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Escaping Déjà Vu: Irish language legislation and Edwin Poots

The strongest weapon they have for this misrepresentation of Arlene Foster as a ‘liberal moderniser’ is the new leader himself. Poots’ record is detestable, his sectarianism more egregious, his patriarchal beliefs bilious. Whatever wrongs Foster stood over, they plead, she was a victim of circumstance, ‘cornered’ by political dinosaurs wherever she looked.
Escaping Déjà Vu: Irish language legislation and Edwin Poots
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Arlene Foster emerged from Poots’ throning to the light of camera flashes and din of journalist heckles. Flanked by those court jesters still loyal to her she held two fingers aloft – not as a, probably understandable, fuck you to the waiting audience – but rotated one-eighty for the most surprising of gestures: the peace sign. “Alright guys,” was all we got by way of a speech from the dock.

Given the reality of Foster’s tenure, the irony of her parting salute is glaring. But even those most affected by her reactionary record have taken petty satisfaction from how difficult she’s making her exit on her successor.

Although the scene briefly gave the DUP’s crisis a tabloid dimension, the deja-vu of northern politics hasn’t been long in reasserting itself. In time-honoured fashion, the forces of historical revisionism are working at double-speed to rehabilitate an establishment leader whose political career should have ended long ago.

The strongest weapon they have for this misrepresentation of Arlene Foster as a ‘liberal moderniser’ is the new leader himself. Poots’ record is detestable, his sectarianism more egregious, his patriarchal beliefs bilious. Whatever wrongs Foster stood over, they plead, she was a victim of circumstance, ‘cornered’ by political dinosaurs wherever she looked.

Just because it’s a ridiculous proposition, it won’t stop sections within the Northern Ireland establishment repeating it. After all, it worked for Peter Robinson and Ian Paisley before him.

None of this is to deny that Poots and his upstarts have acted with a shocking level of self-interest, even by DUP standards, or that the intensity of their misogyny was shameful. But it is to highlight the obvious: Poots’ nastiness shouldn’t get Foster off the hook.

That this has to be said at all is the result of another permanent feature of northern politics: the existence of the DUP (or indeed, the Tories) is used as an excuse to set expectations extremely low. Because they so brazenly advocate Trumpian politics, anything even slightly better can be sold as acceptable.

So a return to Foster should be yearned for, and a return to politics as normal, where one-in-four children are in poverty and social rights are consistently denied, is packaged as progress.

Arlene Foster’s dramatic departure has coincided with the centennial anniversary of Northern Ireland – not the celebration of Unionism that some hoped for. Over those past one hundred years, activists and communities have attempted to uproot from the very heart of the northern state an embedded sectarianism, division, enforced deprivation, misogynistic and homophobic laws, and an anti-Irish language agenda.

As the centenary is marked and movements still heave against those ills, a grim déjà vu is not only a regular feature of a disgraced political leader’s retirement party, it’s built into the very rhythm of northern life.

Protocols and Acts

Edwin Poots’s recent inauguration is unlikely to bring forth a different beat. Unionism is on repeat, caught for over sixty years between an imperative to ‘modernise’ on the one hand, and the need to maintain the support of the more ardent sections of their base on the other.

The intractability of this bind is what socialists understand to be Unionism’s permanent crisis, and its latest major iteration is the partially self-inflicted Brexit debacle. With anger and pressure swirling about the Protocol, any new leader will be expected to strike out hard against it.

The difficulty, of course, is that the Protocol is the result of a deal between Downing Street and Brussels, and there must be a level of realism within the DUP about their ability to get it scrapped.

Luckily for Poots, there is a ready-made issue which provides a more realistic target to rile up his party’s base than an international bi-lateral agreement: the Irish language. The DUP signed up to New Decade New Approach (NDNA) in 2020, an agreement which contained explicit commitments on the language.

In the five-hundred-odd days since NDNA’s signing, Unionism’s largest party was able to stall all progress on Irish language legislation. The extraordinary circumstances of the pandemic provided some cover for this, but how much pressure did they come under from the other Executive parties?

Immediately upon the anti-Foster coup, the media were being briefed that Irish language legislation would be something the new leader might try to roll back on. Various DUP representatives have since done interviews repeating long-debunked myths about what such legislation would look like.

