an Irish language Act would contain should leave many people wondering what all the fuss is about.

An Act would allow areas to designate as a 'Gaeltacht' in the same way as parts of Donegal. Prime candidates for this new status would include parts of West Belfast and South Derry.

Those who speak Irish would be able to use it within the Assembly. We can already witness Welsh AMs (Assembly Members) speaking at length in their native tongue. Welsh Unionist AMs, I hasten to add.

A proposed Bill would also provide a guarantee for the provision of Irish medium education. This protection is needed. In the Assembly, Unionist MLAs opposed firstly the introduction, and subsequently the growth, of Colaiste Dhoire in Dungiven - the north's second post-primary Irish-speaking school.

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It was long overdue. There were numerous bunscoils scattered across Derry and Tyrone, growing in number, year on year. Basic economics would tell you that because the demand was increasing, therefore supply needed to match.

If it had been dismissed as unionist politicians desired, the only option for those aspiring to attend a post-primary Irish medium school would have been to spend long hours commuting from Dungiven to Belfast every weekday.

That wouldn't have been viable. Unionist politicians knew that. That was the point.

The school enrolment has now more than trebled.

In England, Scotland and Wales, a 1737 penal law that requires court proceedings to be in English was repealed in 1863. Not here. If a few people choose to use Irish in the courts every year, why would it bother anybody?

The interesting aspect of the argument over the Irish Language Act is this, all the Gaelic speaking community are calling for are rights that are upheld throughout the rest of the union. If unionist politicians were more progressive they could actually use the granting of minority language rights as a way of highlighting the benefits of being in the union.

There is nothing to fear from it. Now is the time to deal with the Irish language commitment once and for all.

Sinn Fein should make it a key requirement in the post-election talks with both the DUP and the British Government, and a new Irish language campaign, An Dream Dearg, will keep the pressure up on the politicians to deliver.

One lesson to be learned from the recent political difficulties is this. Accords that have been signed up to must be honoured. Without the foundation agreements of the Assembly being upheld, the institutions will falter again and again. A house built on sand cannot stand.

Daithi McKay was Sinn Fein MLA for North Antrim from 2007 until August of last year

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