The DUP have passed the test of being responsible political negotiators. Now it is Sinn Fein’s turn to step forward. With Westminster arithmetic falling perfectly into the DUP’s hands there was a striking choice – negotiate for party advantage or negotiate for the people’s advantage. The outcome shows the DUP team chose wisely. They put the interests of Northern Ireland first.
This is in stark contrast to how Sinn Fein behaved earlier this year by causing an unnecessary Assembly election for party advantage and creating political paralysis in Northern Ireland.
At the heart of the Sinn Fein case is a demand for an Irish Language Act. It is pitiful and absurd that republicans would collapse the democratic institutions to advance their cultural agenda.
It is entirely legitimate for Sinn Fein to press for an Irish Language Act and of course there is every need for all the parties to respect, and where possible, accommodate differences but that can never be a one-way street. There is no credibility in asserting your need to have your culture respected if you blatantly disrespect that of others.
So let’s see a sensible deal. Who can complain if there are those who cherish the Irish Language or who passionately support Ulster Scots culture? Who would find it unacceptable for arrangements to be put on a statutory basis to protect and support both? Both can be accommodated. It seems that Sinn Fein do not just want the language to be recognised and supported but require that it is isolated from any other cultural provisions and given supremacy in a free-standing ILA. It would be churlish to let a deal collapse by demanding a stand-alone Bill as if one culture had pre-eminence and should not be given legal recognition alongside the cultural expression of others. That would not be showing respect or practicing equality. If the Irish Language was incapable of co-existing in legislation with other cultural expressions, then surely it would follow that it is not capable of co-existing in life with other cultures. This is manifestly not the case.
People want the Assembly restored and will not easily forgive those who stand in the way. A few weeks ago it was obvious that the Sinn Fein strategy was to avoid getting involved in an Executive in which difficult decisions would have to be taken which might not play well with its Southern voters who seem to be the party’s main interest. However, recent events may have tipped the scales in the other direction.
Firstly, with an extra £1.5billion to spend there will be fewer difficult decisions to be taken. Secondly, if Sinn Fein fails to clinch a deal at Stormont its currency in the Republic of Ireland will not strengthen and indeed may even diminish. Thirdly and importantly, the alternative is to have Direct Rule with a Conservative government in close and direct everyday contact with the DUP. Business will be done at Westminster where unionism is Northern Ireland’s only voice and, post-EU, Sinn Fein’s only relevance in Northern Ireland politics will be at council level.
So I end where I began. It is Sinn Fein’s turn to act responsibly in the interests of the people. This is a time for leadership which has not been evident recently from republicans. Sinn Fein must show that it is interested in the wellbeing of its constituents’ health, education, infrastructure and jobs. Hiding behind political rhetoric and taking refuge in extending its abstentionism is not what is needed. Has Sinn Fein got the ability to match the DUP and act in the public interest? We will soon find out.