The latest talks aimed at restoring devolved rule to Northern Ireland have failed. Arlene Foster, the leader of the Democratic Unionist Party and first minister of Northern Ireland when the Stormont Assembly collapsed early last year, has urged the Conservative secretary of state, Karen Bradley, who has been in office for a matter of weeks, not only to ‘set a budget but also to take key decisions impacting on our schools, infrastructure and hospitals’. She wants, in other words, that Northern Ireland be returned to direct rule from Westminster, and that Bradley start paying out the £1 billion that Theresa May was forced to pledge last year in exchange for the DUP’s help in propping up her minority government. The DUP’s deputy leader and leader at Westminster, Nigel Dodds, pointed out that this agreement was not contingent on the restoration of the executive at Stormont. The DUP supported devolution, Foster said, ‘but not at any price’.
Michelle O’Neill, the leader of Sinn Féin in the assembly, who would be deputy first minister if devolution were restored, told the Irish taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, that ‘direct rule is not an option.’ Direct rule effectively puts the DUP in charge of Northern Ireland since Sinn Féin maintains its position of not taking its seats at Westminster. This prospect must be appealing to a party that a year ago came within a thousand votes of losing the unionist majority at Stormont for the first time in Northern Ireland’s history. Sinn Féin wants the Irish government to use the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference to assert its status as co-guarantor of the Good Friday Agreement. Varadkar and May seem disinclined to intervene, instead urging both parties to ‘reflect on the best way forward to re-establish devolved government in Northern Ireland’. Wishful thinking, Sinn Féin says.
All this means that there will be no Northern Ireland Executive when the twentieth anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement is marked at the beginning of April. The Clintons, Tony Blair, George Mitchell and Bertie Ahern were all expected to make an appearance. Recently it seemed that a deal was about to be made. May and Varadkar flew in to Belfast on 12 February, ready to welcome it. But it soon became clear that the talks were in deep trouble, so the pair made brief, embarrassed statements to journalists, who had also been primed for a big announcement, then left. In a brief and unacknowledged moment of unanimity, both Sinn Féin and the DUP complained that the visit had been ‘a distraction’.
Two days later, Foster announced that there was ‘no current prospect of these discussions leading to an executive being formed’. O’Neill retorted that there had been a deal, but the DUP had ‘failed to close’ on it. The recriminations have continued, with leaked documents tending to support Sinn Féin’s assertion that the DUP scuppered a deal at the last moment. For its part, the DUP claims it has always been unconditionally ready to return to power-sharing, and that this whole debacle has come about because of Sinn Féin’s unreasonable demands. ‘I am not prepared to let this continue,’ Foster said.
On the face of it, this is a row about language. Irish is the official language of the Republic of Ireland. In 2006, as part of the St Andrews Agreement, which repaired a previous breakdown in power-sharing, Tony Blair pledged to introduce an Irish Language Act to protect the status of Irish, which is taught in Catholic schools in Northern Ireland but not in state schools attended by Protestants.
As always with Northern Ireland, the roots of these rows are tangled in history. The most zealous of the North’s Irish language campaigners reach back to the Penal Laws of the 17th and 18th centuries, introduced by the British in an attempt to suppress all aspects of Irish culture and identity. The language is afforded some protection under the European Convention on Human Rights, which demands ‘respect, understanding and tolerance in relation to linguistic diversity’, and by the European Charter for Minority Languages. The queen acknowledged the significance of the language in any potential reconciliation when in 2011 she addressed a banquet at Dublin Castle, the former seat of British power in Ireland. ‘A Uachtaráin, agus a chairde,’ she began: ‘President and friends’.
The demand that Irish be given more explicit legislative status has also been fuelled by the behaviour of DUP politicians in recent years. When the MP and Member of the Legislative Assembly Gregory Campbell was called by the Sinn Féin speaker at Stormont in 2014 he replied, to sniggers from the DUP benches, ‘Curry my yogurt can coca coalyer.’ This is a parody of the Irish, ‘Go raibh maith agat, Ceann Comhairle,’ ‘Thank you, chairperson.’ He added that he would treat an Irish Language Act as ‘no more than toilet paper’. In December 2016 the Northern Ireland Executive’s minister for communities, Paul Givan, withdrew funding from an Irish language group which intended to spend the money on children from disadvantaged families. Soon afterwards, Sinn Féin’s deputy first minister, Martin McGuinness, resigned, bringing down the executive; he blamed the arrogance of the DUP under Foster’s leadership. During the assembly election campaign that followed early in 2017 Foster again dismissed Sinn Féin’s call for a language act. If you feed a crocodile it will only come back for more, she said. Republicans’ outrage at the remark was shared by the wider nationalist population; Foster was a throwback to the days of unionist domination. The demand for an Irish language act has come to symbolise the broader insistence that unionism show respect for the minority community.
It now appears that last month’s deal would have included three bills, one for the Irish language, another for Ulster Scots (which isn’t really a language but registers the existence of a separate Protestant cultural identity), and a third overarching bill providing for cultural diversity. That may not sound especially threatening, but so far as the DUP was concerned it was never on the cards. Dodds says everyone knew the DUP would never have signed up for something ‘that gave one side cultural supremacy’. He is a member of the Orange Order, mainstay of unionist one-party rule before the government prorogued Stormont in 1972. The Order does not permit Catholics to join and expels members who marry Catholics.
