We are now more than three years on since the collapse of Stormont marked by the annual Facebook memories of the Christmas 2016 Paul Givan Líofa cuts, the community outrage and the rebirth of a grassroots campaign continues, calling for language rights, for recognition, but most importantly, for respect. If the institutions are to have any hope of reconvening, and lasting, then those three elements must create a new foundation for power-sharing.
The #AchtAnois campaign has delivered this message consistently and tirelessly to the parties over the last three years. The majority of them seem to get it. We can’t continue ad nauseam with the ‘curried yogurt’, with the ‘crocodiles’, or with the years of sneering and marginalisation. There seems to be a general, and more importantly, a genuine consensus, that those days must come to an end. ‘Líofa’ undoubtedly broke the camel’s back.
Delivering that message to the two Governments, however, has been a more tiring task.
It took almost three years to secure a direct meeting between Tánaiste Simon Coveney and the Irish-language campaign, although we had spoken with him at fringe-events and as members of broader delegations. That meeting finally took place a few weeks before Christmas. On the day of the Westminster election, we sat in Dublin with the Irish Government who reinstated, once again, their support for the Good Friday Agreement, the St Andrew’s Agreement, and the Irish language rights promised within those agreements. Nothing new, but timely, and perhaps given the new impetus given to the talks, significant.
The British Government, in particular, however, have been exceptionally evasive. Last week has proven that again. A chance meeting with SOS Julian Smith in the Stormont corridors before Christmas provided an opportunity to call-time on that. As the cameras rolled, he quickly agreed to a meeting the following day. We expected more, but we knew the script. That meeting was cancelled within a few hours, rescheduled for a meaningless date at the end of January, when the talks would, one way or another, be finished.
A Christmas full of emails, phonecalls, and tweets, secured a new meeting, scheduled for 3.30pm on Friday. The second day of the talks and a sense of optimism. Again, we expected more, but should have known the script by now. Left standing in the car-park outside Stormont House we were politely told ‘not today’, and were sent home, again. We were told the SOS didn’t have the time. Similar meetings with other delegations went ahead shortly after. “Time” was clearly not the issue. For the second time in as many weeks the SOS had left us outside looking in; this time quite literally.
Let’s be in no doubt. This was a snub. And quite a deliberate snub.
I can’t imagine a similar scenario, of a similar delegation being invited and travelling to Dublin to meet with the Tánaiste to discuss one of the most pressing and important issues, only to be left standing on Kildare Street ten minutes beforehand, publicly sent home. It simply would not happen.
Regardless, Michelle O’Neill and Colum Eastwood both reinstated their respective parties support for an Irish language Act on Friday. In the early afternoon, the Sinn Féin vice-President reaffirmed the need for that legislation as part of any deal, and that evening, in front of reporters, the SDLP leader repeated the call for “real legislation that makes a real difference to people who care about the Irish language…that people are treated properly, and that it’s there, enshrined in law.” Whilst Naomi Long has been a consistent voice on language rights in recent times, Stephen Farry speaking Irish in Westminster is another small but symbolic indicator of just how far we have travelled since 2016.
Those messages have been rehearsed with the parties time and time again.
They get it.
The Irish Government seemed to get it before Christmas too.
Perhaps the Governments need reminding; they are not neutral players here. They are not here as some middle-ground arbitrators or independent referees. They are active participants. They are the co-guarantors of our main peace agreements. That comes with responsibilities, and commitments. The commitments on the Irish language agreed to in 1998 and 2006 remain outstanding. Moreover, the British Government made the explicit promise of an Irish Language Act at
St Andrew’s. If they chose to, they could legislate from Westminster if the DUP continue to elevate the exclusion of Irish speakers over the creation of an executive. That message is very simple, and very clear. Our job is to remind them of that.
The only way the British Government can expect to adequately and fully inform themselves of the expectations of the Irish speaking community is by speaking to them.
On Sunday, however, another opportunity arises.
Late Saturday evening we received another invitation to meet with the Secretary of State.
On Sunday afternoon we will depart for Hillsborough Castle for that meeting, again in good faith.
The message remains the same. We know what the carpark looks like. It’s time for the British Government to open the door. Third time lucky…