Northern Ireland has been without a devolved government for over a year, since the nationalist party Sinn Fein decided to quit the power-sharing arrangement with the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) in January 2017.
The talks to re-establish a joint rule in Belfast have crashed, with the DUP leader Arlene Foster saying in her official statement that "significant gaps remain between ourselves and Sinn Fein especially on the issue of the Irish language."
"I have made it consistently clear that unionists will not countenance a stand alone or free standing Irish Language Act. Sinn Fein's insistence on a stand alone Irish Language Act means that we have reached an impasse."
So what is so significant about the language legislation that it cut short the long — running attempt at reformation of the devolved executive — key to the 1998 Good Friday peace agreement that ended three decades of violence?
"Sinn Fein's demands for an Irish language act, which Unionists regards as Sinn Fein's way of achieving a kind of cultural supremacy," Professor Graham Walker at Queen's University Belfast told Sputnik.
Irish language Act (Acht na Gaeilge) would give Irish equal status with English in Northern Ireland. Sinn Fein has been clear in its ambition to have Irish set as official language in courts, state bodies, as well as right for education through Irish and bilingual signage on public buildings and road signage.
Despite only a minority of the population speaking Irish as main language in Northern Ireland, the matter is symbolically paramount to the wider nationalist community.
But the DUP has been clear in its position, pointing out that the "unionist and British identity" is of equal importance and so far they haven't been proposed a "fair and balanced package."
"As far back as last summer, I outlined my party's willingness to reach an accommodation on language and cultural issues. However, I indicated that any such accommodation must be fair, balanced and capable of commanding support on all sides of our community. At the moment, we do not have a fair and balanced package. After the Assembly election, I embarked on an engagement exercise with those who love and cherish the Irish language. I respect the Irish language and those who speak it but in a shared society this cannot be a one-way street. Respect for the unionist and British identity has not been reciprocated," DUP leader Arlene Foster said in her statement.
The language act feud has been ongoing for a number of years and has previously seen parliamentary controversy unravel in Stormont, where the Northern Ireland Assembly sits.
In 2014, DUP MP Gregory Campbell mocked Irish language during the Assembly meeting, by starting his address with the phrase: "Curry my yoghurt can coca coalyer." His was an attempt to poke fun at the Irish phrase "go raibh maith agat, Ceann Comhairle" that translates as "thank you, speaker" and is used by mostly Sinn Féin members.
Campbell was subsequently barred from the Assembly for s short period after he refused to apologize for what Sinn Féin Culture Minister Carál Ní Chuilín called "pure ignorance."
Sinn Fein represents mainly Catholic proponents of a united Ireland, while the DUP is supported by the Protestant community and backers of continued rule by Britain.
There is a very fine political balance in Northern Ireland at the moment, Professor Walker told Sputnik.
"The population balance is getting to 50/50 [Catholic and Protestant]. A lot of people feel that in the near future there will be a majority of the Catholic community, which would lead to eventual vote for a united Ireland. There is a great deal of tension around that and the current political difficulties are reflecting that."
Both the UK and Irish governments have been overseeing the talks between Sinn Fein and the DUP. British Prime Minister Theresa May has called on two parties "to make one final push for the sake of the people of Northern Ireland" during her visit to Belfast earlier this week.
Following no deal between the negotiators, the Irish Prime Minister tweeted:
I very much regret the statement from the DUP. Power sharing and working together are the only way forward for Northern Ireland. The Tanaiste and the Secretary of State are in close contact and we will continue to confer with the British Government about the next steps.— Leo Varadkar (@campaignforleo) February 14, 2018
The current UK leadership is in a politically delicate position, as they depend on the DUP — their coalition partners since the 2017 election. At the same time they are not looking to upset Sinn Fein in fear of undermining the fragile 1998 peace agreement.
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