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'Historic milestone' passed as Irish language legislation becomes law

An Dream Dearg campaigners pictured at Stormont back in May as legislation on Irish language was introduced at Westminster. Picture by Mal McCann
Paul Ainsworth

THE passing of Irish language legislation at Westminster has been welcomed as a "historic milestone" by campaigners who are now seeking the implementation of the law, including the appointment of the north's first Irish commissioner.

The Identity and Language (Northern Ireland) Bill, which was introduced in the House of Commons back in May, completed its Westminster journey on Monday, receiving royal assent and officially repealing legislation from 1737 that among other outworkings banned the use of Irish in courts.

The new legislation grants Irish official status in the north and will lead to the appointment of Irish and Ulster Scots/Ulster British commissioners.

The posts are to be appointed by a Stormont first and deputy first minister, but the law allows for the appointments to be made by the Northern Ireland secretary in the absence of a Stormont Executive.

The bill was introduced at Westminster after the British government warned last year it would do so in an attempt to break a stand-of between Sinn Féin and the DUP over its introduction at the Stormont Assembly.

The legislation had been agreed by parties in the New Decade New Approach deal to restore Stormont in 2020.

Welcoming the bill becoming law, Irish language campaigner Dr Pádraig Ó Tiarnaigh, of An Dream Dearg, said: "This significant and historic milestone stems from the pioneering work of the Shaws Road Gaeltacht over 50 years ago, where the seeds of the modern Irish language revival in the north were first planted.

"From those small beginnings an Irish language community has flourished and grown. Today that community has succeeded in bringing legislative change for the Irish language here. That is historic. For years Irish speakers have challenged the state as the language was marginalised and ridiculed. Today we take another step forward on our journey towards comprehensive Irish language rights."

He said that work would now begin to ensure the act is fully implemented.

"We now hope to see the appointment of the first Irish Commissioner in the history of the northern state early in the new year," he added.

Campaigner Paula Melvin, president of the Conradh na Gaeilge group, hailed the passing of the legislation, but said the bill was "not our final destination".

"We have pushed hard on several important amendments to the legislation and we now turn our attention to both implementing and to strengthening the bill and bringing it up to international standards of language legislation in the future," she said, adding: "Painful experience with the British government has taught us to take nothing for granted. Until we see this bill fully enacted and indeed implemented in practice, we will continue to push ahead with the campaign."