Time to make ‘rights’ deal – by Ciarán Mac Giolla Bhéin


Groundhog day doesn’t quite cut it anymore. The latest announcement that the current round of talks have been extended again barely registered as the PR team up at Stormont desperately scrambled for a new adjective to describe the next instalment of negotiations. ‘Intense’ is what they have settled on this time. Whilst the adjectives may have changed, the issues or obstacles to be overcome remain the same.

What could change the dynamic this time, however, is the role and approach of both governments. Despite Arlene Foster’s insistence that these are purely ‘Strand 1 issues’ and that the Irish government has no input, what is striking this time is the more proactive role of officials from Dublin in these talks, enhanced by the utter incompetence of Karen Bradley. In addition, many of the issues receiving most of the public and political focus, the Irish Language Act and Same Sex marriage to name two, are catered for in commitments made, not (only) by the parties, but by both governments in both the Good Friday and St Andrews Agreements.  

The GFA was heralded as a new era of equality, one in which previously marginalised groups and sections of society would be ‘brought in from the cold.’ Promises, largely unfulfilled, were made to take ‘resolute action’ to promote Irish and to bring forward a Bill of Rights (which has set gathering dust since it was presented to the Secretary of State in 2008). The inability to deal comprehensively with rights issues at that time has meant that a proxy war has been waged ever since concerning these issues – with the DUP in particular focused on preventing any progress on equality, dismissing them as ‘political’ and ‘contentious’.

This was, to a large degree, tolerated in the name of embedding the political process that was central to securing peace. As time moved on however, the catalogue of abuse and contempt from the DUP, particularly in relation to the Irish language brought these questions back to the centre of the political debate. The politics of exclusion led by the DUP inevitably led to larger swathes of society here taking to the streets to demand a more inclusive politics. Indeed, the media focus and resulting increased profile of the language has fuelled a new enthusiasm for the revival across every age-group and religious background. Increased exposure to the language, through legislation that provides for visibility and official status, will lead to increased tolerance and acceptance.

Inspired by the ridicule and sneering contempt of the Gregory Campbells and Sammy Wilsons, a new generation has emerged since Good Friday that seem unwilling to tolerate the lack of progress on fundamental human rights and have loftier aspirations in relation to the type of society in which they want to live than previous generations. The absence of rights here has been brought into even sharper focus given the progressive changes taking place in the south. The onus on the parties and, in particular, both Governments, is not simply to get a deal this time but to get the right deal or, more accurately, the ‘rights’ deal.

Any attempt at papering over the cracks rather than dealing with these issues comprehensively will unravel before too long, calling into question the long term viability of power-sharing. The draft deal agreed last Feb and revealed on this site fell well short of the legitimate expectations of those activists who  have pushed the question of an Irish Language Act to the centre of political crisis (not to mention the fact that other issues were largely ignored). Regarding the linguistic and legislative integrity of any new deal, the community has been clear; now it is the time to get this right – legislation based on international best practice that fulfills the promise made at St Andrews. Wales is the key example here. For over 40 years Wales has trialled and tested language legislation. Now on their 3rd model they offer us an insight into what works and what doesn’t. St Andrews promised an Irish language Act based on that Welsh ‘experience.’ It would be cynical and foolish to deliver legislation that would repeat the mistakes that others have rectified.    

The Irish language has long represented a ‘open wound’ at Stormont, to be picked at, at various times, but particularly when tensions were high or during elections. Rather than removing the language from the political interference that has brought us here, the February deal embedded political control over the language. Every decision of the language commissioner, for example, would have had to be ratified by both First and Deputy First Minister. This undermines one of the most important functions of the commissioner. As the newly appointed Welsh Language Commissioner put it to me recently, ‘how can a commissioner independently scrutinise Government if his/her decisions are subject to interference by that same Government?’ Through attempting to ‘depoliticise’ the language through the independent commissioner, this approach would only succeed in ‘repoliticising’ it.

Irish speakers and activists have many reasons to be concerned about what was proposed in February and any attempt at revitalising it during the current negotiations. Those outside that community, however, with a keen interest and stake in securing sustainable and stable Government here must also use their influence to ensure the ‘rights deal’ is made. If not, the language will inevitably, before too long, become a source,  a friction at the heart of Government and a newly emboldened and radicalised community will meet any attempt to marginalise or exclude with strong resistance, weakening already vulnerable and fragile relationships among the parties. Now is the time to get it right.

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