Irish Language Act would pave way to assembly

Posted By: June 30, 2017

Irish News Editorial. Belfast. Friday, June 30, 2017

It was completely predictable that yet another Stormont deadline came and went yesterday afternoon without the slightest hint of a breakthrough.

All the signs had been negative in recent days and, if anything, relationships between the DUP and Sinn Féin had actually managed to decline still further at the crucial stage of the proceedings.

The embattled secretary of state, James Brokenshire, is due to deliver a statement at Westminster on Monday when there are suggestions that he may allow further room for negotiations.

Unfortunately, there is absolutely no indication that the gulf between the two dominant assembly parties is likely to be bridged in the short term.

Indeed, only the most optimistic of observers could anticipate the DUP reviewing its entrenched attitude towards the Irish language practically on the eve of the Orange Order’s July 12 celebrations.

However, if senior DUP figures really aspire to ministerial posts in any new administration, they must know that they will have to find a way of edging out of the corner into which they have backed themselves.

The obvious next step, whether the key protagonists admit it or not, effectively involves a trade-off between the position of DUP leader Arlene Foster and consensus on an Irish language act.

When the full scale of the Renewable Heat Incentive scandal began to emerge late last year, calls for Mrs. Foster to stand down as the first minister for at least a period, as a public inquiry was established, were entirely understandable.

A clear precedent was established back in 2010 when her predecessor, Peter Robinson, temporarily resigned while an investigation into the activities of his wife, Iris, was under way, returning to his office within four weeks.

Mrs. Foster chose not to follow the same course of action, with the result that in January the late Martin McGuinness relinquished his own post as deputy first minister in protest and forced a suspension of the devolved institutions which remains in place.

All the upheaval of the last six months could easily have been avoided, but it needs to be acknowledged that events have moved on and Mrs. Foster has been handed a renewed mandate through the subsequent Assembly and Westminster elections.

It should be possible for her to resume her role as the first minister as long as the DUP finally accepts the overwhelming case for a Stormont language act which broadly reflects the similar measures which have been in place in Scotland and Wales for many years.

What is really required is the restoration of the basic sense of respect between the two main traditions which sadly went missing in well-documented circumstances during the lifetime of the last Assembly.

Agreement on measured and appropriate Irish language legislation would signal firmly that the climate is right for the restoration of a partnership administration at Stormont.