Part I Part II Part III Part IV
In my four previous posts, I have set out the history of the Irish Language and the status quo today in terms of speaking, learning and heritage. Since the previous post, I have received updated information. I would like to thank very much those of you who have supplied me with that information.
I said in my previous post that the last Northern Irish speaker of Irish died in 1983. He was actually the last recorded adult monoglott Irish speaker. I have since been told that there was a later Northern Irish monoglott Irish speaker who died in 1986. I also omitted to mention two communities in Belfast in the Shaw’s Road and the Falls Road which have set up mini-Gaeltacht areas. It is also worth acknowledging that there are now a number of Irish medium schools. All the indications are that the learning of the Irish Language is on the increase.
The proposed Irish Language Act is not a straight forward debate. The arguments both for and against include issues relating to Culture, Identity, Legal, Constitutional, educational, promotional, sectarian and financial. One could also subdivide the arguments under those headings. I have weighed all of those arguments very carefully in accordance with the following guiding principles.
The overriding principle upon which I approach the issues and find a solution to them is that Northern Ireland’s best interests are paramount. I appreciate that not everybody will necessarily have the same view about what Northern Ireland’s best interests should be.
My view of Northern Ireland’s best interest in relation to the Irish Language is guided by two main principles.
The first is that that we need to bring sectarianism to an end and thereby move Northern Ireland towards harmony. Conversely, we must not do anything which would lead to or aggravate sectarian division.
The second principle is that primacy should be given to the the Belfast Agreement and the St. Andrews Agreement. The importance of these two agreements can never be understated. Together, they are the negotiated blueprint for long term peace and an acceptable political constitution. If there is to be any departure from any strand of those two agreements, there have to be extremely compelling reasons for doing so. I have also decided that if there is a conflict between the first and the second principle, the first principle should take precedence over the second.
Behind those principles, there is a vision. The Irish Language is clearly a part of Northern Ireland’s cultural and historical heritage. Provided that a way forward can be found for the Irish Language which is acceptable to both communities, it has the potential to develop into a symbol of a unified Northern Ireland identity.
The St. Andrews Agreement
The St. Andrews agreement is the appropriate starting point, since it does seem to be the main reason for the debate.
I have already set out the relevant provisions in the Belfast Agreement which relate to the promotion of the Language. The St. Andrews Agreement was, at the very least, an agreement to give legislative effect to the Belfast Agreement. It may even have been more than that.
It is worth repeating the relevant wording of the St. Andrews agreement.
“The Government will introduce an Irish Language Act reflecting on the experience of Wales and Ireland and work with the incoming Executive to enhance and protect the development of the Irish language.”
Has the Government delivered on this part of the Agreement with the introduction of the new section 28D of the Northern Ireland Act? Once again, it is worth repeating section 28D
“(1) The Executive Committee shall adopt a strategy setting out how it proposes to enhance and protect the development of the Irish language.
(2) The Executive Committee shall adopt a strategy setting out how it proposes to enhance and develop the Ulster Scots language, heritage and culture.
(3) The Executive Committee—
(a) must keep under review each of the strategies; and
(b) may from time to time adopt a new strategy or revise a strategy.”
Diane Dodds of the DUP has made references to a proposed Irish Language Act in very hostile terms. In reference to the SDLP draft bill, she said at the beginning of February 2009, “We’ve binned the Irish Language Act.” Very recently, she said this of Sinn Fein
“Remember their promised Irish Language Act? The Direct Rule regime was prepared to grant it. Indeed they were out to public consultation on the issue and were poised to impose a rigid Irish language regime upon us.”
Enacting section 28D after the conclusion of St. Andrews would have been a very odd thing to do if there was to be a another piece of legislation to follow. This suggests that something stronger than section 28D was in the offing. Diane Dodd’s remarks are very near to confirmation that section 28D was a watered down compromise which appeared after the DUP rejected the original proposals.
Assuming that stronger legislation for the Irish Language had been offered by the Government, what was it likely to have been?
