As usual the unionist-leaning (or apologising) press in Ireland has pounced on a few questionable claims by Arlene Foster, leader of the Democratic Unionist Party, and transformed them into a Pauline conversion on the issue of language rights. And perhaps equality in general, too. Launching her party’s manifesto, the Fermanagh MLA attempted to soften her previous, belligerent opposition to the long-deferred introduction of an Irish Language Act to the UK-administered Six Counties by indicating a willingness to accept a so-called Culture Act (or should that be Cultures, plural?). On Monday the Irish Times noted that:
Speaking in east Belfast where she launched the party’s Westminster election campaign, Ms Foster said the matter should be addressed in the wider context of culture and language and “cultural tolerance”.
“We need to respect, not just tolerate, all cultures in Northern Ireland, and that includes Ulster Scots, the Orange and British cultures.”
In February Ms Foster said more people spoke Polish than Irish in Northern Ireland, and declared the party would never agree to an Act protecting the language, a key Sinn Féin aim in negotiations to restore powersharing.
Of course, Arlene Foster’s aggressively vocal opposition to Irish rights in the north-east of the country was part of a DUP strategy to generate unionist fervour in the run-up to the northern assembly election. A strategy which backfired spectacularly by awakening a largely somnolent northern nationalist electorate which flocked to the polls to strengthen the number of Stormont representatives from Sinn Féin and the SDLP. Despite a litany of mistakes over the last year, from miscalculating SF’s final reaction to the RHI scandal to beating counterproductive tribal drums, the DUP is now hoping that nationalism can be pacified with a few trinkets and baubles. Ultimately the Democratic Unionists want a return to the status quo ante of 2006-2016, with a re-established power-sharing executive and cross-community assembly that the party can eventually use and abuse for personal or communal gain.
So the peace overtures of recent days are little more than a smoke and mirrors’ act to hoodwink liberal unionist voters and their northern nationalist peers. A burlesque show for the willingly-gullible media in Belfast and Dublin. If the DUP has a successful Westminster election, gaining a strengthened hand, the party will demand unrealistic and frankly fantastical inclusions for any proposed Culture Act, knowing that they will block future progress on the issue of Irish rights. Official recognition and support for a local patois of English with Tolkienesque flourishes from fringe linguists and historians who regard themselves as the descendants of one of the Lost Tribes of Israel? Public monies for a fundamentalist, Protestant lay fraternity which refuses to have Roman Catholics among it numbers? Which demands the right to march through areas where nominal Catholics are in the majority, in order to intimidate and terrorise?
However, despite the insistence of its amateur PR people, the DUP’s faithful struggle to keep up with the newfound pretence of compromise, as the Newsletter reports:
DUP rallies round Foster and vows there will be no Irish language act
Yesterday, East Londonderry candidate Gregory Campbell refuted the assertion that Mrs Foster had softened her attitude over an Irish language act.
He told the News Letter: “There will be no Irish language act. We have said that all along and that is what we are saying now.”
However, Mr Campbell said there could be merit in a possible cultural act for Northern Ireland as opposed to a stand-alone Irish language act.
East Antrim candidate Sammy Wilson felt the assertion that Arlene Foster was softening her attitude over the issue of an Irish language act was “plainly wrong”.
Mr Wilson said: “I am surprised by that interpretation of what was said at the manifesto launch.
“Both Arlene Foster and Nigel Dodds spoke at the event and made it clear that as far as the DUP is concerned, the Irish language shouldn’t be a priority given the constraints on our budget.
“We as a party have made it clear we don’t support an Irish language act.”
So much for reconciliation.