“There will be no Assembly without an Acht na Gaeilge.” These words uttered by Sinn Féin leader, Gerry Adams, reinforced what we already knew about his party’s position with regard to restoring power-sharing in Northern Ireland.
So here we are again. Northern Ireland, a state that was created in the hope of resolving political, cultural and ideological deadlock, continues to find itself being suffocated by it nearly a century later.
How can this game of zero-sum politics be conquered?
Arguably it is imperative that our elected representatives move away from creating false dichotomy after false dichotomy when it comes to generating the narrative that surrounds our increasingly delicate power-sharing institutions. One example being the fallacy that to facilitate an Irish Language Act, all issues of bread-and-butter politics like health, education and jobs, must be put on the back burner.
The lack of overlap in our politics is despairing; too often large divisive issues get pushed to the fore until we reach bitter surrender or impasse.
Our shared political arena began unravelling before Christmas, long before Irish language legislation became the new focus for Sinn Féin (given their lack of attention to it for a decade beforehand), but rather when Arlene Foster and the RHI scandal began to take off. Then, within a space of six weeks, Sinn Féin had collapsed the Executive and brought the institutions down with it. Enter the Irish language debate, Sinn Féin’s sole focus, wrapped in a blanket of ‘equality’.
The idea that an Irish Language Act and an Irish Language Act alone is the only meat on the bones of Sinn Féin’s very slender idea of equality, delivers a grave disservice to our hungry, our homeless, our marginalised and our sick. Why is nothing else a red line?
Despite Arlene Foster’s inappropriate and badly-timed ‘crocodile comment’ in reference to Sinn Féin’s demand for a standalone Irish Language Act, her recent moving of the goal posts, such her willingness to address an audience in Irish, is high sign that the DUP will concede on this occasion in the hope of restoring the institutions and getting back to governing. In turn, it is squashing the false dichotomy of zero-sum politics; the political demands of Sinn Féin and the DUP do not have to be mutually exclusive entities.
However, should the DUP concede on an Irish Language Act and Sinn Féin continue to refuse to go back into government, serious questions need to be asked about their willingness to make power-sharing work in the long-run. It is more than disappointing that Sinn Féin’s attempt to hold the DUP to ransom lacks substantial meat on the bones of their equality argument. Where is an anti-poverty strategy or a bespoke drug strategy?
As long as the desire for an Irish Language Act remains the only show in Equality town, the politics of romanticism will continue to push the zero-sum roundabout. And it’s a roundabout we all need to get off, and fast.