The current talks process re-starts today, with nationalism once again issuing a shopping list of demands which they require to be met in order for them to do us the honour of permitting Northern Ireland to have a working Government.
Contrary to some assertions, the talks pre-Christmas did not stretch out further into discussing the Irish Language, rather they focused almost solely on matters relating to the Petition of Concern. The proposal is for a reform of the petition which would take the required number of signatures up to 32, with a mechanism to review whether any use of the petition was appropriate.
There is no agreement on the form of this mechanism. The DUP had argued for an internal mechanism- likely anchored in the Executive Office- whilst others had been content with an external mechanism, with the matter placed in the hands of a body such as the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission.
The Irish Language element of the deal worked from the general framework of the unacceptable February 2018 proposals, with some amendments to the draft text having been made in the intervening period. This was not discussed, or put before, all of the parties around the table in the pre Christmas discussions.
However, the current proposal is for a three-stranded ‘Act’ which would encompass Irish Language, Ulster Scots and British Rights. Nationalism is demanding an Irish Language Commissioner, and Unionism is quite rightly making clear that is unacceptable. It is understood the three stranded approach would be tied up in a cultural act, but crucially the responsibility for formulating the legislative text would rest with any incoming Executive.
It is also important to note that despite some confusion online that the UUP had agreed to an Irish Language provision, they did not. This formed no part of the talks process pre-Christmas.
The efforts to bounce unionism into a bad deal are designed to circumvent any proper grassroots unionist/loyalist scrutiny of any agreement- an effort to present a fait accompli upon a community that the British and Irish Government have wrongly grown to believe are now accustomed to handing out concessions like confetti. The point has been consistently made that our community has nothing left to give.
Nationalism’s key demand has been for a stand-alone Irish Language Act, which would include a commissioner. Neither a stand-alone act nor a commissioner is ever going to be acceptable to any self-respecting unionist. This applies whether it is delivered by the front door, or the back door. Leaving aside the fact it is unnecessary and little more than pandering to a nationalist hobby horse, it would be to reward the politics of hostage- and as the ‘process’ has shown us for 20 years, once you feed the crocodile it keeps coming back for more.
Therefore the DUP, and UUP, must stand firm in opposition to any form of Act that would either overtly, or covertly, deliver an Irish Language commissioner- or a stand alone act, even if propped up by Ulster Scots and British Rights on either side.
However, if a cultural package- which did not deliver or lay the ground for an Irish Language commissioner, but opened the door to enhanced protections for British cultural rights which are genuinely under attack- parading, flying of the national flag, bonfires- then potentially unionism could stand to gain from such an approach.
If, subsequent to the above, responsibility for drafting any potential legislation flowing from a cultural package rests solely and exclusively with the Executive Office (and this is something unionism must demand) then unionism will have a veto on the text of any legislation, and an effective blocking mechanism. If this were to be the case, then nationalism has gained- and will in the future gain- nothing at all.
Nationalism enters every process with another list of demands, whilst unionism is constantly expected to hand out concessions in order to placate such insatiable demands. That has how the process was created, and that is why I wrote on this site yesterday that 2020 must be the year that unionism breaks free from the process.
In order to do that it is necessary to change and alter the parameters of our structures, and the current talks process presents a perfect opportunity to do so. Here are some suggestions of issues which unionism should inject into the talks;
(1) The responsibility for drafting any cultural act rests exclusively within the ambit of the Executive Office and approval must be given jointly by the Office of First and Deputy First Minister in order for any drafting to proceed;
(2) Any legislation on cultural issues automatically triggers the provisions requiring cross-community consent for the passage of any such legislation and any agreement makes clear that the British Government will respect the Sewell convention (will not legislate on such matters over the head of the NI Assembly);
(3) The agreement explicitly states- and is reaffirmed by a policy statement by the Secretary of State- that consent for the arrangements outlined in the Northern Ireland Protocol pertaining to Brexit are exclusively a matter for the Northern Ireland Assembly and is to be viewed within the ambit of Strand 1 (5) (d) of the Belfast Agreement.
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