McDowell, Hain and a blazling row
In the last session of talks between the two governments and Sinn Féin at St Andrews, I proposed to Tony Blair that an Irish-language act be brought forward at Westminster by his government. That last session was a very stormy one – it was about putting together a programme to get the DUP into the powersharing arrangements, as laid out in the Good Friday Agreement.
The Taoiseach had been asked by Blair to make a presentation to us on the putative schedule or time-frame which the governments intended to roll out after St Andrews. In all of our discussions with both governments, I had asked that there be no surprises and that everything be pinned down, especially regarding the schedule or time-frame and commitments from the various parties, including the two governments.
I was outraged at the attitude of the Irish government and I said so in no uncertain terms. The Taoiseach's presentation had nothing pinned down. It was all one-day-at-a-time. My mood wasn't helped when, as Irish officials sat mute, British officials started to provide the answers to my questions to the Taoiseach. Things got worse when Michael McDowell told us that the DUP seemed to be no longer concerned about the calling of a Sinn Féin ard fheis to deal with the policing issue. All of this seemed highly incredible and somewhat dubious.
It was towards the end of this meeting that I asked Tony Blair about the Irish-language act. He seemed well-disposed to the idea. After all, the Welsh have their own language act and the Scots have one too. The British Secretary of State for Wales, Peter Hain, who is also Blair's representative in our part of Ireland, wasn't so well disposed. In fact, he was a bit beside himself.
Picture the scene. A room full of officials, mostly men, and politicians, all men except for Mary Lou McDonald. A blazing row between me and Baile Átha Cliath. The Brits staying out of it, except to advise the Taoiseach. Hain seated beside Blair, giving forth sotto voce into the prime-ministerial right ear that the unionists would go mad over an Irish-language act.
So all other things to one side, what's that all about?
Peter Hain's opposition to an Irish-language act is merely tactical. It is about placating unionism. In fact at earlier meetings he was very open to the introduction of such an act. So was his prime minister at St Andrews. But experience has taught us that it is one thing to get a commitment from the British government – or for that matter the Irish government – but it is entirely another matter getting them to implement it.
You don't have to tell Irish-language activists across the island this. The reality and experience of Irish-language speakers and activists living in the North has been one of victimisation and discrimination. Despite this hostile atmosphere, the Irish language has survived and is now flourishing. Its resurgence began in the 1970s, led mainly by language activists and parents involved in Irish-medium education, and also from within prisons where republican prisoners began to use Irish as their first language.
But the repression of the language is still evident today in the case of Máire Nic An Bhaird, who was arrested and charged for giving her name in Irish in Belfast earlier this year.
Despite this official and unofficial hostility, Irish-language activists have succeeded in establishing a network of Irish-medium schools across the North, and setting up newspapers, a radio station, businesses and organisations to cater for every conceivable area of work and opportunity within our neighbourhoods.
The establishment and its systems in the North have always resisted this. The fight back against the Irish-language act is already under way. Currently, the British government is preparing a consultation paper. Sinn Féin was told by British officials that this paper would go out to consultation on Thursday, 8 December. This is to facilitate the completion of the 12-week consultation period necessary for the bill to be introduced into the British parliament before the middle of March 2007.
Last week, we learned that the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure does not intend publishing the document until closer to Christmas. If this happens, the consultation will not be complete until the end of March, with the bill then becoming a matter for an assembly in which unionists are committed to opposing it.
None of us should be surprised at these machinations. We have seen the same manoeuvrings by the British government on other issues in the North, most notably policing.
So, if we are to ensure that the Irish-language bill is introduced, it will require a vigorous campaign. Such a campaign is also required to iron out the deficiencies in the Official Languages Act 2003 in the South.
If the Irish government were so minded, it would have a comfortable majority to amend the new regulations so that the movement towards a bilingual society could be advanced. But the Irish government cannot, with credibility, make the case for the Irish language with the British government if it is in any way short-changing gaelgeóirí in the South.
Might as well tell us that that the DUP is no longer concerned about a Sinn Féin ard fheis to deal with the policing issue.