By Caoimhin De Barra (for journal.ie)
The collapse of talks to restore the power sharing arrangement in Northern Ireland has come as no surprise to many. The crisis has developed due to a perfect storm related to both ancient and recent history, and exacerbated by a deep flaw in the Good Friday Agreement.
Firstly, part of the problem is a deep-rooted hatred toward the indigenous culture of Ireland, above all its language.
This dates back centuries, and indeed was central to justifying England’s colonial venture in Ireland. Long after that project has ended, the hatred itself lives on. Remnants of it can still be found south of the border, but for obvious reasons it takes a more potent form amongst the unionist community in Ulster.
When Northern Ireland was formed, there were still Gaeltacht communities within its boundaries. But unionists were determined to kill the language off quickly. A scheme set up by the British government to give students the option of studying Irish after school was cut once Stormont took control of education.
This contempt for Irish manifested itself in the pettiest of ways. Starting in 1922, the Northern Irish government interned about 700 people, mostly nationalists, as threats to public order. The teaching of Irish in these internment camps was forbidden, and those who tried were moved to a different location and placed in solitary confinement. Like carriers of some horrible disease, they were effectively quarantined.
Unionists today deny their opposition to a language act is based on spite. They claim their resistance is founded on practical considerations. But hatred always tries to hide behind the mask of logic. No-one ever admits to being a bigot, after all.
Yet a loathing of Irish is only part of the equation. The unionist identity has been constructed on a tradition of uncompromising defiance. From the siege of Derry in 1689, to the mobilisation of the UVF in 1912, through to the strikes that destroyed the Sunningdale Agreement in 1974, unionists have a proud history of getting their own way when they dig in.
But modern unionism has not had similar success. Massive protests organised to derail the Anglo-Irish Agreement in the 1980s, to recognise the right of the Orange Order to march on the Garvaghy Road in the 1990s, and to restore the daily flying of the Union Jack from Belfast City Hall in recent years, have all ended in failure.
‘It’s about taking a stand’
We often forget that a majority of unionists actually voted against the Good Friday Agreement. As far as some are concerned, this has turned out to be a shabby peace, where they feel they are the ones doing all the compromising while nationalists lord it over them.
In this light, what might be contained in any proposed language act is actually irrelevant. For many unionists, it is about taking a stand. The Irish Language Act has effectively become the twenty-first century equivalent of King James’s army at the walls of Derry, to be defied at all costs.
Of course, opposition to legislation is something every government faces, and often overcomes. But things are not so simple in Northern Ireland. Contrary to what one might think, the power sharing arrangement set up under the Good Friday Agreement encourages stubbornness, not compromise.
The agreement guaranteed that power be shared between a unionist and nationalist political party, as neither community trusts the other to govern alone. But this creates two separate electorates in Northern Ireland, a unionist one that unionist parties cater to, and a nationalist one served by nationalist parties.
Far from healing tribal divisions, the agreement makes them the central basis of the electoral system.
In order to gain power in the Northern Irish Assembly, parties have to be more nationalist or more unionist than their direct competitors. This is precisely why Sinn Fein and the DUP have shunted aside the two parties that originally brokered peace, namely the SDLP and the UUP.
It is also the reason that the strongest voices against the Irish Language Act have come from the UUP and the TUV. They know that if the DUP does concede on this issue, they stand to benefit the most at the polls.
Such a situation might still allow for compromise in most countries, but Northern Ireland does not need to resolve government gridlock because it has an autopilot function i.e. direct rule from Westminster.
Put yourself in Arlene Foster’s shoes. You can compromise on the Irish Language Act and watch many of your colleagues, and possibly yourself, become unemployed at the next elections. Or you stand firm and continue to get paid while someone else handles the responsibility of government. It is a no-brainer. Let Theresa take the wheel.
Of course, when it comes to Northern Ireland, identifying the problem is always the easy part. Finding a solution is another matter entirely.
* Caoimhin De Barra is Assistant Professor for Irish History and Culture at Drew University, New Jersey.