Northern Ireland is in crisis because of a squabble over language

A pedestrian walks past a billboard in west Belfast (AFP/Getty Images)
A pedestrian walks past a billboard in west Belfast (AFP/Getty Images)

When Northern Ireland’s nationalists and unionists made peace in 1998, a key part of the deal was a power-sharing arrangement to run Northern Ireland’s government. That collapsed 13 months ago, and five rounds of talks have not been enough to bring it back to life. The latest talks ended Feb. 14, when Democratic Unionist Party leader Arlene Foster announced her party’s withdrawal. Here’s how Northern Ireland got into this mess, and here is what could happen next.

Northern Ireland’s government collapsed over corruption scandal and cultural conflict

A decade of power-sharing between the unionist DUP and nationalist Sinn Féin fell apart last January when Sinn Féin pulled out, primarily because of a scandal involving a botched renewable heating scheme. However, relations between nationalists and unionists had already been deteriorating because of a variety of other issues, including same-sex marriage (unionists are opposed), dealing with the past (Sinn Féin was intimately linked to the IRA, but the nature and extent of that relationship remains contested), Brexit and a proposed Irish Language Act. The return of the Irish language question led to the latest breakdown.

It may seem strange that the Irish language could provoke a crisis, when Northern Irish politicians could reach agreement on such contentious issues as the decommissioning of paramilitary weapons and devolution of policing. However, as the military conflict died down, conflict over culture and identity issues, which were not resolved in the original peace deal, have increased. These cultural hot points include issues such as marches by the unionist Orange Order, flags and emblems.

Although the agreement pledges “parity of esteem” between nationalists and unionists, this was supposed to be just one part of a broader commitment to human rights and equality. However, the peace process has increasingly come to focus exclusively on cultural issues where the two sides disagree, so that other minority rights are lost in the shuffle, and questions like same-sex marriage and welfare reform are being interpreted as markers in the fight between unionism and nationalism. Cultural issues can be indivisible in a way that standard security and power sharing is not, so that there are winners and losers but no space for compromise.

The Irish language has become a proxy for these broader identity disputes. Language is a deeply symbolic, often zero-sum issue. The Irish language has been bound up with nationalist identity since the Gaelic cultural revival of the late 19th century, and was used by Republican paramilitary prisoners during the Troubles to communicate without prison guards understanding.

Sinn Féin has long made a point of promoting the Irish language, of which 11 percent of people in Northern Ireland have some knowledge. Yet the issue became more rancorous in recent months, with Arlene Foster commenting in March 2017 that, “if you feed a crocodile it will keep coming back and looking for more”. The crocodile became a useful rallying symbol for Sinn Féin, which performed strongly in the subsequent elections.

Although nationalists believe that equality requires an Irish Language Act, which would bring language protections into line with other parts of the United Kingdom and Ireland, unionists see it differently. Even though other parties support an act, unionists believe that Sinn Féin has been politicizing — even “weaponizing” — language rights as part of a broader agenda to turn Northern Ireland ever-greener on the way to a united Ireland. Even moderate unionist voices depict it as an attempt to remove “Britishness” from Northern Ireland.

External politics don’t help

Outside politics have also helped destabilize Northern Ireland. The shadow of Brexit and the threat of a hard border have brought the constitutional status of Northern Ireland back into play. The extraordinary circumstances even prompted Ireland’s prime minister, Leo Varadkar, to urge the abstentionist Sinn Féin to take its six seats in the British Parliament to thwart a “hard Brexit” that would see Britain leave the E.U. customs union. Meanwhile the U.K. government only survives because of a Conservative-DUP pact in Westminster. The main unionist and nationalist parties have shifted their sights beyond Northern Ireland’s domestic politics, toward the bigger game of Northern Ireland’s long-term future. Will it remain part of the United Kingdom, as unionists want, or shift toward the Republic of Ireland as Sinn Féin is seeking?

These outside circumstances make the language issue more volatile. Sinn Féin had prepared their voters to accept nothing less than a stand-alone language act, which the DUP would see as capitulation to nationalism. As the recent talks took place in relative secrecy, rumors of mandatory language training in schools and affirmative action in the civil service quickly spread. By the time British Prime Minister Theresa May and Leo Varadkar arrived in Belfast on Feb. 12, signaling their support for a compromise deal including Irish language legislation the DUP had gotten spooked. One Assembly representative told us that his office had received calls in the following two days not only from hard-liners but from “moderate, middle class” unionists. It is likely that DUP representatives’ offices got similar phone calls, and fed the information back to their negotiating team. The deal was more than the DUP was willing to sell to its base.

There is no obvious way out

Most of the options for a deal are unpalatable to one or more of the parties. Direct rule by the U.K. government, which would bypass Northern Ireland’s Stormont government, is the most likely short-term outcome. Yet, the DUP-Conservative pact and the looming specter of a Brexit deal — on which Sinn Féin and the DUP are deeply divided — mean that direct rule would be politically tricky.

Joint authority exercised by both the U.K. and Irish governments is another option. Already some are calling for a British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference. Yet, the unionist community would be sure to oppose a stronger role for Dublin.

New elections could be called, in the hope that the power balance would shift in favor of the moderate middle. Yet this would almost certainly be wishful thinking. The voting bases of DUP and Sinn Féin have only been strengthened by this crisis and another election would likely deliver even more of the same.

So what’s left? More talks. If Northern Ireland’s government is to be restored, it will necessarily involve power sharing — which itself means more negotiation and compromise. Any one of the above options could be used to focus minds and get the DUP and Sinn Féin back to the table. Yet if a new round of talks is to be more successful, it may have to be more inclusive.

The original peace deal rested on talks that included all parties, including very small ones. It is possible that this could create a different negotiation dynamic, where the parties that have been crowded out by the success of the DUP and Sinn Féin could widen the set of issues under negotiation and treat issues such as marriage equality as important in their own right. A large body of political science suggests that broadening the issue agenda may make it easier to link issues and reach agreement. Including more parties to the talks might paradoxically help this happen.

Allison McCulloch is associate professor at Brandon University, Canada, and Cera Murtagh is research fellow at Queen’s University Belfast. They are co-researchers on the project Exclusion amid Inclusion: Power-Sharing and Non-Dominant Minorities funded by the U.K. Economic and Social Research Council.

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