EU move highlights need for Irish language act

Confirmation that Irish became an official language of the EU at the weekend resolved an important issue which had been under discussion since 2007.

It highlighted the need for a breakthrough over an Irish language act at Stormont which has been surrounded by delays and frustrations throughout the same period.

Saturday’s move marked the end of a lengthy derogation process which previously limited the amount of material published in Irish by the EU institutions.

Irish campaigners will note that they have also had an almost identical wait for the delivery of language legislation which was promised when the St Andrews Agreement restored our power-sharing structures 15 years ago.

The DUP, despite endorsing the St Andrews document, managed to repeatedly block its language provisions until the New Decade New Approach deal was brokered by the British and Irish governments almost exactly two years ago.

It included a firm commitment to deliver the legislation, which, in the face of continuing DUP opposition, left the responsibility in the hands of the British authorities.

Secretary of State Brandon Lewis insisted last June that there was still an opportunity for the Stormont executive to approve a bill before the election scheduled for May of this year, but said he would intervene if the deadlock was not broken.

As it is clear that the DUP, which has spent most of the last year stumbling from one internal crisis to another, will still attempt to veto any legislation at the Assembly, it is time for Mr Lewis to stick to his word.

It needs to be stressed that a cultural act which covers both Irish and Ulster Scots poses no threat to any section of our divided society, and only replicates measures which have been accepted in both Scotland and Wales for decades.

The DUP’s attitude became even harder to justify last week when new research established that significant numbers of British soldiers from staunchly Protestant and unionist districts of east Belfast who fought in World War 1 were Irish speakers.

It was a finding which reinforced the assertion of Turas, the organisation which promotes the use of Irish within the Protestant community, that the language has always belonged to people from all political and religious backgrounds.

Now that the EU has recognised the rights of Irish speakers, it would be entirely fitting if the British government accepted its own duty and proceeded with the required legislation.