The past eighteen months have been a slowly evolving tragedy. The power-sharing executive supported by the vast majority of the population and lauded around the world as a model for conflict transformation lies on the verge of indefinite suspension. The ostensible cause – disagreement around a standalone Irish Language Act.
Interestingly until recently there has not been much hostility towards the Irish language within the broader unionist community. Many in East Belfast are rightly proud of the work of Linda Ervine in the Turas Irish Language Centre on the Newtownards Road and respect the aspiration of Irish speakers for a Language Act. Yet it has now become a deeply divisive issue.
The Irish language, an historical and cultural treasure, has become a political cudgel in the hands of Sinn Fein. The Irish language community have been ill-served by their political representatives who have lashed the demand for a standalone Irish Language Act to the masthead of their re-invigorated campaign for a United Ireland.
The broader context has been a hardening in the rhetoric from Sinn Fein over the past couple of years. Their condemnation of all things British is a constant refrain. They have shown little willingness to act collaboratively. Many who have cooperated with them have felt used rather than genuine partners. The Loyalist community see no evidence of Sinn Fein’s ‘respect for all’ mantra, indeed relationships between Loyalists and Republicans are at the lowest ebb I have witnessed in the past decade. Senator Niall O’Donnghaile’s tweet describing the 11th night bonfires as ‘hate filled rubbish piles’ pretty much summarises the message coming from Republicanism.
Sinn Fein insists it wants to see the institutions restored but there is little evidence to substantiate it.
Not that Unionism is blameless.
Gregory Campbell’s ‘curry my yoghurt’ comments were gratuitously offensive and unworthy of any serious politician. The decision to withdraw the Liofa funding was mean, petty and sectarian. The DUP have failed to grasp the fact that once trust is lost it can take a very long time to rebuild, and their words and actions have undermined this necessity for good coalition government.
Under the flood of Sinn Fein’s anti-Unionist, anti-British rhetoric any willingness to consider a standalone ILA has evaporated from within the Unionist community, despite the fact that previously many were willing to consider the arguments. In short it has now become politically impossible for the DUP to accede to Sinn Fein’s demands which have been framed in such uncompromising language.
We seem to have missed the point that we live in a contested space. Two cultural traditions share this country and both have historical roots and vested interests here. Possibly the main lesson from our recent history is that compromise is essential. Northern Ireland (or whichever name we choose to use) will only flourish and prosper if both traditions are prepared to compromise and collaborate.
This is not one of several options, it is the only option. If Sinn Fein insists on continuing their hard line anti-unionist strategy it will end in disruption, turbulence and economic upheaval posing a greater threat than Brexit. If the DUP do not learn to treat the Nationalist tradition and community with respect they will do irreparable damage to Northern Ireland.
Political debate by its nature is robust and adversarial but needs to be respectful.
When the political institutions fail, when political accountability and scrutiny cease, the economic and social fabric of the country is eroded and in that scenario the people who suffer mostly are the poor, the disadvantaged, the young, the ill and the most vulnerable. The crises in our Health Service and in our schools will inevitably become worse. If our politicians, camped on the moral high ground, continue to insist on their demands, their claims to be acting in the interests of the poor and disadvantaged will ring hollow.
In the past courageous leadership and agreements based on compromise led to transformational change. That opportunity is there for our politicians once again.