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Inclusion, respect and equality?

DUP implode over minor concession on Irish language

18 June 2021

Campaigners outside Stormont call for Irish language legislation to be implemented.
Credit: Presseye

The latest stumbling attempts to avoid collapse of the Stormont Assembly, by promising that Westminster would legislate an already agreed culture Bill and provide for an Irish language commissioner, was advanced by the British Secretary of state, Brandon Lewis, and supported by Sinn Fein.

Mr Lewis said: "I can confirm that if the executive has not progressed legislation by the end of September, the UK government will take the legislation through Parliament in Westminster. If that becomes necessary, we will introduce legislation in October 2021."

Ms McDonald said Irish speakers had been waiting for 15 years for basic rights and recognition. “This is important for Irish language speakers and for wider society because power-sharing is based on inclusion, respect and equality," she said.

McDonald's statement comes from a parallel universe constructed by Sinn Fein. The DUP refused to concede "power-sharing …... inclusion, respect and equality."  The idea that the British would move in that direction led to a night of the long knives for Poots. The deal was a work-around based on a vague promise by the British - one that demonstrates yet again that the political structures in the North are mere window dressing. The area is a British colony and they call the shots.

In any case Sinn Fein abandoned the Irish Language Act, a part of the original peace deal, long ago. The current New Decade New Approach agreement only offers a commissioner. As has been pointed out by commentators, Stormont has had a Human Rights commissioner for years, but no Human Rights Act. In relation to a promise of British legislation, Westminster has passed abortion legislation but there is no sign of it being enabled and providing an actual service.

In the background, unnoticed, the Good Friday Agreement has mutated yet again.  The Poots coup, for as long as it lasted, was based on the party's loss of majority because of its unpopular pro-Brexit stance. This has significantly changed the structures of the Irish political settlement and its future operation.

In essence the DUP has returned to its Paisleyite past; evangelical, creationist and utterly sectarian. Not that there was ever a moderate wing, but the evangelicals were willing to stay in the closet and let slightly more presentable leaders take the stage. There are no heroes in unionism, a fact proved by current Ulster Unionist leader Doug Beattie. He announced that his party was a broad church for moderates, only to turn up at an anti-Protocol rally led by masked paramilitaries.

The new DUP leader will have the task of unifying the party. That will not involve suppressing the bigots but rather giving full throat to their bigotry.

The DUP became the leading force in unionism in the aftermath of the Good Friday Agreement, reflecting wide scale unionist rejection of the peace process. Members of the old Ulster Unionist Party, including ousted leader Arlene Foster and leadership challenger Jeffrey Donaldson, were quick to sense the changing wind and shift parties, as were a flood of local business and political figures at the local level. The DUP were then able to form an administration with Sinn Fein by joining with the British in forcing a series of humiliating retreats on them and demanding abject loyalty to the new state. The settlement has always been uneasy, as a core sector of unionism reject the whole idea of power sharing with nationalists, and a series of coups have moved the DUP steadily ever further right.

In the last coup Poots excluded the more opportunist wing. The evangelical bigots called the shots. The sheer incoherence and incompetence of his leadership led to his fall but did not put the genie back in the bottle. DUP opposition to progress on an Irish language act, gay rights or abortion rights is no longer in dispute. Paul Given, now First Minister, brought down the last administration through sectarian provocation around the Irish language. The immediate reason for Foster's fall from grace was her abstention on an Assembly vote to ban gay conversion “therapy.” The new deputy leader, Paula Bradley, indicated that the DUP would not prevent other parties implementing existing abortion law, but was sent back to the microphone to announce her party's implacable opposition to the measure.

In the past major revolts by loyalism have led to the collapse of the Stormont administration. In fact, former leader Peter Robinson advised the party that it would be necessary to do this if they were to win the battle on Europe.  However, the fall in support for the party makes this risky.

So, Stormont collapse has been replaced with Stormont disabled.  The tide of reaction in the DUP will paralyse local administration, prevent any form of social progress and ratchet up sectarianism. So, what does saving the Good Friday Agreement mean for Sinn Fein? What is left?

An explanation has been provided by the Social Democratic and Labour Party, by media commentators and by academics active in the peace studies industry.  It's called the Covid explanation.  The argument goes that the public would not forgive anyone who collapsed the executive when they depend on it to navigate our way through the epidemic.

Again, this argument comes from a parallel universe. Poots had recently dismissed covid as a fenian flu that affects mainly unclean nationalists. A majority of the population regard the administration either with dislike or with apathy. The idea that they would resolve the Covid crisis would be met with a horse laugh. In fact, when the new executive, led by Paul Given, briefly met it was presented with a series of policy options and decided to take no action

This ridiculous argument hides class interest. Irish capitalism and the Northern middle class are happy with an uneasy stability. Unionism is disintegrating before their eyes, so they avert their gaze and whistle happy tunes.  Sinn Fein are dependent on control of patronage and plan to be part of the next Dublin government so they advance the line that the sectarian frenzy shaking the DUP is none of their business.

The current Dublin government is deeply unpopular and Sinn Fein now have the largest share of the vote in recent polls.  As the only large party not to have been in coalition with the major capitalist parties they are seen as the only possible route for parliamentary change. Staying in Stormont proves their reliability.

In the meantime, unionist and nationalist politicians have widespread access to patronage and corruption. The nationalist middle class have a share of political power, the trade unions and left groups fervently support the settlement and the reformist groups look to lobbying the British rather than to local mobilisation.

However, the fact that DUP grandees were willing to disintegrate their party because of the vague British promise on a culture act, indicates that large sections of loyalism are growing tired of the idea of sharing power.

The Act of Union of 1801 saw the Protestant ascendancy in Ireland voluntarily dissolve the Irish parliament in order to block a shift in political power towards nationalists. It appears that a large section of the DUP would like to travel the same path today and return to direct rule, a path made difficult by British unwillingness to break completely with Europe and end the purgatory of the Northern Ireland Protocol.

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