Rather than holding DUP feet to the fire for threatening to renege on these promises, much of the northern commentariat responded to this move by questioning the Irish language community on whether they’d ‘play hardball’ with the DUP.

Expecting commitments given in the past to be fulfilled isn’t playing hardball. That said, the community’s stance has been unanimous. “Acht Anois” (‘Irish Language Act Now’) and “Seas an Fód” (‘Stand Your Ground’ – calling on parties who support language legislation not to give in to the DUP) have adorned social media, been blasted out at Stormont, and even covered the Black Mountain which overlooks much of Belfast.

A change of tune?

But in recent days Edwin Poots has suddenly stated that the DUP are committed to implementing NDNA – Irish language warts and all – while Foster has strongly warned him against going back on their pledge. So maybe there’s no need to worry after all, maybe the flurry of activity in the past weeks has worked?

Despite his extremism, we should expect Poots to say contradictory things. The DUP are between a rock and a hard place, losing votes to both the TUV and the Alliance Party. At times he will appear more reasonable, more committed to the institutions.

Any movement which takes the DUP at its word is destined to be disappointed. Foster can make such an intervention, she can even say “sin é” in the Assembly chamber, but under her stewardship her party was able to stall all progress on language legislation. They have spent fifteen years refusing to enact the Irish Language Act they signed up to in the St. Andrews Agreement of 2006.

Therefore what’s important in these coming days and weeks is not what Poots says. It’s what he does – or rather, what he’s forced to do.

Throughout history, the difference between verbal promises and concrete action has bedevilled all campaigns at one point or another. For a period in 2017, Irish language campaigners, under the umbrella of An Dream Dearg, navigated that challenge in a way that is strikingly relevant for all social movements under this new Pootsian chapter of the Democratic Unionist Party.

An Dream Dearg

In the decade or so after the St. Andrews Agreement, until Stormont fell for three years in 2017, compromise between the DUP and Sinn Féin was at the beating heart of politics on the hill. They were the two largest parties, and any movement required both their consent.

In reality, this fact allowed for the continual erosion of any Irish language agenda at Stormont level, to the point where in 2016 even token mention of an Irish language act was dropped from the programme for government. The bar was set almost at ground-level because anything extracted from the DUP, no matter how measly, could be painted as a win.

This depressing state of affairs eventually spurred an upsurge in anger and activism. As an election beckoned in the spring of 2017, a boisterous Irish language movement led by An Dream Dearg made the decision to make an Irish language act a red line issue. That is, they demanded that parties who supported an Act make an agreement on it a pre-requisite for power-sharing with the DUP.

This strategic turn began to reverse the trend seen in the aftermath of St. Andrews1. It allowed An Dream Dearg to put an equal demand on all parties, demonstrating the Irish language community’s independence. It challenged the uneven approach to the language at Stormont, because ‘better than the DUP’ was unacceptable in this period. That was the benchmark of the past, one which let parties off the hook and led to little-to-no return for communities on issues even beyond the Irish language. Instead, a red line could only be satisfied by deed – not by words alone.

Therefore, as long as the other parties, and especially Sinn Féin as the second largest, maintained this red line, the DUP would be isolated. They would be unable to water things down to a compromise position.

By many markers, and not just at the purely political level, the campaign was historically successful. Five Stomont parties backed the demand for an Irish language act, with a majority of MLAs in favour for the first time. The idea of language rights were rescued from the margins and thrust centre-stage, progress on legislation was made (the limits of this is discussed below), respect and appreciation for the language grew outside its normal circles across northern civil society, and speakers and learners across the north were galvanised. It was a seismic leap, ordinary deja-vu interrupted2.

None of this would have been possible without thousands on the streets, and intense and creative activity over many months. But neither could it have occurred without the campaign’s strategy; An Dream Dearg spotted a bottleneck in the workings of the institutions, and leveraged its pressure for all it was worth. The campaign’s strategic focus was its single most path-breaking feature; if there is one lesson worth passing on to social movements in the future, that should be it.

