The failure to secure an agreement that would revive the power-sharing executive at Stormont was, if a huge disappointment, hardly a massive surprise.
There had been much public scepticism that the DUP and Sinn Féin could overcome the divisions that have led to over a year of political deadlock.
It would appear, however, that the parties did come agonisingly close to securing a deal. Indeed, Eamonn Mallie writes that an accommodation had actually been reached only for the DUP to backtrack in the face of a negative reaction amongst its grassroots members and supporters – a reaction seemingly grounded in opposition to the idea of a free standing Irish Language Act.
Arlene Foster’s subsequent declaration that there was “no prospect” of a deal was followed by Simon Hamilton’s statement accusing Sinn Féin of not respecting the British identity of unionists:
“Whether it is our flag, the military or even the very name of this country, they have not shown the respect for the unionist or British identity of the people of this part of the United Kingdom.”
The events of the past week have highlighted, yet again, the divisive role that ‘culture’ plays within Northern Ireland society twenty years after the Good Friday Agreement. It is now time to acknowledge that in those twenty years since the Agreement, our society has merely moved from military conflict to cultural war.
If we are to create the conditions that would lead to a restoration of the power-sharing Assembly then we, as a society, need to address the causes of this cultural divide.
Central to this, in the first instance, is the need to better understand the grassroots unionist opposition to an Irish Language Act and their negative attitudes to the language more generally.
Contrary to popular belief (on Twitter at least), this opposition is not grounded in mere sectarianism – though it would be naïve to suggest that this does not have a role to play.
Rather, it is necessary to understand unionist attitudes within the context of how that community has approached the peace process. Political unionism has never taken an ownership of the process or sought to put its own stamp on it.
Even when unionist leaders claimed to recognise the strategic opportunities that it has created to strengthen and stabilise the Union, they have time and again failed to build on that.
A primary reason for this is that unionism has failed to overcome its fears of their Other.
Instead of seeing the positives of peace for Northern Ireland, unionism has only ever seen threats from what appeared to be a new and confident ‘pan-nationalism’. Indeed, when the IRA called its first ceasefire in 1994, the then leader of the Ulster Unionist Party, Jim Molyneux, described it as one of the most ‘destabilising’ events unionism had experienced since 1921.
An important consideration here, is that unionism felt relatively powerless during the early developmental stages of the peace process and had little trust in those that were pushing the agenda. Central to this, of course, were the governments in Dublin and Washington who, they believed, had strong nationalist sympathies and were following a “green” agenda as mapped out by SDLP leader John Hume.
Any initial doubts they had were reinforced by events on the ground. It is worth remembering that the peace process was born into an era of significant cultural conflict around Orange Order parading. These events, when it appeared that Orange and British culture was under attack, made nationalist reassurances that unionism had nothing to fear from the peace process ring very hollow. This was particularly true of Sinn Féin’s “equality” agenda.
For many unionists, it appeared that equality meant placing limitations on “British” culture whilst seeking to promote “Irishness” – it had become, essentially, a zero-sum-game. This was reflected in David Trimble’s speech to the Ulster Unionist Party conference in 2000, when he claimed that ‘culture is going to be a political battleground’ and that by holding the Culture portfolio in Stormont his party would ‘ensure fair play for our Scots and English heritage.’
Contemporary attitudes towards the Irish language are framed by these experiences. Many believe that the language is being used, politically, to undermine what they see as the Britishness of the state. One consideration here is the fact that conflict creates long memories that reinforce negative political stereotypes of the Other.
If nationalists can still quote James Craig’s “Protestant Parliament for a Protestant People” to support their negative attitudes towards the old unionist state, so too can unionists recall the idea that “every word of Irish spoken is like another bullet being fired in the struggle for Irish freedom”. Gerry Adams, in his book Free Ireland: Towards A Lasting Peace, wrote that:
‘The revival of the Irish language as the badge of identity, as a component part of our culture and as the filter through which it is expressed, is a central aspect of the reconquest.’
Of course, such statements stem from a different context, but they have fed wider suspicions about the language and why republicans, in particular, have attached so much importance to it over the years. As such, nationalist and republican leaders need to recognise the role they have played in helping to politicise the Irish language – a politicisation that has unquestionably fed unionist fears.
The protection and promotion of Irish is an important task. It has, historically, belonged to both communities and it should belong to both again in the future. For this to happen the fear factor needs to be addressed and nationalist leaders have an important role to play in that process.