Time to fully respect the Irish language

In many ways, it is a considerable pity that the debate over an Irish language act has become so closely intertwined with the discussions about the restoration of our devolved administration.

The case for the specific legislation is overwhelming on its own merits and it is deeply disappointing that the measure was not implemented as clearly intended by the St Andrews agreement of 2006.

It is all very well for the DUP to insist that it did not endorse that particular part of the wider deal but the party cannot be allowed to claim that it is effectively entitled to indefinitely block an entire Irish language act.

The symbolism of five different Stormont parties joining forces at the Metropolitan Arts Centre (MAC) in Belfast on Wednesday to back the legislation was powerful by any standards.

It demonstrated firmly that, if a related motion was tabled in a revived Assembly, 50 of the 90 MLAs would be committed to voting in favour of it.

Such a result would no doubt be carefully noted by Lord Kilclooney – the former Ulster Unionist deputy leader John Taylor – who suggested in an Irish News interview that nationalists could not be regarded as equal to unionists as the latter group were the majority.

This year’s Assembly election actually left unionists in a minority at Stormont, so the old certainties are changing, and the MAC gathering also demonstrated how unfair it is to portray the Irish language act as an initiative driven solely by Sinn Féin.

It is certainly unlikely that the SDLP, Alliance, the Greens and People Before Profit will be prompted to review their stance after being described yesterday by the TUV leader Jim Allister as `useful idiots.’

All five parties will have their own views on the priorities to be included in an Irish language act but it is heartening that they were jointly able to show their respect for the principles which are at stake.

The best way to proceed is for a general consensus to be reached on the detail and final cost of the proposed legislation, in a way which would enable to DUP express its opinions without exercising any form of veto.

Separate provision should be be made for Ulster Scots, which, as the DUP founder member Wallace Thompson has tellingly declared, deserves to be respected as a dialect but cannot be directly equated with the Irish language.

At a stage when measured and appropriate legislation protecting and developing the languages of both Scotland and Wales has been in place for many years, it is difficult to see how much longer Irish can be denied the status it deserves.