Northern Ireland news

Ciarán Mac Giolla Bhéin: 'Implementation of language rights is now litmus test for new DUP leader'

Ciarán Mac Giolla Bhéin pictured at an Irish language protest at the Department of Communities offices in Belfast city centre. Picture by Hugh Russell

AS speculation mounts around who the next leader of the DUP might be, and with Edwin Poots publicly throwing his hat into the ring, many have looked over his previous comments on a range of issues to try and judge the future direction of travel for the party.

As with many other rights issues, his views on the Irish language are more aligned with the firebrand rhetoric of the most extreme elements of unionism as opposed to the era of equality and mutual respect that we have been promised.

Indeed his tenure as DCAL minister was marked by his arrogant refusal to progress on the St Andrews Agreement regarding the Irish language act, which had only just been ratified.

Poots's opinion, however, is in keeping with what we have witnessed within the DUP generally.

Only a few months back Arlene Foster said she was committed to bring legislation in the current mandate.

As pressure mounted around the protocol and the DUP's disastrous handling of it, they reverted to type and used the language as a distraction, with Foster then urging ‘realism' regarding the timelines around implementing the New Decade, New Approach (NDNA) language legislation.

It has become increasingly clear that the block to adopting legislation has been a political one, a deliberate policy of delay from the DUP in an attempt to leverage political capital on other issues.

Our community has “waited” long enough: we have been waiting almost three centuries on the repeal of the 1737 ‘penal law' banning Irish in the courts; we have been waiting 23 years on the new era of equality promised at Good Friday; 15 years on the Irish language act and strategy promised at St Andrews; and over a year since the latest commitment on language rights at Stormont.

In comparison to the Welsh legislation referenced in the 2006 St Andrews Agreement, there are huge gaps in the NDNA commitments.

The provisions, therefore, must be viewed as a staging post in an ongoing journey towards full equality and recognition after decades and indeed centuries of exclusion, marginalisation and regressive policies that deliberately banned and removed the language from public life and sight.

Those days are long gone. Over a decade of DUP attacks and intransigence towards the language and its speakers has been met with the Dream Dearg campaign for rights and respect.

That campaign will challenge any new leader to make good on the party's commitments and agreements.

The language legislation is undoubtedly the core component of the NDNA agreement and was recognised by all as central to the restoration of power sharing.

To renege on New Decade, New Approach would be to renege on power-sharing itself.

It would represent a calculated political decision to exclude scores of thousands of Irish speakers and their communities from a shared and equal rights-based society.

Let there be little doubt, the full implementation of language rights is now the litmus test for any new DUP leader.

The British and Irish governments are co-authors of the agreement. They must not play the part of external mediators, but become decisive players that may soon have to act where Stormont fails.

The debate around the merits or otherwise of language legislation has been had, there can be no going back and any attempt by political unionism to renege on these commitments must be challenged and resisted by all.

:: Ciarán Mac Giolla Bhéin is a spokesperson for An Dream Dearg.

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