The St.Andrew’s agreement says “reflecting on the experience of Wales and Ireland.” It is worth providing a summary of those experiences.
The Irish language and the Republic of Ireland Constitutional experience
When the Irish Free State began in 1922, the Irish constitution made Irish and English equal official languages. In 1938, Irish became the first official language. Notwithstanding this status, there are still restrictions on the use of Irish in the Courts and Tribunals. The reason for this is that the right to natural justice is a higher constitutional principle.
The principle of natural justice is now underpinned by the European convention on Human Rights. In particular, Article 6(1) provides the right to a fair trial within a reasonable time. Article 6(3) provides that everyone charged with a criminal offence has the right to be informed promptly, in a language which he understands and in detail, of the nature and cause of the accusation against him and to have the free assistance of an interpreter if he cannot understand or speak the language used in court.
A litigant (party to proceedings) is entitled to use his native language or the Irish Language (if not his native language) when presenting his side of the case to a Court or Tribunal but may not require another party to do so. A party is not entitled to demand that the entire proceedings are in Irish. A judge may have the benefit of an interpreter (including an Irish interpreter) to assist with his understanding of the evidence. Advocacy, questioning and cross-examination may be carried out in Irish. A defendant in a criminal trial can not insist that a jury has an understanding in Irish.
No party to any proceedings can insist on a legal notice being translated unless this would lead to a breach of natural justice. Either official language can be used for a notice unless there is a separate statutory provision to the contrary. Section 8 of the Official Languages Act 2003 entitles a Defendant to demand a summons or pleading in either official language. A person can chose to give evidence in either official language.
Article 25.4.4 of the Irish Constitution provides that all Acts of the Oireachtas (Irish Parliament) have to be translated into Irish but this does not apply to secondary legislation, which would include Court rules. Case Law has determined that the State is obliged to translate Rules of the Superior Courts into Irish within a reasonable period after their adoption. The same also applied to the District Court Rules.
The Status of Irish as a first (rather than an equal) language has some legal implications. It has also been held that Article 8 obliged the State to provide an Irish translation of official documentation where a person wishes to conduct business in Irish. Forms for use in the Companies Registry have to have an Irish translation. However, a statute requiring road vehicle registration plates to have English was held not unconstitutional when a defendant was convicted for having Irish-only plates.
It is undecided whether the State is obliged to translate all official documents for any transaction whether a person requires it or not. There is no legislation which provides that there should be exclusive use of Irish or English for any official purpose of the State.
Article 8 also hits the education sector. A Minister may refuse to fund primary schools without the adequate teaching of Irish. The provision of Irish is a necessary element of State funded education.
It seems that having Irish as a first language in a Country which is predominantly English-speaking has put a legal strain on official business functionality. In 1996, the Report of the Constitutional Review Group rejected the primacy given to Irish by Article 8 as “unrealistic, given that English is the language currently spoken as their vernacular by 98% of the population of the State.”
The Group recommended that English and Irish are the two official languages but also recommended a protection provision for Irish that “the State shall take special care to nurture the language and increase its use.” The recommendation has been ignored and there seems to be no national desire to change the position.
Wales and the Welsh Language
Before the Romans came to Britain and possibly until the invasion (of what later became England) by the Angles, Saxons and Jutes, nearly all of Britain spoke in one of the Brythonic Celtic languages. Wales was only partially occupied by the Romans and never by the Anglo-Saxons. For these reasons, Wales has retained its ancient language (albeit evolved from what it was) to this day.
In 1282, King Edward I of England completed the conquest of Wales. From that point onwards, Wales became a part of the English Kingdom. There was no separate legal system in Wales until devolution in 1998. The de facto official language of state was whatever went on in England. Originally, the official language was Norman French until that language became obsolete by the reign of King Henry V. In the reign of Henry VIII, by section XX of the Laws of Wales Act 1535, only English could be spoken in the Welsh Courts despite the fact that hardly anybody in Wales spoke English.
