Northern Ireland news

Unionists question future of devolution following British government plans for Irish language legislation

DUP MLA Jonathan Buckley has criticised British government plans to introduce Irish language legislation for the north next month
Paul Ainsworth

PLANS to introduce Irish language legislation in the north by Westminster have sparked an angry response among unionists who have accused the British government of ignoring their concerns.

NIO minister Conor Burns told the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee this week that the UK government is determined to introduce legislation on Irish and Ulster Scots before the end of the current Stormont mandate next month.

Mr Burns told MPs he did not want the issue of language legislation to overshadow the upcoming assembly election in May.

"It's definitely the government's view that it would be a good thing if this was completed and didn't become a contentious element of what is already going to be a contentious election campaign," the NIO minister said.

Irish language legislation is part of a "cultural package" agreed by parties in the New Decade New Approach (NDNA) deal to resurrect Stormont in 2020.

It includes the creation of Irish and Ulster Scots commissioners and plans to allow the use of Irish in courts and on official documents including birth certificates.

However, the British government has been accused of "cherry picking" parts of NDNA and ignoring unionist demands.

Speaking on BBC Radio Ulster, DUP MLA Jonathan Buckley said unionists "cannot be surprised" by the UK's approach to language legislation.

"Let’s face it, this is a Conservative and Unionist Party that has been tone deaf to the concerns of unionism for some time," Mr Buckley said.

The Upper Bann MLA said a failure to address his party's concern over the Irish Sea border "does not bode well" for the continuation of devolution.

"Unionism is at its wits end with hollow commitments from her majesty’s government on the Northern Ireland Protocol," he said.

"Here we have a Northern Ireland Office minister and many political parties who want to see NDNA cherry picked for their own advantage. Whilst I respect everybody’s rights to value a language, to participate in speaking a language - my concern primarily is the constitutional and economic impact of the Irish Sea border on the people of Northern Ireland."

TUV leader Jim Allister said many unionists will be questioning the point of devolution if Westminster introduces legislation over the head of the assembly.

"The supposedly sacrosanct text of the Belfast agreement has been tampered with in order to remove the need for unionist consent to the protocol. Some of the most liberal abortion legislation in the world has been introduced over the heads of the assembly. Now, Irish language is to be imposed on us without the assembly having any say," he said.

The Irish News approached the Ulster Unionist Party for comment.

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