Indeed, we can see practically how the language’s fortunes varied as the campaign’s orientation changed. As 2017 progressed the DUP, with the support of the British Government, began to dig in, and by late 2017 Gaeilgeoirí redirected their pressure almost exclusively onto political Unionism and Downing Street.

The shift was completely understandable – the opposition to the language was as blatant as it was shameless. But this switch in focus also helped make space for a terrible proposal to be placed on the negotiating table in February 2018. By this point in their game of cat-and-mouse, the DUP and Sinn Féin felt sufficiently comfortable to allow them to  consider an Irish Language Act not worth the name3.

What Comes First, the Minister or the legislation?

Much of the previous discussion could equally apply to other movements: in a power-sharing set-up with a Trumpian DUP, the pattern is one of the DUP getting their way. If other parties do have an agenda different to Unionism’s largest party, as they say they do, they haven’t been very effective at implementing it4. For grassroots campaigns, whether over housing, abortion access, or income inequality, pressurising parties that claim to support you strengthens your hand, empowers activists, and gives us the best chance at beating back reactionaries.

The DUP have a new leader, and will soon have to nominate a new First Minister. Non-unionist parties are a majority in Stormont. Irish language act-supporting parties are a majority in Stormont.

Will that majority let the DUP get away with these bully boy tactics? Will they agree to a DUP First Minister even when they’ve been threatening to rip up previous agreements? Will they continue to enable the DUP’s Trumpian antics, or will they refuse to re-establish Stormont until the DUP change their tune on an Irish language legislation?5

The slogan of Seas an Fód is in this vein, calling on parties to hold firm against the DUP’s threats. Parties which support Irish language legislation should refuse to co-operate with the DUP until they recommit to enacting it. A new DUP First Minister shouldn’t be able to swan in after boasting about plans to bin Irish language legislation. Stand your ground against Foster’s brass-necked successor.

In addition, we should understand that the provisions within NDNA are debilitatingly weak. They fall far short of what the Irish language community needs, and, with DUP-sabotage built into them, they could provide more headaches than solutions in the long run. Undoubtedly, allowing the DUP to roll back on this legislation would be extremely dangerous. But limiting our requirements to its simple implementation would be equally so.

Escaping Déjà Vu

Recent An Dream Dearg activism has made effective and creative use of digital media to press its demands in the Covid era. As soon as it’s safe, city centres across the north need to be draped in the colour red, the clamour of “Acht Gaeilge Anois” once again emanating loudly from marching mouths. Recent Palestinian solidarity and Black Lives Matter demonstrations have shown that it’s possible to take to the streets in a Covid-safe manner.

What the other parties do as a response to Poots’ rogues won’t be decided in a vacuum, it’ll depend significantly on pressure from below.

Let’s be clear: the DUP’s brand of politics is abhorrent, and they could get even more belligerent as time goes on. Therefore, none of this discussion is to get them off the hook; we should criticise them mercilessly. But that criticism will be lost in the wind unless we pressurise those who have the responsibility to hold firm against the DUP. This is true for any group in society suffering under their reactionary yoke.

It’s only by recommitting to the strategy which underpinned our successes of 2017 that we’ll have a chance at breaking out of this endless cycle: the déjà vu of Irish language rights, and social rights more generally, stagnating under Stormont rule.

[1] The Lá Dearg of 2014, as well as the demands around campaigns like #BusAnois, were also key. But the politics contained in those previous examples found their most concentrated expression in the movement of early 2017.

[2]  “No one can truly wish for the spread of African culture if he does not give practical support to the creation of the conditions necessary to the existence of that culture”, Frantz Fanon’s foregrounding of politics as the most effective method for invigorating culture found stark expression in the case of the Irish language in the six counties in 2017.  Wretched of the Earth, pg. 189.

[3] Missing from this article is any real discussion of why a shift in focus onto political unionism and away from supportive parties leads to poorer outcomes like NDNA. A piece from early 2019 partially takes up this question. The important point here is that this is the effect.

[4] This dynamic has been shown most starkly over the course of the Covid pandemic, with deathly consequences.

[5] Colum Eastwood has to be admired for the frankness of his recent answer: “Absolutely” he would give up on implementing previously agreed Irish language rights, instead of challenging the DUP on their stance.

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