At 4pm on Valentine’s Day, DUP leader Arlene Foster announced the end of the current phase of talks to restore the Stormont Parliament and Executive, which have been suspended since the January 2017 resignation of the late Martin McGuinness.

In a statement published on the DUP website and on Twitter, she laid the blame for the breakup squarely on lack of an agreement over the Irish language.

A bill to provide official status for Irish has long been sought by nationalists, with a commitment by the British Government to introduce an Irish Language Act forming part of the St. Andrews Agreement of 2005. In the current round of negotiations, Sinn Féin made the introduction of an Act by Stormont a central focus. This was supported not only by the nationalist SDLP, but also the cross-community Alliance and Green Parties. The unionist UUP, TUV, and DUP, however, have been steadfast in their opposition.

Over the preceding weekend, a deal had seemed close, with the Monday 12th visit of British Prime Minister Theresa May and Irish Taoiseach Leo Varadkar indicating to many that a deal was imminent, with a compromise on the table. Sinn Féin’s response to the breakup of talks stated that a deal had, in fact, been agreed with the DUP leadership.

“Sinn Féin engaged, we worked in good faith, we stretched ourselves. We had reached an accommodation with the leadership of the DUP. The DUP failed to close the deal. They have now collapsed this process.”

-Michelle O’Neill, Leas-Uachtarán Sinn Féin


Multiple journalists have reported sources outlining the terms of an agreement in this area, with an Irish Language Act combined with an Ulster-Scots Act and an Act supporting both cultures.

Unfortunately, even this seems to have been too much. Hints over the weekend that a deal was close led to many unionists, both politicians and voters, making clear between Monday 12th and Wednesday 14th that any form of legislation in support of the Irish language was unacceptable to them.

“Having promised repeatedly that there will never be an Irish Language Act on her watch the Unionist community will be looking to Mrs Foster to deliver.”

-Jim Allister, TUV (source)

The reaction from unionists made clear that the disagreement is not just over the Irish language itself, but cuts to the very heart of identity politics. Many unionists see an Irish language act as a threat to their British identity. On the nationalist side, it is also a question of identity, with unionist attitudes to the act seen as representative of unionist attitudes to the validity of Irish identity.

Unionist political leaders, especially the DUP and TUV, framed nationalist support for the act as seeking cultural supremacy over unionism.


This angers nationalists, for a simple reason.


Northern Ireland was built on unionist supremacy, to the point where nationalists had to march for civil rights. Nationalists didn’t just have a lack of support for the Irish language; they were discriminated against in housing, in employment, even in voting. Unionists had everything they wanted, and nationalists nothing.

So in a sense, this is about supremacy – not about nationalism gaining supremacy, but rather about unionism losing supremacy. Not just this issue of the Irish language act, but everything from the 1960’s Civil Rights movement onwards. Compromise is often discussed, but all compromise from nationalists involves incomplete attainment of wishes, while all compromise from unionists involves some loss of supremacy – whether that be Sinn Féin in Government, or the banning of Portadown Orange Lodge marching down the Garvaghy Road.


Protests at Drumcree are still ongoing, with the Orange Lodge still demanding to march down the Garvaghy Road (source)

That’s why this is so hard for unionists. Every compromise is a loss for them – and they are unwilling to lose. That’s why unionists opposed the Civil Rights movement, collapsed the Sunningdale power sharing agreement, objected to the Anglo-Irish agreement and Downing Street Declaration, and why the DUP refused to sign the Good Friday Agreement. It’s why there was riots when Belfast City Council limited the flying of the union flag, why Irish flags are burned on bonfires every July 11th, and why there’s so much outrage when Orange Order marches are prevented going through nationalist areas that don’t want them – while simultaneously objecting to Irish flags in St. Patrick’s Day celebrations in nationalist areas.


This doesn’t look like nationalist cultural supremacy to me (Photo by Jtcorscadden ([CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons)

Plus, let’s look at some polling data from Lucid Talk.


A clear majority of unionists think the margin of victory in a border poll to change the constitutional status of Northern Ireland should be 70% or greater. The principle of consent enshrined in the Good Friday Agreement sets 50% + 1 as the requirement. Only 16% of unionists support this. That’s astounding. The vast majority of unionists believe that even a nationalist majority should not lead to a united Ireland.

Indeed, many nationalists see this as the reason for the DUP’s strong support for Brexit, and objections to any special status for NI – in order to strengthen the border, and draw a clear distinction between north and south in the form of the EU.

So, the real problem should be clear. How could the Irish language act be seen as a threat to British identity, if there’s road signs in Gaelic in Scotland, and in Welsh in Wales? Why would road signs in Irish, or allowing nationalists to deal with the government through Irish, be a threat to British identity? The answer is that these would be signs that Northern Ireland is not 100% British, and any indication that it is not 100% British is seen as a threat.

Many unionists still want to maintain their supremacy. They do not respect Irish identity, see every expression of Irish identity as a threat to them, and do not recognise the legitimacy of political nationalism.

The sad part is that some unionists have embraced the Irish language and parts of Irish culture. Many regard themselves as British and Irish, while supporting the union. Former UVF leader Gusty Spence learned to speak Irish, and loved the language. It’s entirely possible to embrace Irish language and culture while supporting the union. While nationalist politicians are those pushing for the introduction of the Irish language act, it doesn’t have to be only for nationalists.

Instead, the DUP chose to follow the hardline anti-Irish Ulster Says No attitude, engaging in an ongoing Project Fear, stoking up antagonism amongst their voters with suggestions of compulsory Irish in schools, Irish road signs on the Shankill Road, and other straw men. This has now come back to bite them, as Arlene Foster found herself in the same position in which she put Theresa May in early December, when the DUP scuppered the first attempt at the Phase 1 Brexit deal with the EU: agreement from the leadership, but unable to carry the hardliners.

Of course, in this case, the DUP had created the hardliners, by so successfully framing the Irish language act to their voters as an attack on their British identity.

This is not to say Sinn Féin is entirely blameless. The hostility publicly shown by both sides is conterproductive, and perhaps the Sinn Féin framing of ‘red lines’ in particular was not conducive to unionist compromise. But the lion’s share of the blame must fall squarely on the shoulders of the DUP and hardline unionism.

This was a moment for leadership. A moment where there could have been a new, and true, respect between the two identities, just as when Ian Paisley showed true leadership and entered a powersharing executive with Martin McGuinness. If Arlene Foster and senior DUP figures had supported an Irish language act, and had told their voters that this is not a threat to their British identity, that Irish identity is valid and should be respected, that there is no reason why both identities cannot coexist on equal terms, they would have gained immense respect for unionism from nationalists. They may even have delayed a united Ireland – if nationalists feel respected and equal, it reduces the impetus for constitutional change.

By taking the hardline attitude, following the extremist base rather than trying to lead them, Arlene Foster has most likely strengthened nationalism, and hastened the demise of the union she seeks to protect.

The way forward is unclear. Nationalists will not accept direct rule from Westminster by a DUP-reliant Conservative government. Unionists will not accept any form of joint rule. Most people seem to agree, at least publicly, that restoration of Stormont is preferable. However, it is difficult to see how this can be reached until unionists accept the validity of Irish identity, and end their fight to maintain cultural supremacy.


Cover image: Stormont Parliament building [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Breandán MacGabhann

Dr. Breandán MacGabhann is a Geography lecturer at MIC/UL in Limerick.

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