Arlene blunders into another fine mess

Posted By: February 09, 2017

CONFRONTATIONAL: The DUP leader’s strong language over the 

The Irish language has talked her into a corner

Newton Emerson. Irish News. Belfast. Thursday, February 9, 2017

Arlene Foster’s defiant stance against an Irish language act has boxed her needlessly into the corner. There is so much scope on this issue for a tactical retreat that any competent politician should be able to spin it as a victory.

Sinn Féin has left a gift of an opening position. In 2015, presumably in despair of getting anything past the DUP, former culture minister Carál ní Chuilín published a draft Irish Language Bill that was so totally over the top even Alliance, which supports a comprehensive languages act, voted it down in the executive.

Far less than Ní Chuilín’s bill would be enough for a workable compromise. Alliance’s issue was signage – it wanted trilingual signs everywhere, in Irish, English, and Ulster-Scots, while Ní Chuilín proposed bilingual signs here and there, according to a “community.”

A canny Unionist might now make common cause with Alliance against Republican Balkanization of Northern Ireland, safe in the knowledge that Irish and Ulster-Scots will be painted out regardless, according to “community.”

The core vision of Ní Chuilín’s proposals was a fully bilingual public sector, delivered by positive discrimination in recruitment and enforced by an Irish language commissioner with the same authority as a high court judge, who could “initiate prosecutions for a newly created summary offence of refusing or failing to co-operate” – an extraordinary combination of powers.

The draft bill’s equality impact assessment conceded this was a breach of the public sector’s equality duty under the law enacting the Good Friday Agreement, but it waved that away with the administrative equivalent of a shrug.

Imagine a DUP leader selling a slimmed-down bill as protecting equality and the agreement from Sinn Féin. There would be such a short-circuit at Stormont that sparks would arc between the flagpoles.

The DUP has rejected an Irish language Bill before. In 2006, while Stormont was suspended, the British government promised legislation at St Andrew’s. Within four months the NIO had rushed out multiple drafts and launched a consultation exercise, in which it recommended a so-called ‘language scheme framework’, where all public bodies would have a policy on Irish provision, as opposed to the more ambitious ‘rights based framework’, where everyone would be entitled to access all services in Irish. 

When devolution was restored in 2007, however, the DUP inherited this process and killed it. The negotiating fault was Sinn Féin’s, for not making the St Andrew’s promise binding on a future executive. But incoming DUP culture minister Edwin Poots was still legally required to give reasons for rejecting the consultation feedback, which was 80 per cent in favor of an act.

The bulk of his argument on this was financial. Poots asked civil servants to cost the NIO proposals by extrapolating from existing schemes, producing an estimated total of £3.5 million a year at Stormont and roughly £20 million across the public sector as a whole.

The DUP still appears to be using this assessment. Almost all of it is due to a wage bill for translation – something that can now be done for free not only by the computer on every civil servant’s desk but by the phone in everyone’s pocket. A technical breakthrough last year by Google means machine translation is on the cusp of being indistinguishable from human translation, offering the possibility of an electronic Irish language act. The beauty of this, as with an electronic Brexit border, is that it addresses a problem republicans are only pretending to want solved.

Everyone knows the actual purpose of translating government bumpf is to create juicy jobs for Gaeilgeoirí, just as everyone knows the DUP is not greatly concerned about burning public money. In the political space between victory and defeat, some way could be found for all this cynicism to cancel out.

St Andrews mentioned an act modeled on Welsh language legislation (the Scottish equivalent came later.)

Poots concluded his case by claiming Northern Ireland is different because language here is tied to conflicting nationalisms, meaning an Irish act would be “divisive.”

This line of reasoning found few converts, obviously. Still – how measured it sounds now, compared to Foster’s jibe about feeding the crocodiles. Electioneering is no excuse for such confrontational rhetoric – these are elections to a negotiation, which the DUP leader has just made harder for herself and everyone else. How will she sell the deal that must inevitably be made?

Peter Robinson would have known better. But then, Robinson would never have got himself into this mess in the first place.