The Welsh language never became extinct. It had been heading in that direction. 21% of the Welsh population speak the Welsh language today.
Statutory recognition for the Welsh language began in 1942 with the Welsh Courts Act. This gave the right to use Welsh in courts providing that the Welsh speaker was under a disadvantage in having to speak English. This right was very narrowly defined by subsequent case law and with the declining monoglott Welsh population was heading for obsolescence. The Welsh Language Act 1967 overturned these decisions. It made clear the right of any party or witness to use Welsh. It also gave rise to the concept of ‘equal validity’ between the Welsh and English languages except that in a case of conflict between Welsh and English text, English prevailed.
The Welsh Language Act 1993 sets up a language board answerable to the Welsh Secretary of State (now devolved to the Welsh Executive). The Wales Act 1998 gave power to do anything the Welsh want to do to support the Welsh Language. It has been compulsory to learn Welsh in schools since 2000. There is not an “equal” status as an official language in the Welsh Assembly or Welsh Parliamentary proceedings.
Many of the Welsh are very passionate about their language and its relationship to their identity. It was interesting to see how one Newspaper reporter/blogger suffered the wrath of the language defenders when he suggested scrapping the 1993 Act and was accused of “bigotry” by many commenters.
There is a campaign for a new Welsh Language Act to make Welsh an equal language completely. It has now been running for about four years. As the implications of the proposals sink in, resistance from businesses is on the increase as cost implications to private businesses are carry weight in the arguments. It is not clear how many in Wales would support a new language act.
Northern Ireland’s state of readiness for Irish in the Courts and as an official language
Although Wales and the Republic of Ireland allow a person to use the Irish or Welsh language in Court proceedings, it is very unlikely that the version of the Irish Language Act contemplated by the UK Government would have included an immediate right to use Irish in a Court in Northern Ireland court because of the practical difficulties.
Before such a right could be implemented, there would need to be a training programme so that a sufficient number of lawyers and judges would achieve a high level of fluency in the language. I emphasize “high level” here because anything short of that could lead to a miscarriage of justice, even with an interpreter. When I say “sufficient number” I mean I high percentage as there are in Wales and the Republic of Ireland.
Since it is not possible to force existing Northern Irish lawyers to learn Irish, let alone expect them to do so quickly, there would need a long-term plan to bring Irish into legal education and training. Should we decide that we want Irish in the Northern Ireland Courts in the future, there would need to be an announcement made that a qualification in Irish will be compulsory for entry into the Legal Profession in (say) 10 years from now so that school students contemplating a legal career can chose to do GCSE and ‘A’ level Irish or equivalent in anticipation of that. At some point in the future (perhaps 25 years time), this would yield enough fluent-speaking lawyers of sufficient experience to facilitate the right to be heard in Irish.
Although it is possible to have a right to be heard in another language in the courts without that language being an official language, it is not possible to have an official language without an individual being able to use that language in the Courts as of right. The case law in the Republic of Ireland makes that clear. It would also have been strange if the UK Government’s proposed Irish Language Act would “leapfrog” the Welsh to make Irish an equal language in Northern Ireland.
Given all the circumstances, I can not see that the Government would have proposed to introduce an Irish Language Act similar to the Irish or Welsh one. What then is the likely view taken by the Government for an Irish Language based upon the Irish and Welsh experience?
Fortunately, we have a very big clue. Just over a year before the St. Andrews Agreement was reached, the Scottish Parliament passed its first Language Act.
Scotland and the Scots Gaelic Language
Scotland is historically different to Ireland and Wales in the sense that it was never completely ruled by the Normans or the English. There would have been a time when Scots Gaelic was the official language under the ancient Scottish Kings such as Kenneth McAlpin.
Influences such as the Church and the close connection between Scots and Norman nobility led to English becoming the official Scottish language long before King James VI of Scotland ascended the throne of England in 1603 (see e.g. the Royal Mines Act 1424).
