Wednesday, 12 May 2010

Let's See What You’re Made Of

The Blether Region has previously stated that, for all the apparent signs of fresh thinking in Tory ranks with regard to Irish language legislation, the party's ill-thought-out deal with the Ulster Unionists would be likely to scupper any follow-through. Now that deal seems to be unravelling, with no DUP leverage to replace it, which is clearly a good thing for peace in Northern Ireland.

Is it also good news for an Irish language Act? In short, while its chances may have increased, we just don't know. There may soon no longer be a direct UCUNF link, but the Tories' affinities still clearly lie with the Unionists — even if, as Harry Reid argued in yesterday's Herald, it is the result of "some atavistic and inexplicable veneration for the Union" among a party whose best interest lies in English independence. And while there may be exhortations from international bodies that the British Government introduce an Act, the Tories do not always have much time for those.

If the Liberal Democrats listen to their Alliance sister party, they will probably find ambivalence, since even civic Unionists don't always "get it" with regard to linguistic culture. If they go on their own (British) liberal instincts, however, they might well support an Act.

Perhaps the biggest hurdle is that of competence. Passing a language Act over the heads of Assembly Members would amount to a repatriation to Westminster of powers currently devolved. Unionists could argue with some justification that Sinn Féin bleated when it came to devolving justice but had no such qualms on language, as long as it got its own way. There are currently no Conservatives in the Assembly to support the passage of a Bill through that forum, and even if they tipped the scales in favour of legislation, Unionists could easily invoke cross-community voting to stop it dead in its tracks. Moreover, at a time of austerity opponents of an Act have a further argument to use against it.

That argument can cut both ways, however, since Westminster currently funds a good deal of Irish-language projects that should properly be paid for out of the devolved grant. If legislation were portrayed as a vehicle to introduce some modest hypothecation, it might yet be sold to the Tory grandees. Cutting initiatives such as the broadcasting fund without ensuring that funding continued from other sources would be terribly difficult politically and ultimately destabilising.

We just don't know.

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