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Martin Galvin speaks to award-winning journalist, Suzanne Breen, via telephone from Belfast, who updates us on and provides her spot-on analysis of the most critical issues now occurring in the occupied Six Counties of Ireland. (begins time stamp ~ 30:23)
Martin: With us on the line we have Suzanne Breen, she’s the award-winning Irish journalist based in Belfast. She has written, as I said, with the Sunday Tribune, with the Irish Times – she now contributes pieces – she’s been breaking stories once again – for the Belfast Telegraph, the Irish Independent among others on the talks that are going on at Stormont. Suzanne, welcome back to Radio Free Éireann.
Suzanne: Thank you.
Martin: Okay. We played that song for you in Irish because Irish is one of the sticking points, I believe, in the negotiations but just to bring our readers up-to-date: There’ve been two sets of negotiations going on. First of all, Stormont itself – the Executive in which Sinn Féin and the DUP (Democratic Unionist Party) which for ten years were the major partners and parties or the leading parties – that broke down. There was an election. They weren’t reconstituted. But in the interim Theresa May, the British Prime Minister, announced another Westminster election and she thought that that would give her an increased majority and a much freer hand. And instead, when the votes were counted she found that she was short of the majority, she needed a number of votes from another party and the DUP negotiated with her – they had ten seats. They negotiated with her and they’re due to get a billion pounds or more back to The North of Ireland together with side deals perhaps on issues like parades or legacy – we’ll wait to see what happens. Suzanne, they then were, the DUP, was then to go back to Stormont to negotiate with Sinn Féin and see if they could get a deal to bring all that money back to the Executive to be distributed within the Six C0unties and there was a deadline for that deal last Thursday. What happened and where are we now in those negotiations between those former partners, ten-year long partners, the Democratic Unionist Party and Sinn Féin?
Well the deadline on Thursday wasn’t met and the British Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, James Brokenshire, then extended the deadline and he gave the DUP and Sinn Féin another three days to try and reach a deal. The new deadline is Monday but it doesn’t look like there is going to be an agreement by Monday. In fact you know, it would be an odds-on shot for there not to be a deal – very, very unlikely. There is no sign that either of the parties are willing to make the compromises needed that would return them to power in Stormont. So the focus will, on Monday, go to James Brokenshire, the Secretary of State, about what he is going to do. He can either extend the deadline further, perhaps give them an autumn deadline, he can reintroduce some form of direct rule from London or he could call another snap Assembly election. An extended deadline, at the moment, would look like being the most likely option.
Martin: Okay. James Brokenshire, of course, is the British secretary – one of those individuals who gets sent to Ireland by a British prime minister to ‘audition’ for a job that they would rather have, some place they’d rather be – he’s going to make that statement in Westminster on Monday. Suzanne, you have the DUP and Sinn Féin – they were partners together for ten years, Martin McGuinness/Ian Paisley, Martin McGuinness with Peter Robinson – what are the issues that divide them now that you know, they worked together for ten years, why is it, what are the issues that separate them now and stop them from coming together particularly when, you know, you have this sort of bribe of a billion pounds that they can distribute if they come together and reconstitute the Executive?
Suzanne: Well the problems perhaps really lie in personalities and not in political issues. Sinn Féin had accepted a lot of things that it didn’t like for the ten years that it was in government with the DUP. But it found, near Christmas of last year, it found Arlene Foster’s attitude impossible in Stormont. The party found her arrogant and there was a scandal over a renewable heat energy scheme and they didn’t feel that Arlene Foster replied properly and responded properly and showed the humility that was necessary during that scandal. Sinn Féin’s grassroots got very angry and basically demanded that the party step outside Stormont and bring it down if necessary. And that happened. So now Sinn Féin are demanding an Irish Language Act. This Irish Language Act was initially promised to them ten years ago by the Blair government in the 2006 St. Andrews Agreement. It didn’t happen. But for ten years Sinn Féin turned a blind eye to the fact that it didn’t happen and stayed and remained in government. Now that the party has come out of Stormont it’s base are demanding gains if it goes back in and one of the demands that Sinn Féin is making is over the Irish language.
Now the issue of the Irish language came to prominence when, just before Christmas, the DUP stopped a fifty thousand pound grant for Liofa that enabled children from deprived backgrounds to go to the gaeltacht on holiday and this move by the DUP, over what would be a relatively small amount of money, has basically catapulted the Irish language back to the centre of the political stage in Northern Ireland. So Sinn Féin’s demand is for a stand-alone Irish Language Act. The DUP are willing to move on an Irish Language Act but what they are proposing is a hybrid act that would also acknowledge Ulster-Scots and Sinn Féin is saying: No, there is no parity between the two and they want an Irish Language Act on its own. The other issue would be over reform of what is called the ‘petition of concern’ (PoC) in the Assembly – and this is a mechanism that basically has allowed the DUP, because it holds the most seats in Stormont to vote down, to prevent, other other democratic decisions that the Assembly might take, and the main issue here is over equal marriage – that is allowing same-sex couples the right to marriage.
