Sometimes it feels like disagreement is to Northern Ireland what chips are to fish—they just go together. Six months have passed since voters went to the polls and elected new representatives to the Assembly—or so they thought. Discussions between the two major parties are set to resume this autumn, but with no agreement between Sinn Féin and the DUP in sight, the future is rather foggy.
The parties have crossed their arms and stuck their noses up to each other for months, rarely showing any real willingness to agree on key issues and get the governmental gears in Stormont turning again. The deadlock severely undermines the entire power-sharing structure on which functioning democracy in Northern Ireland is built.
Brokenshire can’t extend the deadline forever, and new elections are unlikely to force Sinn Féin and the DUP to reach an agreement, leaving direct rule from Westminster looming ever-closer in the distance.
We’re told that the biggest stumbling block between the two parties is a row over a proposed Irish Language Act. Gerry Adams recently relayed a staunch Sinn Féin stance to reporters: “let me be very clear—there won’t be an Assembly without an Acht na Gaeilge.”
Sinn Féin envisages a language act that will confer minority status on the country’s Irish-speaking community—a designation that will win it the right to various state-funded services and resources in the old Gaelic tongue. The DUP refuses to accept the proposal unless Sinn Féin extends it to include other minority languages in a broad “Culture Act,” with the aim of providing similar protections for Ulster-Scots, a regional dialect with strong historical and cultural ties to the country’s Protestant community. On that point Sinn Féin declines, leaving a major political impasse that has left the government buildings in Stormont empty.
But the situation isn’t hopeless. Compromise is possible between Northern Ireland’s two largest parties, but only if it is based on respect and mutual understanding—two principles enshrined in the Good Friday Agreement.
Language is the fount from which all cultural development flows. A distinct system of vocabulary, grammar and idiomatic expressions allows a group of people to express its cultural identity through literature, poetry and music. The language arts naturally lead to a unique way of telling history and producing artwork. Language isn’t simply a means of communication—it is the foundation of cultural independence.
No matter one’s opinion on either Ulster-Scots or Irish, each community has the right to cherish and protect its culture, and it is incumbent on the members of the other community to respect that right. Rather than promote legislation that would strictly protect Irish, or a broader piece of legislation that would ambiguously protect all minority languages, the parties should work towards supporting two separate bills: an Irish Language Act and an Ulster-Scots Language Act.
Unionists are fearful that a language act which excludes Ulster-Scots would give the Irish “cultural supremacy” in Northern Ireland. That isn’t to say Unionists fear losing a battle in some “culture war;” it means they fear the marginalization and loss of their cultural heritage.
Nationalists, on the other hand, don’t aim to push Unionists and their culture to the sidelines, but rather, they seek to establish a distinguished position for the Irish language in its homeland, an ideal that is central to Irish national identity.
The passage of two separate language acts assures the DUP that any protections afforded to Irish are also provided to Ulster-Scots, mitigating the sense that one culture gains “supremacy” over the other. Sinn Féin still receives its Acht na Gaeilge, equipped with the full protections it seeks for the minority community, while also fulfilling a provision in the St. Andrew’s Agreement which promised an Irish Language Act.
The language issue dividing Sinn Féin and the DUP strikes at the core identities of the communities they represent, so it is easy to understand why it is fueling the present political drama. Compromise is certainly possible, but it depends on the DUP and Sinn Féin understanding that Northern Irish politics need not be a zero-sum game; the country is a nation of equals, and as equals they share the right to celebrate and protect their distinct cultural heritages. Compromise is necessary to restore power-sharing to Stormont, and respect and mutual understanding are necessary to reach a compromise. Northern Irish politicians must respect the interests of their counterparts if they are serious about returning power to the people they represent. Who knows, maybe disagreement and Northern Ireland are more like a side of veggies and a cheeseburger—it’s an option, but you’d rather not.