THROUGH THE GLASS, DIMLY
As I write, Ulster appears to be saying “No” – yet again – with the Democratic Unionists having just scuppered the latest attempt to reinstate the North’s Power –Sharing Executive after a year of stalemate. Two weeks ago agreement appeared tantalisingly close, with Arlene Foster and her team apparently ready to agree a deal with Sinn Fein. Then, on Valentine’s Day, she pulled the plug over the issue of a separate law for the Irish Language. Opposition to the almost-deal had gestated over a weekend allowing local opponents within the DUP to join forces with the Gang of Ten – the DUP’s Westminster M.P.s, revelling in their current role of shoring up the minority British Government .
The two Governments are now faced with picking up the pieces, with the malign prospect, should all else fail, of returning to Direct Rule from London, something Dublin most certainly does not want. There’s no indication that London wants that either but the problem of advancing separate budget and spending plans for the North must be addressed rapidly; inter alia this involves providing for the economic sweeteners the DUP were promised as part of the deal to support the May government. There’s also the little matter of the ongoing preparations to celebrate the twentieth anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement, planned for 10 April, with guests to include Bill Clinton plus the rest of the Great and the Good who had a hand in getting the Agreement over the line.
What appeared a little local difficulty when Sinn Fein pulled out of the Power Sharing Executive in January 2017 has now metastasized into something much bigger with the possibility of getting even worse. Sinn Fein acted following the refusal of Arlene Foster to agree to step aside temporarily owing to her involvement in the “Cash for Ash” scandal when she was Minister for Enterprise in 2012. Under the scheme generous subsidies were paid to companies and individuals burning renewable heating sources such as wood pellets. When word got around that money could actually be made from the scheme, with the subsidy exceeding the cost of the fuel, a surge in applications ensued before it was finally terminated in February 2016, to the accompaniment of much bad blood. The estimated cost was just under half a billion sterling, which would have to come out of the North’s block subsidy from Westminster, leaving less money for everything else.
Sinn Fein’s walkout was probably tactical – to wrong-foot the DUP (at no cost to themselves), with which there were ongoing frictions including over parity of esteem issues such as funding for the Irish language; it seemed a good idea at the time. Their action precipitated fresh elections in early March, the results of which saw some changes in seat numbers but no shift in tribal allegiances, despite claims to the contrary. Then came Teresa May’s disastrous decision to call a snap general election in June, apparently to provide her with a mandate for the Brexit negotiations. The results in the North again saw little change in allegiance but seat gains and consolidation for both the DUP (up two seats to ten) and Sinn Fein ( up three to seven), at the expense of their rivals. The results in Britain however, gave a huge and unexpected political bonus to the DUP. The result, a disaster for May, saw the Tories lose their overall majority and left May dependent on the ten DUP MPs to remain in office. It also left May considerably weakened and more beholden than before to the hard line Brexiteers in her cabinet and party.
There are existing uncontroversial arrangements in Wales and Scotland to cater for the minority languages there. So why not in the North? The answer is embedded in the history of the last century and the relations between the two communities; put simply Irish Language issues matter in the zero sum game that is ongoing, despite the Good Friday Agreement. It is frankly not relevant how many people in the North use or speak Irish; it is perceived by the Nationalist side as an important element in their heritage and so championed by Sinn Fein. The often offensive and dismissive language and tone used by many DUP politicians when commenting on the Irish language indicates the distance still to go before parity of esteem is reached. Indeed that attitude may have hardened the resolve of Sinn Fein in the matter.
It appears that the deal to restore the Executive would have seen Sinn Fein agreeing to accord considerable status to Ullans – the distinctive Ulster Scots dialect spoken in some areas of the North – in order to secure a free standing Irish Language Act. That there was no agreement is to be regretted, the more so because there were some recent signs that Foster and some other senior DUP figures were waking up to the appalling vista that could present itself to both parts of the island after Brexit. Quite what will now emerge is unclear. Constructive ambiguity may save the day eventually.
However, with Brexit casting an ever darker shadow, time is of the essence if the North’s politicians are to have a voice. It is one thing for Westminster DUP MPs to be romanced by the hard line Brexiteers (as appears to be happening ), quite another to be on the ground in the North absorbing the fears and trepidations expressed locally at what Brexit could entail. It is now little over a year before Britain is scheduled to leave the EU, yet still she has set no definite goals for the negotiations. There have been exasperated noises from Brussels, demanding to know what Britain wants. The answer seems to be that, beyond a vague wish to leave, and get the best possible deal – to have its “cake and eat it” to quote Boris Johnson – the British government still does not know. The Cabinet is split between the gung -ho Brexiteers , who seem blind to reality, and those around May , who are stuck with the referendum result and are desperately seeking for silver linings among the dark clouds.
One of the mantras is that “Nothing is Agreed until Everything is Agreed.” This, combined with another cliche, that “it will be all right on the night” is the line being pushed by the Brexiteers – i.e. that the anticipated gold plated trade deals with third countries (and indeed with the EU) will somehow happen overnight and that meanwhile the European heavy hitters, fearful of losing the British market, will bring the EU to heel and agree favourable terms . We shall see. The central problem in the negotiations remains: either Britain remains in the Customs Union and the Single Market or it does not. There’s talk currently of a “soft” transition arrangement for a minimum of two years. Whether the Brexiteers will buy into that remains to be seen. If they do not then who knows? There is some wild talk of casting aside the whole Good Friday Agreement as necessary collateral damage to “solve” the Irish Border problem. Peace in the North was dearly bought. Could Perfidious Albion yet put it in jeopardy?