And the DUP has consistently voted this down in the Assembly when the numbers are there to support equal marriage and Sinn Féin is demanding reform of the petition of concern that would allow for a democratic vote in the Assembly to allow men to marry men or women to marry women. Those are the two main issues but the Irish language really, really is the biggie.
Martin: Okay, And there had been another demand – you mentioned the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI). There was a scandal. There was a special incentive, or a programme given, that you could put in special kind of heaters and you, it turned out – it was under Arlene Foster’s leadership – you would get paid we’ll say a dollar and a half or a pound and a half, whatever measure, for every pound or dollar you use so you would make money by burning heat – it was called a ‘money to burn’ scandal by some. Sinn Féin had demanded that she step aside and that that was another red line – that you couldn’t have somebody be the first minister of a government while it was investigating whether something was done wrong in terms of that particular scandal. What happened to that demand, that Arlene Foster step aside, until the inquiry that is now ongoing – it’s headed by a retired judge – came forward with some results?
Suzanne: Well Sinn Féin has signaled that it actually is prepared to drop this demand and this had been the central reason for Sinn Féin pulling out of the Executive and bringing Stormont down. It’s very, very hard for Sinn Féin to continue to demand that Arlene Foster steps down – her party has just had a magnificent election result getting almost three hundred thousand votes – the biggest share, the biggest number of votes that it has ever received.
It holds the balance of power in Westminster and Arlene Foster has just returned from London with a billion pounds extra money for the Executive in Northern Ireland for projects to do with health, education and infrastructure. She’s in a very, very strong position and for Sinn Féin to demand that she steps aside, potentially for a year, or over a year, while the inquiry into RHI goes on really would be nonsensical – she just isn’t going to do it. She’s not going to bring all this money to Stormont and then say: You know what? I’m prepared to stand in the shadows for a year so Sinn Féin is prepared to drop this demand – if the DUP gives ground over something like the Irish Language Act Sinn Féin will quietly accept Arlene Foster as First Minister.
Martin: It’s amasing, Suzanne, about the – we’re talking with Suzanne Breen, a journalist, Belfast-based journalist. (station identification). A few months ago after the Assembly elections Arlene Foster had made the famous statement about comparing the Irish language saying I’m not going to feed the crocodiles – they’ll be looking for more. Her party had a very poor result. Sinn Féin was just within a hair of overtaking them and it looked like Arlene Foster was one bad election, one bad statement, one bad action, one bad revelation in the RHI inquiry from being replaced as DUP leader. Now, Theresa May – it’s almost like that old term about a, that Greek device, about a Deus ex machina – you couldn’t figure out a way to get somebody out of a spot, a hero or heroine that you wanted to save, you pretend that God came down and pulled them out from a machine – all of a sudden the British general election has produced a tremendous result for Arlene Foster. She has now all the, they – the Unionist community – reacted to Sinn Féin’s reaction after the Assembly election and the Unionist community came out in force. They delivered a tremendous vote for her and Arlene Foster seems to be in a bigger, better position than she has even been before. Would that be correct?
Suzanne: Yes, that’s right. Sinn Féin is in a very, very strong position, again a stronger position than it’s ever been before within the Nationalist community. The SDLP (Social Democratic and Labour Party) lost its three MPs in the Westminster election, it’s vote is dwindling – it’s now just really a regional party reduced to representation in Stormont and if there was another Stormont election the SDLP, I think, would lose substantial number of its seats and representation on the local councils. Sinn Féin has also basically neutered the left-wing radical People Before Profit that looked like a real threat to the party especially in working class, urban areas of The North, in Belfast and in Doire – but really for all the power that Sinn Féin now has in the Nationalist communities in the larger political stage it very, very much is a bit player – it doesn’t take its seats in Westminster so its MPs can’t support, for example, the opposition and Jeremy Corbyn, and it’s not in power in Stormont and it really doesn’t look to have any leverage. There is a Fianna Gael government in power in The South. The Tories have their deal with the DUP. So Sinn Féin are bit players for all their strength within the Nationalist community they really don’t wield any greater power outside that and the DUP are just miles ahead in terms of votes in Northern Ireland. I mean in the Assembly election the parties were basically neck-and-neck. In the Westminster election the DUP asserted a very, very strong lead so Sinn Féin is limited at the moment in what it can do but of course we have seen, as you’ve mentioned with the fates of Arlene Foster and Theresa May, the politics, nowadays all over the world, changes very, very quickly and you really just don’t know what’s coming next.
Martin: Alright. Suzanne – two other stories that you broke this week: Peter Robinson claimed that the Irish Language Act had been promised by the – well, the British had represented to Sinn Féin that an Irish Language Act had been agreed to but that the Democratic Unionist Party never agreed to one. And they were told by the British: Don’t worry about it. Nothing’s going to happen. And he basically said that Tony Blair and the Labour Party, the British government at that time, had conned Sinn Féin into believing that there was an agreement on an Irish language act but that that had never happened.