Scots Gaelic is one of the daughter languages of Old Irish. There are reportedly no Monoglott speakers left except in the remote Outer Hebrides. Like all other Celtic Languages, it was declining. As with other Celtic languages including Welsh, Cornish, Irish and Manx, there is a revivalist movement.
Until recently, there was no legislation in relation to Scots Gaelic. Following devolution in 1998, the Scottish Parliament passed the Gaelic Language (Scotland) Act in 2005.
The 2005 Act establishes a National Gaelic language board which
(a) has functions exercisable with a view to securing the status of the Gaelic language as an official language of Scotland commanding equal respect to the English language
(b) is required to prepare a national Gaelic language plan
(c) requires certain public authorities to prepare and publish Gaelic language plans in connection with the exercise of their functions and to maintain and implement such plans
(d) issues guidance in relation to Gaelic education.
I have no doubt that the Scots looked at the Welsh and Irish position before bringing in the legislation. They recognised the practical difficulties of a fully-blown language Act as in the Republic of Ireland but the Act also contemplates a constitutional upgrading of the Language once there are a sufficient number of speakers.
The other interesting observation about the Scottish legislation is that it was so substantially contemporaneous in time with the St. Andrews Agreement. I have little doubt that if there was going to be an Irish Language Act at the time of St. Andrews, it would have been modelled on the Scottish legislation.
Similarities and Differences between the Gaelic Language (Scotland) Act and section 28D
The first similarity that jumps out of the page is that in the Scottish case, a plan is required to be prepared. In the Northern Irish Case, a strategy is required. It is also fair to say that the existing structure in Northern Ireland has the capability (in theory) to deliver as much promotion for the Irish Language as the 2005 Act does for Scots Gaelic.
There are, however, differences which in my opinion make the dynamics of promotion very different. In the Scottish Case, a board has been set up to deal with the planning. It also includes public authorities. In Northern Ireland, it is the function of the Executive to make the Strategy. That is about as detailed as it gets. The big weakness of section 28 is that there is a de facto veto on progress because of its vagueness. For example the strategy might be no more than making Irish available for all Adults to learn at all of Northern Ireland’s Further Education colleges. That would be an almost useless initiative because most of the FE Colleges provide that facility already.
With an Assembly in charge of promotion, you are putting politicians in charge and you are more likely to have conflict. There is also something particularly attractive about having a board. They are more likely to have specialist expertise than the executive or an executive committee.
We await the emergence of a strategy. The right noises have so far been made on the website of the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure but note the last sentence
“A Strategy for Indigenous or Regional Minority Languages will be presented to the Executive in due course”
I am therefore going to make my first provisional declaration of opinion here. It is that if an Irish Language Act is justified, then the part of it which deals with promotion of the Irish Language should be modelled upon the Gaelic Language (Scotland) Act 2005 and that section 28D is inadequate.
At this point in this post, I have not expressed a view about the aspirational part of the Scottish Act. It still remains a question as to whether there should be expressed in a new language act a desire for equal status for the language in the future and/or a future desire to have Irish in the Courts. Although it will take a long time before equal status of the language can be achieved, some sort of way forward needs to be found for long term aspiration, since this will affect the shorter term decisions on strategy and planning.
There are still other arguments to address. Before I get on to these, we need to consider whether promotion of the Irish Language is everything we need to do to honour the Belfast and St. Andrews agreements or should there be more? In the investigation of that, we look at the arguments in favour of making Irish an official language. These include promotion, constitutional rights and identity.
Is there any relationship between promotion of the Language and giving the Irish Language any degree of official status?
The learning of Irish has been growing in Northern Ireland in the last generation without any form of constitutional recognition. In a sense, some constitutional recognition has already been given by section 28D of the Northern Ireland Act with possibly more effective provisions on promotion to come. The question I am really asking is “does promotion of the Language require any form of status as an official language or the right to a trial in Irish to promote it?”
Just from a common sense point of view, it is difficult to see how officiation of the Language would not promote it in some way given the number of employees and lawyers who would be required to have involvement with the language.
