Thanks to the Trojan work of the veteran journalists Eamonn Mallie and Brian Rowan, we now know the sequence of events leading up to the last-minute collapse of talks on the renewal of the cross-community assembly at Stormont. Contrary to the claims made by Arlene Foster and the Democratic Unionist Party, a draft agreement was in the offing, attracting visits from the premiers of Ireland and the United Kingdom, until the hard-right grouping pulled the plug on the bilateral understanding.
As speculated, the legislative principle of Irish language rights in the UK-administered Six Counties was conceded by the DUP, removing the main obstacle to the restoration of a power-sharing regional executive between it and Sinn Féin. However, startled by the intensity of opposition to such a deal from within the wider pro-union community, the Democratic Unionists withdrew from commitments given in the draft document at the very last moment. Arlene Foster followed up on this retreat with a very public rejection of any notion of a compromise deal in the press, using particularly ethno-sectarian language of her own.
As things now stand, interlinked bills on the recognition and provision of services in the Irish language, the Scots-Irish (Ulster-Scots) dialect of English, as well as more general cultural matters, were agreed in outline form between the DUP and Sinn Fein. Significantly, no agreement was made on the important question of equal or same-sex marriage. Despite this, SF was prepared to sign up to the limited package of laws and regulations. And that is a serious political and moral mistake.
Legislation for equal marriage, that is the right of same-sex couples to marry, is every bit as important in the north-east of the country as the legal recognition of our island nation’s indigenous language. Equality is equality is equality. We cannot hive off one issue to satisfy or fulfil the needs of another. For in truth, both are linked.
The individual freedoms of Irish citizens living in Britain’s rump colony on the island of Ireland cannot be abrogated in order to assuage the religious fundamentalism of a minority community in the country. If we are to remain true to the spirit of Bunreacht na hÉireann, if we genuinely believe that it is “…the entitlement and birthright of every person born in the island of Ireland, which includes its islands and seas, to be part of the Irish Nation”, then we must uphold any and all rights associated with that entitlement.
Language and marriage equality must be accepted in one holistic agreement, not with the latter taken off the table in the hope of a later “fix” by legislative sleight of hand or an outside intervention by the authorities in London. The message from Sinn Féin, and Irish political parties in general, must be: no equality, no Stormont. It really is that simple. And it is a message which will resound far more with international audiences, with people in the UK, Europe and North America, who while perhaps puzzled by the necessity of Gaelic rights will have no problem in recognising the necessity of gay rights.