Suzanne: That’s right. Peter Robinson said that Tony Blair’s government had conned Sinn Féin into believing that an Irish Language Act would be introduced and he accused the British government of deliberately misleading Sinn Féin and also of changing a document without the DUP’s knowledge. And he said that at the negotiations in 2006 the Reverend Ian Paisley was so troubled about this deception and the Blair government’s double-dealings that he vowed, in future negotiations, he would conduct them directly with Sinn Féin – that he wouldn’t have a government intermediary. And the Reverend Ian Paisley believed that if the British government could con Sinn Féin like that it would do the same to them. Basically all throughout the 2006 negotiations, according to Peter Robinson, the Irish Language Act was never, ever mentioned and then just right at the very end the government changed the document, he believes after consultation with Sinn Féin. And when the DUP said: Well, we don’t agree to this change in this document they were told that, contrary to what the document said, there never would be an Irish Language Act. The document said that the government would legislate for an Irish Language Act but what the DUP were told on the side was that the power in this area would be devolved from Westminster to Stormont and Stormont really wouldn’t have to do anything. So it was nudge, nudge, wink, wink – this language is here and it’s being used to fool Sinn Féin but in reality nothing will happen and that was exactly what did occur. The British government legislated for an Irish language ‘strategy’ along with an Ulster-Scots ‘strategy’ and nothing else. So much of what Mr. Robinson said has been shown to be accurate – that the wool was pulled over Sinn Féin’s eyes in the 2006 negotiations. It genuinely thought that there was, that an Irish Language Act was going to be introduced but really, when it came to the technical detail, it was never going to happen.
Martin: Alright. And you also have a situation where the British government is going, and Theresa May, is going to be in partnership with the DUP on an ongoing basis. They will need votes on different issues and there’s a concern: Are there any kind of side deals that are made? Will the British government, for example, move on the Parades Commission or in terms of legacy or in terms of any – the statute of limitations – other issues, after consultation with the DUP on areas which are within the British government’s authority where Sinn Féin would not be able to prevent them from taking any action?
Suzanne: Yes, well the DUP has a lot of power because the that it deal reached with Theresa May on Monday doesn’t just guarantee them money here and now for the DUP votes in the next five years in Parliament – the deal is only for two years. But it also leaves out plenty of votes that may arise on a daily basis in which DUP support will be known. Now from what we know and what we have been told those other more parochial issues are not part of the deal. But there obviously is a fear, with Nationalists, among Nationalists, that certain issues like parades and the like could be being sorted out between the DUP and the Tory government in private. The government is insisting that there is absolute transparency and this is just about things that’ll benefit the whole community in Northern Ireland generally. In some ways though if the government did go down that path in terms of doing side deals that very much irritated Nationalists it might reverberate for it in Westminster.
Generally, there might be a feeling that you know, this isn’t fair play because there are a lot of people, ordinary conservatives, more moderate conservatives, that really are quite irked by the fact that Theresa May has got into bed with Arlene Foster’s party and they’re not very happy about it. They regard the DUP as extremists, as conservative on social issues – they’re not happy with it. So Theresa May has to be very, very careful and not have a rebellion within her party’s ranks and keep everybody on board. Her majority, even with the DUP, is so, so slender she cannot afford to alienate people.
Martin: Okay and one final story you broke for the Belfast Telegraph: Outside Holy Cross Primary School, it’s an area just on the edge of a Nationalist area in Ardoyne just very close to a Unionist area already, leading up to July Twelfth, the kerbstones, or the pavement, outside that school have been painted red, white and blue – not to celebrate American Independence Day as people are here but to celebrate the British – and there had been graffiti, ‘LA’, Loyalist Ardoyne, to intimidate some of the students, the young children, who would go into that school. Is there anything that can be done to remove this or stop these tensions or diffuse them as we start to move forward into negotiations as we move forward towards July Twelfth?
Well a local SDLP Councillor in North Belfast, Paul McCusker, he has approached the relevant authorities, which would be Belfast City Council and Transport NI, and he’s asked them to remove the paint from the road. However, he was told that this couldn’t be done without consultation with the wider community – that would be with the Loyalist community – so it looks like the paint is going to stay there because there isn’t the will there among the authorities to take action and to take steps that would anger the local Unionist community so it looks like the kerbstones will remain painted red, white and blue for the foreseeable future.
Martin: Alright. So that’s how the lead-up to July Twelfth is already started – those demonstrations and young children going to school are going to have to see that sort of graffiti. The British government can do nothing about it, according to themselves, other than to ask for consultation – which who knows how long that would take and who was going to say something on the Unionist side against the Loyalists who put up that graffiti – they’re going to be concerned about repercussions. Suzanne, we want to thank you. We’re looking forward to your stories – continue to cover and break the news on these stories in the Belfast Telegraph, in the Irish Independent and other stories that you write from.
Suzanne: Thank you.
Martin: Okay. That was Suzanne Breen, the award-winning journalist from the Irish Times, from the Sunday Tribune, more recently with the Belfast Telegraph and with the Irish Independent – she contributes stories to them on a continuing basis. (ends time stamp ~ 51:06)