Northern Ireland news

Irish language act at Westminster 'will help the Tories and Sinn Féin'

Sinn Féin President Mary Lou McDonald, with deputy First Minister Michelle O'Neill, and MLA Conor Murphy at Stormont. Picture by Hugh Russell

AN Irish language act is likely to be passed at Westminster because it will ultimately help both the Tories and Sinn Féin, a leading historian has said.

The British government has agreed to legislate for language provision by October if it the assembly does not go ahead with any legislation in the meantime.

Following Wednesday night's deal, Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald said her party would have preferred it if language legislation had been passed through the assembly.

"It became abundantly clear that that was not happening, that the DUP were not doing that, so we essentially stepped around them and we have broken what I think has been a significant logjam," she said.

Historian and Irish News columnist Brian Feeney said yesterday he believed Boris Johnson's government wanted to pass an Irish language act at Westminster because it would weaken devolution.

But he said such a move will also help Sinn Féin's wider ambitions in Ireland.

"The British government is quite anxious to do this because this particular government is strongly opposed to devolution," he said.

"They are working hard to dismantle devolution. Boris Johnson said in an unguarded moment at a Conservative Party meeting that Scottish devolution had been a disaster."

Mr Feeney said the government was moving to slowly weaken devolution through measures including the establishment of a Belfast office by the UK Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG).

He said Westminster's willingness to intervene directly in Northern Ireland, including the relaxation of abortion laws, plans to extend abortion provision, and now the possible introduction of Irish language legislation, meant the government could argue that Stormont is ineffective.

He said the DUP and Sinn Féin were allowing Westminster to "do their dirty work".

"Sinn Féin were opposed to direct rule during the three years the assembly was suspended but they're happy with this," he said.

"They need to be aware that there's more to this than simply getting this through."

He said the deal was a "reversal of positions" for the DUP and Sinn Féin.

"One of the reasons Sinn Féin don't take their seats at Westminster because they say that the British government should not have any involvement in the island of Ireland," he said.

Mr Feeney said a deal was done relatively quickly because neither the DUP or Sinn Féin want an early election.

"They look back to December 2019 and both the DUP and Sinn Féin suffered because nurses were on strike and people wanted the health service back up and running," he said.

He added: "There is a school of thought (among Sinn Féin) which says let's have an election now because the DUP will be massacred.

"But Sinn Féin has a eye on a bigger prize - (becoming) taoiseach. Sinn Féin is at its highest point ever in opinion polls in the Irish Times."

He added: "If Mary Lou McDonald becomes taoiseach, so much better to have a Sinn Féin first minister in the north.

"Polls show that at next year's election, Michelle O'Neill will be first minister."

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