Wednesday, November 22, 2017

It’s all about equality

This blog was due to be posted at the weekend but because of the Ard Fheis it was held back until today. My next blog in two days will deal with my decision, which I announced at the Ard Fheis,  to stand down as Uachtarán Shinn Féin.
It was a refusal by the DUP to agree on the implementation of past agreements, including the introduction of an Irish Language Act, a Bill of Rights and the funding of legacy inquests, which blocked efforts last week to restore the political institutions. All of these matters, and others, including marriage equality, are part of the jig-saw of connecting issues which have been fundamental to the different phases of negotiations since last January.
When you strip away the complexities surrounding each separate issue in the current impasse you will find at their heart a deep desire by nationalists to be treated as equal to their unionist neighbours. It’s about equality.
While the Renewable Heat Incentive scandal, and the DUPs inadequate response to it, is what precipitated the decision of Martin McGuinness to resign as Deputy First Minister, for many the provision of an Irish Language Act has become the touch stone issue of this crisis. Some unionist politicians have accused republicans of ‘weaponising’ the Irish language while some others claim that an Irish Language Act will lead to a ‘Balkanisation’ of the North. Nonsense.
The reality is that many nationalists and republicans do not speak the Irish language. But they believe that their children or their neighbour’s children should enjoy that right, and not have their love for their language mocked and derided. For the thousands of people who use the Irish language every day as their language of choice; it is the language they work in, read, listen to on their radios, and on their televisions, converse in with friends and family and neighbours.
The Irish language or Irish language speakers in the North is not anti the English language. Irish language speakers are equally at home in their use of English. They are not part of some grand conspiracy against all things English. Irish speakers in the North want the same rights as our neighbours in Scotland and Wales and in the 26 counties who have a legal entitlement to use Scots Gaelic or Welsh or Irish. No more - no less. They respect those who speak and use English and they want that respect reciprocated.
The Irish language, with or without an Irish Language Act, is not compulsory. It is for those who want to use it. It is the property of all. It is not exclusive, and it will continue to prosper without or without an Acht na Gaeilge – just as it has done in recent years as a result of deeply committed Irish language activists.
But if the Good Friday Agreement is to mean anything – if respect and equality and parity of esteem are to be meaningful in peoples’ lives and not just words on paper – then the right to converse in Irish – must be respected in our society.
Are my grand-daughters and grandson to grow up in a place where their language and culture, their music and dance and art and games, is to be ridiculed, demeaned as second rate – as inferior? Where it is acceptable for some unionist politicians to make snide and nasty comments designed to humiliate? To keep us in our place!
In a very real way the response of the some in the leadership of unionism has made the issue of an Irish Language Act a hugely important symbolic issue for nationalists. Is the North a society for all or is it still seen by unionism as their exclusive orange state?
Almost 100 years ago the northern state was created out of partition. In their desire to dominate this part of the island the Unionist leaders institutionalised discrimination in jobs, in housing, in elections, in the law, in the institutions of the state. Anything that was nationalist or Irish was banned or derided.
The peace process and the work of many good people, created a new political dispensation through the Good Friday Agreement and subsequent agreements. Under its terms nationalists and republicans living within the North are equal citizens.  The Northern state is no longer, as the then Prime Minister for the North, Unionist Party leader James Craig told the Stormont Parliament in 1934: “… a Protestant Parliament and Protestant State."
Sadly there are those within the leadership of political unionism who have yet to come to terms with these new realities. They continue to fight old battles, to defend old sectarian attitudes and to reject equality for all citizens.
So, last week ended without a deal. The DUP deputy leader Nigel Dodds gave an insight into DUP thinking on Friday when he proposed that in the absence of an Executive British Ministers in London should begin making decisions within weeks.
The DUP believe that their position has been enhanced by the deal they did to keep the Tories in power after the June election. But as any student of Anglo-Irish politics will attest this is a temporary situation. The UUP played this same role in the past with the Major government but that arrangement didn’t last and neither will this. It will all end in tears eventually as all of unionisms dalliances with the British have done in the past.
But for now, while some progress was made in the talks, there was and is no real evidence of a willingness by the DUP leadership to embrace the rights agenda in the way it needs to if the political institutions are to serve every single citizen.

While Sinn Féin remains open to meaningful dialogue, the reality is that without a step change on the part of the DUP and both governments on the issue of rights, it is difficult to see how an agreement can be reached in the next period of time which will see the institutions back in place.
Sinn Féin’s commitment and intention is to serve in those institutions and in the Executive but for this to be sustainable and durable these structures must represent all sections of our society and deliver, despite the challenges, for everyone.
If the DUP really want to be part of this, they know what to do. Agree a process for the implementation of Agreements which they breached and join with the rest of us to build a new dispensation based on respect, tolerance and equality.

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