Northern Ireland news

MPs support Irish language protections after DUP says they're acting 'like a wing of Sinn Féin'

An estimated 17,000 people took part in a protest march in Belfast city centre to demand immediate implementation of Irish language legislation
David Lynch and Martina Bet, PA

Ministers rejected claims the UK Government is acting like “a wing of Sinn Féin” as MPs approved plans to bolster the official status of the Irish language in Northern Ireland.

Northern Ireland minister Steve Baker hit back at the suggestion from the DUP during consideration of the Identity and Language (Northern Ireland) Bill.

The proposed law aims to create new protections for the Irish language, and also proposes two commissioner roles – one for the Irish language and another for the Ulster Scots/Ulster British tradition.

The Bill moved closer to becoming law after it received a third reading in the Commons, despite unhappiness from the DUP, and it is in its final stages in Parliament.

DUP MP Jim Shannon (Strangford) earlier described the Bill as “nothing more than a sop to Sinn Féin”.

Sammy Wilson, DUP MP for East Antrim, added: “It’s unfortunate that when ministers are appointed to Northern Ireland, they seem to accept the default position of the Northern Ireland Office, which seems to be an extension of the Department of Foreign Affairs in the Republic of Ireland and the default voice for Sinn Fein.”

Mr Baker replied: “I just want to reassure them on a slightly lighter note that while they’re accusing us of being a wing of Sinn Fein, I can absolutely assure them that Sinn Fein are perfectly content to tell me that we pander too much to the DUP.”

He added: “So I suspect that what this Government is actually doing, (what) it does at the moment, is a job that’s about right, doing as we are something which seems to offend all quarters.”

Mr Shannon later urged the Government to think again on the Bill, and called on ministers to back its amendment aimed at giving more powers to the proposed Ulster Scots commissioner, as under the current plan it would “be of far less value for its community” than the Irish language commissioner.

He added: “What has Northern Ireland’s unionism done to so upset this Government that it sees fit to treat us this way?

“First, we have a prime minister – well, the prime minister has changed – who comes to Northern Ireland and promises there will be no border down the Irish Sea and then goes home and imposes a border down the Irish Sea.

“Then the way they have treated us through the Ulster Scots commissioner. I conclude with this, it is very hard not to draw very painful conclusions here today. I say that with great sadness in my heart… but the legislation today is here to punish us.”

Simon Hoare, chairman of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, said suggestions that ministers are “kowtowing to a Sinn Fein agenda” were wrong.

He appealed to the DUP to stop making the claims, adding: “I have suffered those sorts of brickbats from some of the opposite benches over the time I have chaired the committee: unfair and untrue.

“I just say very politely to (Mr Shannon) it has got to stop. This is the New Decade, New Approach. We are trying to move things forward. The Government is trying to move things forward with fairness and equity, respect and support.”

Speaking at third reading, Mr Baker said he “genuinely regrets” that his “friends in the DUP have not been able to support this”, adding: “Some words have been spoken today which I regret very much.

“This should be a day of rejoicing for advocates of the Irish language and it’s very much my hope and ambition that the passage of this Bill would lead to a depoliticisation of the Irish language.”

SDLP leader Colum Eastwood said: “This is not in fact the Irish language act that we would like to have seen but this is a very important step on the way to recognising that the Irish language is a key part of the identity of many people in our community and that has to be recognised in law.”

Northern Ireland news