Sir David Crystal O.B.E. who was born in Northern Ireland is a part time lecturer in linguistics at Bangor University (North Wales). In his book “Language Death” (2000: Cambridge University Press) he postulates that an endangered language will progress if its speakers:
- increase their prestige within the dominant community
- increase their wealth
- increase their legitimate power in the eyes of the dominant community
- have a strong presence in the education system
- can write down the language
- can make use of electronic technology
Item 1 (increasing prestige) suggests that the Language might benefit by giving it official status. I hasten to add here that I have not obtained a copy of the book. The above list is an internet summary. I leave that potential point “in the air” without conclusion as it would need the input expert opinion.
Constitutional Rights and Identity
In my last post, I referred to the part of the Belfast Agreement which links cultural rights to Equality. It is worth setting out once again, Article 1(d) under the heading of the Belfast Agreement “Constitutional Issues”. This reads as follows:
“1. The participants endorse the commitment made by the British and Irish Governments that, in a new British–Irish Agreement replacing the Anglo–Irish Agreement, they will: ….
……..(v) affirm that whatever choice is freely exercised by a majority of the people of Northern Ireland, the power of the sovereign government with jurisdiction there shall be exercised with rigorous impartiality on behalf of all the people in the diversity of their identities and traditions and shall be founded on the principles of full respect for, and equality of, civil, political, social and cultural rights, of freedom from discrimination for all citizens, and of parity of esteem and of just and equal treatment for the identity, ethos, and aspirations of both communities; …..”
I now come to a question which is at the heart of this debate. Where exactly does the Irish language sit in terms of identity?
Note particularly the words “both communities.” Those words are a very clear reference to Catholic and Protestant. Article 1(d) represents the so-called “Equality” argument. If the Identity of the Irish Language belongs purely to the Catholic Community, then the argument is straight forward. It would mean that in applying Article 1(v), the UK Government is obliged, within the spirit and meaning of the Belfast Agreement, to impose a long-term aspiration to give Irish equal status in an Irish Language Act.
Some people would indeed argue that the language is only for Catholics. They could point to statistics which indicate a ratio of about 15: 1 people who are Catholics who have learned and/or are speaking the Irish Language.
With the greatest respect to the proponents of that argument, justifying equal status through Article 1(v) is a sectarian argument. For one thing, Irish speaking is still a pastime of a minority of Catholics. It is also a fact that a significant number of Protestants have either learned it or want to learn it. Furthermore, the educational system does not yet provide a fair enough opportunity for Protestant children to learn the Irish language.
There is a further argument on interpretation which is against the notion that the Irish Language is purely a Catholic identity. In the section of the Belfast agreement which deals with promotion of the language under the heading “Economic social and cultural issues” (see below), there is a reference to “the Irish Language Community.” That is not a community defined on sectarian lines.
I maintain that there is an opportunity for the Irish Language to be adopted as a cross-community identity going forward. Accordingly, I reject Article 1(v) as justification for equal status of the Irish Language. I hasten to add that this does not mean that Irish should be shut out forever on the question of equality of status. My view is that if there is going to be a decision about equal status in the future, it must flow from a united cross-community desire to incorporate the language as a part of an evolving Northern Irish identity.
I accept that this strand of the issue has the potential to become a “chicken and egg” dispute. In other words by leaving out the aspiration, there would never be a chance of equal status for the Irish Language because there is no planning leading towards it. My answer to that problem is in two parts.
Firstly, for this plan to work, the Protestant community needs time and space in order that enough people from that community are ready to take an informed view on the long term official status of Irish. It needs time for enough people from that community to have the opportunity to learn the language and to develop enthusiasm for it. It needs space for those people to fully appreciate the Irish Language heritage without politicians making people think that it is in their interests to resist it.
Secondly, the inspiration for planning for the development of the language and a new Irish Language Act can still be consistent with future equal status if a correct form of wording is used in the statement in the pre-amble in an Irish Language Act. It would be a form of words which makes it clear that the door is not shut on a future decision to make the Irish Language official but still leaving the decision on whether that should become policy to the future.
