The current issue of The Ulster-Scot newspaper has an important article by DUP leader Arlene Foster. It is a thoughtful consideration of culture and identity in Northern Ireland and, in particular, the regional aspects of culture and identity.
The article is entitled ‘A rightful place for Ulster-Scots in Northern Ireland’s new century’ and, in it, she writes warmly about Ulster-Scots culture, heritage and language. She draws on examples and illustrations from her home county of Fermanagh and she affirms the value and validity of this tradition.
She also writes about various cultural traditions as “cultural wealth” and a “cultural tapestry”, but at the same time recognises that issues of culture and identity have too often been associated with division and dispute, and I would add the word “deadlock”.
We are approaching the centenary of Northern Ireland and the title of her article refers to Northern Ireland’s “new century”. In a few years we will be entering that second century, so this is a forward-looking article.
She writes: “I want the story of Northern Ireland’s next 100 years to be of a place and people that thrive within the United Kingdom. And I believe that cultural security and confidence are vital to this new, more positive chapter in our history.”
She is right when she says that we cannot afford to settle for “short-term patches, or political expediency” and that we need to “investigate, reflect and plan for a better future together”.
For some years now the public discourse about regional cultures has been dominated by Sinn Fein’s demand for an Irish Language Act. Unfortunately, that has prevented us having the sort of reflective conversation about cultural diversity that is needed.
That is why she says “we must establish a new cultural deal to provide a comprehensive and long-term approach” to cultural identity.
So, what are the core elements in the cultural vision, or cultural framework, that Arlene Foster sets out in the article? The answer is that they are well-established concepts such as cultural diversity, cultural equity and good relations.
The concepts are not new, but the important fact is that this is the first time that such a senior politician has brought them together in a coherent way and proposed that they form the framework for an agreed cultural vision.
She recognises our historic cultural diversity, whereby “English, Irish and Scottish influences” have shaped modern Ulster.
Indeed, she illustrates that by reference to her own home county and the towns of Brookeborough, Maguiresbridge and Irvinestown — the Brookes were an English family, the Maguires were Irish and the Irvines were Scottish.
Of course, if we are to build a shared and better future for all our people then that needs to be based on a sound foundation of good relations, and it was exactly 20 years ago that academics at the-then University of Ulster put forward the good relations model of equity, diversity and interdependence.
That simply means that all our cultural traditions and our cultural communities should be treated on a basis of equity.
In her article, Mrs Foster writes: “In practical terms, government actions and policy should be built around respect, recognition, representation and resource”; another well-established model that helps us to understand equity. It is about addressing inequality in those four areas.
Around that same time, another University of Ulster project recommended that, in managing diversity “no one sector of society can, or should, be looked at on its own”. We need what they called a “holistic approach”.
The demand for an Irish Language Act, with special treatment and special provisions for the Irish language, runs contrary to that “holistic approach”.
That, in itself, setting aside all the other issues, is a sound enough reason to reject the Sinn Fein approach.
Mrs Foster has set out a coherent vision for culture and a framework for addressing cultural issues in Northern Ireland. For that she deserves credit.
It is a significant article that deserves to be circulated widely and considered carefully, not just by political negotiators and cultural activists, but by communities, commentators, civil servants and, indeed, everyone with an interest in this part of the United Kingdom.