So what is the subject of the rally? Are the proletariat protesting against the restoration of Stormont and the prospect of Big Ian becoming prime minister? No, as far as can be seen most people cling to the vain hope that some deal will be done. Are they, as the left hope, all riled up over water charges? No, although nobody actually wants to pay the charge the non-payment rallies have not been growing – rather the reverse. In fact, the masses are due to rally in support of the promised Irish Language Act.
This is rather revealing of how the peace process works. At the St Andrew’s talks, in exchange for agreeing to whatever Big Ian demanded, the Provos were fobbed off with various small commitments from the Brits, the most visible of which was the promise of legislation to give Irish some sort of official recognition – the details remain vague. There’s nothing wrong with that. It should be a basic democratic position that Irish should get no less official support than Welsh does. And it’s basically a feelgood measure – it gives nationalists the illusion of having their identity recognised without undermining the basis of the Northern statelet. (“Parity of esteem” is the Humespeak term, now widely adopted by all sorts of people.)
But that isn’t how unionists have seen things. Any official recognition of the Fenians, no matter how innocuous, is guaranteed to get unionist backs up. The OUP have got stuck into the DUP for letting this dangerous proposal see the light of day. The Orange Order have taken the headstaggers and included the Language Act as part of their long list of grievances. The DUP, whose position in the past has oscillated between “English Only” and the odd semi-serious attempt to demand parity of esteem for Braid Scotch, have belatedly woken up to the fact that this small gesture to the Fenians is going down like a lead balloon with the Prods. And, while the Brits seemed to have made an ironclad commitment to the legislation, suddenly the proposal finds itself back on the table and gradually sliding off the table. Such is the dynamic of the peace process.
This in turn has started to sink into the nationalist psyche, and a march and rally are necessary to demand something that was supposed to have been a done deal. It’s also interesting that there are two overlapping constituencies involved here. There are in West Belfast many serious and devoted Gaeilgeoirí who are genuinely annoyed about the Brits’ vacillations. But there is also the luvvie wing of Sinn Féin Nua, many of whom know no Irish except “Ba mhaith liom deontas”, but whose beady little eyes lit up like Scrooge McDuck’s at the prospect of a well-funded Gaelic subsection of the grantocracy. Parity of esteem is one thing, but the prospect of those juicy grant cheques vanishing concentrates the mind wonderfully.
Am I being unduly cynical? Possibly. After all, the Language Act is a worthy cause no matter the motivation of the march organisers. It wouldn’t make much practical difference, but Gaeilgeoirí with some experience of activism behind them appreciate the value of even a small victory. But it’s worth noting nonetheless that imperialism can give and take away with equal facility. It’s the old old story – the only rights you have are the ones you can win for yourself.