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Westminster expected to pass long-awaited Irish language legislation

Westminster is expected to pass the Identity and Language (Northern Ireland) Bill by the end of the month. Picture by Laura Lean/PA Wire

WESTMINSTER is expected to pass long-awaited legislation for the Irish language by the end of this month, The Irish News understands.

Stormont’s parties have been involved in a round of intensive briefing over recent days with British government officials, who have indicated that the bill is ready to be laid before parliament when an opportunity arises.

The development comes almost two years to the day since the cultural package that includes provisions for the Irish language and Ulster Scots was agreed as part of the New Decade New Approach deal that saw the devolved institutions restored.

Several sources have confirmed that the Identity and Language (Northern Ireland) Bill is complete and that once introduced at Westminster, is expected to be passed within days.

It includes measures that would see the creation of commissioners for both the Irish language and Ulster Scots, as well as the establishment of an Office of Identity and Cultural Expression. However, it is unclear whether there is adequate time to fill these roles with just weeks left before the assembly mandate ends before May’s election.

The bill is also expected to see the repeal of a 280-year-old law which specifies that all proceedings in the north’s courts must be in English.

Secretary of State Brandon Lewis committed to bring forward the legislation last June. The Northern Ireland Office was last night sticking to the same line it has adopted since the autumn, insisting that officials are "taking the necessary steps to introduce legislation as soon as parliamentary time allows”.

However, The Irish News understands that efforts are under way that will see the legislation presented at Westminster before the end of this month – a move that is likely to rile the DUP.

In September, Sir Jeffrey Donaldson threatened to collapse the Stormont institutions if the British government legislated for the Irish language while his party’s concerns about the protocol remained unresolved. There was no comment from the DUP last night.

Conchúr Ó Muadaigh, advocacy manager with Conradh na Gaeilge, said his group wanted “action” rather than further formal commitments from the British government.

“The British government must immediately fulfil their June 2021 promise to bring this legislation through Westminster before the executive mandate ends in March, honouring its commitment and ensuring enough time for the appointment of an Irish language commissioner,” he said.

“There is little point in this legislation if the appointment of a commissioner and the core functions of that office is to be left in limbo for another undefined time, robbing it of any practical effect.”

SDLP leader Colum Eastwood said the detail of the legislation had been agreed some time ago but that it had been held up by “prevarication and threats to collapse the political institutions”.

“It’s beyond time that we got this over the line,” he said.

Alliance MLA Paula Bradshaw said it was “long past time” that the this legislation was on the statute book.

She said it was important to find a window in Westminster’s schedule to see the legislation passed quickly.

“When that happens, it will be an important day not just for the Irish language but also for everyone who wants to be able to express their identity freely in Northern Ireland,” she said.

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