Foster left the Ulster Unionist Party in 2003 in protest over its support for the Good Friday Agreement, but now the UUP is backing her position, urging her not to ‘appease’ Sinn Féin in its attempt to ‘remove any sort of Britishness about Northern Ireland’ under what some are calling ‘the guise of equality’. Matters were not calmed by the decision of Adams’s successor, Mary Lou McDonald, to conclude her first speech as president to the party’s Ard Fheis with: ‘Up the republic! Up the rebels! Tiocfaidh ár lá!’ This, translated as ‘Our day will come,’ was the rallying cry of the IRA.
Poetry helped, once or twice. When power-sharing collapsed in 2015, it was mended with the Fresh Start Agreement. The then first and deputy first ministers, Peter Robinson and McGuinness, issued a joint statement signalling ‘our resolve to engender the sea change so longed for by our communities’. The reference was to Seamus Heaney’s The Cure at Troy, in which ‘hope and history rhyme’ and there is ‘hope for a great sea-change/On the far side of revenge’.
But unionism has now put such notions behind it, and has returned to the masculine vocabulary of war, speaking of ‘the battle’, and accusing Sinn Féin of ‘weaponising’ the Irish language and carrying out ambushes. Assurances have been given that the DUP has a ‘collegiate’ style of leadership – in other words, don’t worry, the menfolk are keeping Arlene right. Challenging David Davis to ‘stand up to the EU’, Ian Paisley Jr declared in the House of Commons that ‘It’s about time the government displayed a no surrender attitude – stand up to them, man!’ Sammy Wilson, the DUP member for East Antrim, agreed and spoke of taking the gloves off in the fight with the ‘blackmailing burghers of Brussels and the cheap political opportunists in Dublin’. ‘No surrender’ was the cry of the Apprentice Boys when they shut the gates of Derry to the Catholic forces of James II during a late 17th century siege. Paisley’s father used to append it to every speech, before he finally settled down to enjoy his time in power.
The DUP’s dislike of the EU is intricately bound up with its hostility to the Good Friday Agreement and its irksome apparatus of equality and human rights. When in 2000 Michael Gove compared the Agreement to the appeasement of the Nazis in the 1930s he was speaking a language they understood. There was much hilarity last year on mainland Britain when May did her ‘dirty deal’ with the DUP after the disastrous snap election left her in desperate need of allies. These people were dinosaur-denying dinosaurs, the media cried: they don’t believe in evolution, and see gay rights and abortion as abominations. The fact that the citizens of Northern Ireland have been and continue to be subject to legislation based on such views hadn’t previously troubled them.
The DUP had already made itself useful to the Conservatives, secretly using a loophole in the Northern Irish law on political donations to channel large sums into a mainland advertising campaign for Brexit in the run-up to the 2016 referendum. Under the approving eye of the then secretary of state, Theresa Villiers, the party campaigned for Brexit, while Sinn Féin and the SDLP opposed it. In the end 56 per cent of people in Northern Ireland voted to remain in the EU; the figure rose to 66 per cent for those who live along the border with the Irish Republic. There is ample evidence that Brexit will be, and indeed already has been, economically disastrous for Northern Ireland.
The Good Friday Agreement stands in the way of a hard Brexit. Despite the best efforts of the DUP, the EU last year forced the British government to commit to ‘full alignment’ with Ireland with regard to the rules of the internal market and the customs union. May has made incompatible promises to the hardliners in her party. Now they and other Brexiteers are using the failure of the talks in Belfast to argue that the 1998 treaty should be considered void. Former Northern Ireland secretary of state Owen Paterson quoted an article which claimed it had ‘outlived its use’.
Northern Irish unionism has always been essentially defensive. There is a frontier sensibility, according to which it is as well to be wary, vigilant, because those on the ‘other side’ are cunning: they say all they want is respect, but what they are really after is cultural destruction. There is, as it happens, a growing Irish language movement among Protestants, led by Linda Ervine, who grew up in a communist leaning family of mixed religion in a loyalist area. She considers the language beautiful, a shared legacy in Northern Ireland and a link to other Gaelic-speaking communities in the UK. She accepts that her outlook is regarded as treacherous by unionists. She is labelled a ‘Lundy’, the name of the governor who wanted Derry to reach a compromise with the forces of James II during the siege.
It seems to me that the renewed belligerence of the DUP should be seen as an unsuccessful attempt to cover up real fear. If it returns to Stormont it will have just one seat more than Sinn Féin, and not enough seats to block legislation it dislikes. Foster’s ministerial role in the botched Renewable Heat Incentive, which cost taxpayers an estimated half a billion pounds, is currently being scrutinised in a public inquiry. Her party’s power in Westminster relies on the survival of a weak and beleaguered prime minister. The Irish taoiseach is popular, has the backing of the EU, and has spoken of his support for the rights of the Northern minority and for a united Ireland. The Catholic population is growing and with it the risk that a border poll could deliver that union. Despite the failure of the talks there is a confidence and energy in the Northern nationalist community. For all their macho posturing, unionists are circling the wagons because they know their position is assailable.