Both the British and Irish press were almost willing the latest round of talks aimed at restoring the Northern Ireland Assembly to succeed, but they shouldn’t have been surprised that it failed. As we already reported, the Democratic Unionist Party cannot return to government with an Irish Language Act (which would protect and fund the Irish language); Sinn Féin cannot return without one.
And so Northern Ireland will be ruled from London again. All that is left is for Westminster to announce the implementation of direct rule, "temporarily" at first, but it's likely to become permanent once the particulars have been sorted with Dublin and Stormont.
The only way to avoid this would be a DUP about-face to sign off on the agreement that their negotiating team agreed to but their party members rejected. Having approved an Irish Language Act, before reneging and then publicly dismissing the idea of ever accepting one, former First Minister Arlene Foster has painted herself into a corner. Direct rule – which she is now calling for, despite knowing that means joint rule by the Westminster and Dublin governments – is the only feasible option while the DUP and Sinn Féin maintain their respective positions.
Unionists' backs are up already after new Sinn Féin president Mary Lou McDonald ended the party’s Árd Fhéis (annual conference) by saying "up the rebels; tiocfaidh ár lá". So, an act was not a real possibility last week, despite Theresa May, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and the press being briefed that an agreement was close.
The unionist view of the act and the language itself as a nefarious republican plot was disappointingly parroted in the liberal British press. You might think they would have learned something from first-hand experience of the Foster-led DUP’s complete refusal to compromise, reporting the botched discussions of a post-Brexit border in Ireland, but you’d be wrong.
However, there is a false equivalency at play any time the north is discussed in British media; both parties are assigned equal blame for any failure to achieve compromise. It speaks volumes that The Guardian can admonish the DUP for "playing to its gallery" on Brexit and condemn Sinn Féin less than a year later for using the Irish language as an instrument to "attack unionists" when faced with the same unyielding methods. Both Brexit and Assembly talks have hit seemingly impassable snags; analysts would be better served considering the common denominator.
The idea that an Irish Language Act is a sectarian political goal ignores the fact that cross-community parties such as the Alliance Party, the Greens and People Before Profit support it. Any mention of the low number of Irish speakers in Northern Ireland without mention of its repression – historically by the Ulster Unionist Party and contemporarily by the DUP – is in bad faith. Irish did not have official status in the north until 1998, and it was the DUP’s decision to slash its funding in December of 2016 that led to calls for an act, which is guaranteed by both the Good Friday (GFA) and St Andrew’s Agreements. Three separate acts had been agreed: an Irish Language Act, a similar act protecting and funding the Ulster Scots dialect and a third Respecting Language and Diversity Act. That the DUP pulled the rug despite achieving equivalency between Irish and Ulster Scots should put paid to the idea that these negotiations were ever about equal footing.
Foster has said of Sinn Féin’s demands, "If you feed a crocodile it will keep coming back for more." But her obstinate crocodile starving has instead run parallel to the rhetoric of anti-GFA loyalists such as Jamie Bryson, the blogger who came to attention during the flag protests of 2012 and 2013. Bryson, whose favourite dismissal of republican concerns is the title of a Skrewdriver song – released on the same single as their song "Smash the IRA" – recently gave advice on "innovative democracy" to Westminster’s Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, where he called the agreement a "moral stain". It’s no coincidence that he said so in the immediate aftermath of Ruth Dudley Edwards saying the GFA had outlived its use in The Telegraph and the Labour MP, Brexiteer and Antrim-native Kate Hoey calling it "unsustainable".
We are standing on the precipice of a two-pronged rhetorical assault against the GFA. One will be waged by Brexiteers frustrated that the agreement stands in the way of any haphazard border resolution, the other is hardliners like Bryson rebelling against the Dublin role in direct rule.
Sinn Féin and Dublin are, for once, in agreement with each other in calling for the first meeting of the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference since 2007, but, with no deal on the horizon, and no reason for SF to make further concessions when they had agreed one, it is hard to see how this would be anything more than a stall before the official implementation of direct rule, despite Varadkar’s protestations. An election is another possibility, but that would be unlikely to radically change the makeup of elected officials, so would just be a further deferral.
This all feels like the pre-Trump and pre-Brexit dawns, when the ideas were mooted, dismissed and then happened anyway. That someone like Bryson would be invited to Westminster should be enough cause for alarm. Power sharing and the GFA have limits that would have been reached naturally over time, but when you hear DUP MP Sammy Wilson tell BBC Radio Ulster that governments "can’t be bound by something previous governments agreed to", you begin to worry that the process is being accelerated.
To think that Brexit – which Northern Ireland opposed – and unionist discomfort with anything Irish, be it the language or a Dublin government, could undermine an agreement that has saved countless lives is an unsettling, yet suddenly real prospect for Northern Ireland.