Northern Ireland news

Westminster legislation ‘a historic advancement for Irish language community'

An Dream Dearg at Stormont today unfurled a 70ft flag with a symbol representing the campaign for Irish language rights. Picture Mal McCann 
Rebecca Black and Gráinne Ní Aodha, PA

New Irish language legislation has been hailed as a “historic advancement for the Irish language community”.

Under proposals for language and identity, the Irish language would be granted official status in the north.

It would also allow the use of Irish in courts and see the appointment of Irish and Ulster Scots/Ulster British commissioners.

The Identity and Language (Northern Ireland) Bill also aims establish an Office of Identity and Cultural Expression.

The legislation would repeal the 1737 Administration of Justice (Language) Act (Ireland) which banned the use of Irish and languages other than English in the courts.

It was introduced in the House of Lords this afternoon.

Irish language speakers marked the day by unfurling a giant campaign flag at the front of Parliament Building at Stormont.

An Dream Dearg campaign spokesperson Pádraig Ó Tiarnaigh described the legislation as a step forward.

“We would consider this an historic advancement for our community, it is a staging post on our long, long road towards language rights and equality, and we recognise it as such,” he said.

“It doesn’t bring us to where we ultimately want to be. Stacked up against the Welsh model for language rights, for example, it does fall well short and does fall short of what we were promised at St Andrew’s, but for the 20,000 people that came out on the streets of Belfast on Saturday, for the generations of people who have walked this road with us for decades, today belongs to them.

“This is a day to celebrate and recognise all of that work and those pioneers who challenged the state when it wasn’t cool and when people said no, no, no.”

The Northern Ireland Office said the Bill aims to “deliver a balanced package of measures for Northern Ireland on identity and language, fulfilling the commitments set out in New Decade, New Approach”.

“It will provide for the recognition and protection of the Irish language and the development of the Ulster Scots and Ulster British tradition,” the department said in a statement.

The draft laws propose two commissioner roles – one for the Irish language and another for the Ulster Scots/Ulster British tradition.

An Office of Identity and Cultural Expression would also be established “to promote cultural pluralism and respect for diversity”.

The posts must be appointed by a first and deputy first minister – two roles which are currently vacant as the DUP is refusing to nominate ministers until the British government takes action on the Northern Ireland Protocol.

The legislation also allows for the secretary of state to make the appointments if the first and deputy first minister posts remain vacant.

The Bill is expected to be passed by autumn.

Separate to the Identity and Language Bill, the British government announced it is granting Ulster Scots recognition as a national minority under the Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities – a status already granted to Irish, Welsh, Scots and Cornish.

The British government is also providing £4 million to An Ciste Infheistíochta Gaeilge – the Irish Language Investment Fund.

Legislative protections for the Irish language in Northern Ireland were a key plank of the New Decade, New Approach agreement that restored powersharing in January 2020 after a three-year impasse.

They were included in a broader package of cultural laws proposed for the Northern Ireland Assembly that was stalled amid political contention.

Last June, the British government pledged to pass the legislation at Westminster to break a stand-off between Sinn Féin and the DUP over its introduction in the Stormont Assembly.

However, the government failed to bring forward a Bill before its own self-imposed October deadline last year.

During a visit to Northern Ireland last week, Briitsh prime minister Boris Johnson pledged to deliver on the cultural package.

Secretary of State Brandon Lewis said the Bill “represents a significant milestone, not just in the continued delivery of New Decade, New Approach, but in laying down a new cultural framework for the people of Northern Ireland”.

“This legislation is carefully balanced, as negotiated by all parties, to ensure everyone in Northern Ireland benefits.

“Not only will the legislation faithfully deliver on the measures within New Decade, New Approach, it will also, importantly, ensure the principles of respect and tolerance, as stated in the Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement, continue to be realised.”

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