The anti-equality approach of the DUP, supported by the British government, has seen the shutters effectively pulled down on this round of talks. This constitutes a monumental failure by Theresa May and her government.
Decades of work are being put on hold to keep her in power. As a result it is unlikely that any agreement will now be possible this side of the summer. None of this is surprising. The character of the current negotiations has been different from others we have had with the DUP in recent years. We were back to the David Trimble style of slow, tedious, minimalist negotiations. As a consequence, there was no agreement on Irish language rights, marriage equality, the Bill of Rights, legacy matters or anti-sectarian measures. The DUP has resisted the imperative of rights-based policies and agreements that are essential for the political institutions to be sustainable. This is especially true in the context of Brexit, the DUP alliance with the Tories and the fallout from the RHI scandal.
Contrary to claims by the British Secretary of State James Brokenshire that good progress was made the fact is that no substantive movement was achieved on the core issues. Once again a British government has pandered to the DUP’s anti-rights, anti-equality agenda. This tacit endorsement of the DUP’s stance has been driven in large part by Theresa May’s desire to stay in power. The British Prime Minister is backing the denial of basic rights here which are the norm in England, Scotland, Wales and the rest of Ireland, That cannot be tolerated.
During this process some elements of the media and of the political establishments, north and south, tried to pressurize Sinn Féin into acquiescing to discrimination. We refused. The Irish Times editorial last Saturday is a case in point. It called on the ‘two big parties in Northern Ireland to show they are serious about politics by striking a deal that will enable the powersharing institutions to be restored.’ What did they think Sinn Fein was trying to do?
The shallowness of their analysis is further evident in the line which states; ‘What divides the two parties appears more symbolic than real.’ There is nothing symbolic about marriage equality. The Irish Times editorialized in support of same sex marriage three days before the historic vote in that part of the island in May 2015. Its banner slogan says it all: ‘Marriage referendum: In the name of equality’. And it was right. Marriage equality was and is about equality, and it is important both for those citizens directly affected by it and for a society that seeks to be inclusive and non- discriminatory.
So, the Irish Times has no difficulty recognising the historic importance of the marriage equality vote for the South and for the rights of citizens who live there. Does it then believe that citizens who want to be married in this part of the island should be treated differently; should be denied equality? On Saturday Michelle O’Neill and I joined thousands of citizens in Belfast City Centre demanding marriage equality. They packed the streets around the City Hall. They made their demand for equality loud and clear. It is unacceptable that this is the only place in these islands that citizens do not have the right to marriage equality. It becomes even more unacceptable as the tide of history moves forward in support of same sex marriage, as was evident in the vote the previous day by the German Parliament.
Marriage equality is only one of the rights based issues that are at the heart of the current difficulties. An Irish Language Act is another. Irish language rights are a central part of the Good Friday Agreement and Acht na Gaeilge is a part of the 2006 St. Andrew’s Agreement. This issue has both practical and symbolic importance. As was evident in the Assembly and Westminster votes there are many citizens who do not speak Irish but who believe that those citizens who wish to should have the protection of the law.
Sinn Féin also has concerns about the way in which the DUP has used the Petition of Concern (PoC) and other legal instruments to block agreements signed by all of the parties, including the Irish and British governments. The Petition of Concern was introduced after the Good Friday Agreement in 1998. It means that a contentious piece of legislation can be blocked if 30 MLAs sign a petition of concern. Given the discriminatory history of the northern state the PoC was intended to prevent political and religious discrimination from occurring again. However, with the DUP holding more than 30 seats in the previous two Assembly periods they have been able to use it to block, for example, marriage equality legislation. Even though the majority of MLAs support marriage equality.
In my last column, and in my Waterfront Hall speech at the recent conference on a United Ireland, I acknowledged the deep chasm that exists in this state since partition. The division between the nationalist and unionist position goes beyond the national question. It’s also about the right of those citizens in the North who embrace their sense of Irishness. Whether this is in music or literature, in language or sport or politics, or in their sense of history and family roots, there is a significant section of opinion in the North which is Irish and is proud to be Irish.
There comes a point when you have to take a stand against injustice. Martin McGuinness made that clear on January 9th when, despite being gravely sick from an illness that would shortly after take his life, he travelled to Stormont to resign as Deputy First Minister. Speaking to the media Martin said: ‘There will be no return to the status quo. The situation we have been dealing with the course of recent years is unacceptable. I have called a halt to DUP arrogance and if the DUP think in the aftermath of an election that they are going to step back into Ministerial positions, short of resolving the critical issues IO have identified, then they are living in a fools paradise.’
Let me be equally clear. There can be no return to the status quo. Measures to resolve all of the issues at the heart of this crisis were agreed previously. We expect these to be implemented and the rights of citizens in the North to be acknowledged and respected. We also expect, as a result of the Renewable Heat Incentive scandal that integrity and transparency in government will now be agreed by all of the parties. Equality, rights and respect are the only basis for sustainable institutions.
The reality is that the Sinn Féin electorate will not consent to be governed by the DUP on their terms. We do not and would not expect the DUP electorate to consent to be governed by us on Sinn Féin terms. So it’s really quite simple. It’s all about rights. It’s about equality. Equality is good for everyone. It’s all about agreement and how these rights are going to be delivered. That’s the only way to get the institutions back in place. We have told that very directly to the DUP. We have said the same thing to the British Government. Mrs May is prepared to tolerate the denial of rights here which are enjoyed everywhere else on these islands. That is not acceptable to us. It should not be acceptable to anyone else and we look especially to the Taoiseach to make this clear to Theresa May.