Effectively it is saying that Northern Ireland should be brought to a position where it will be better informed to make a more positive decision on the official status of the language in the future. I have provided here an example of how the wording of a pre-amble might be written. The Scottish 2005 Act pre-amble says this:
“An Act of the Scottish Parliament to establish a body having functions exercisable with a view to securing the status of the Gaelic language as an official language of Scotland commanding equal respect to the English language”
An Irish Language Act pre-amble for Northern Ireland might read like this:
“An Act of the Northern Ireland Assembly to establish a body having functions exercisable with a view to promoting the Irish Language such that in the future, an informed decision can be taken as to whether it should become a National objective of the Northern Ireland people to elevate the status of the Irish language to become an official language of Northern Ireland commanding equal respect to the English language”
Nobody knows for sure what the attitude towards the Irish Language will be in the future. What is important is that both communities go forward on this journey together and reach decisions which are in the best interests of the whole of Northern Ireland.
Having set out my proposal on aspiration, this has to be balanced with a promotion and education package which is strong enough to take Northern Ireland to the desired future mature position.
Education and Further Legislative provisions for the promotion of the Language?
Article 4 of the part of the Belfast agreement under the heading “Economic social and Cultural Issues,” states as follows
4. In the context of active consideration currently being given to the UK signing the Council of Europe Charter for Regional or Minority Languages, the British Government will in particular in relation to the Irish language, where appropriate and where people so desire it:
- take resolute action to promote the language;
- facilitate and encourage the use of the language in speech and writing in public and private life where there is appropriate demand;
- seek to remove, where possible, restrictions which would discourage or work against the maintenance or development of the language;
- make provision for liaising with the Irish language community, representing their views to public authorities and investigating complaints;
- place a statutory duty on the Department of Education to encourage and facilitate Irish medium education in line with current provision for integrated education;
- explore urgently with the relevant British authorities, and in co-operation with the Irish broadcasting authorities, the scope for achieving more widespread availability of Teilifís na Gaeilige in Northern Ireland;
- seek more effective ways to encourage and provide financial support for Irish language film and television production in Northern Ireland; and
- encourage the parties to secure agreement that this commitment will be sustained by a new Assembly in a way which takes account of the desires and sensitivities of the community.
These guidelines should always be part of any checklist when planning a strategy for the promotion of the Irish Language. Is there anything in that list which is likely to lose out without being incorporated into a New Irish Language Act?
There may well be. I think that on any review, before any new Irish Language Bill is put before Parliament or the Assembly, there should be a review of all the bullet points to see if any legislation is needed to give effect to them. The Part dealing with Irish Medium Schools is already covered by Article 89 of the Education (Northern Ireland) Order 1998
It is important that as soon as is reasonably practicable, Irish is made available for learning at all primary schools, secondary schools and further Education Colleges (so that Adults can learn Irish) across Northern Ireland. As a minimum requirement and certainly acting in the spirit of the first bullet point, I would recommend that new legislation requiring any Board conducting an Irish Language Plan or strategy makes those objectives a primary aim in the plan. Apart from the legal profession and any professional who would be vital to making the constitution workable for the Irish Language, learning Irish should never be compulsory in the Education system. Indeed, making it compulsory would, at this juncture, be failing the obligations in the final above-mentioned bullet point “…which takes account of the desires and sensitivities of the community”
If Irish were ever to become an equal language in the future, there would need to be a plan to include education, training and qualifications for the legal professions of Northern Ireland. Before any plan is hatched or imposed on the Legal Profession, there should firstly be consultation with the Northern Ireland Law Society and the Northern Ireland Bar Council along with a feasibility study is made about how the Legal Professions would introduce Irish into the legal system, should it become the will of the Northern Ireland people to give Irish official status in the future. Such a feasibility study is not just important for planning. Its findings would be crucial to future informed decisions.
The SDLP draft Irish Language Bill
In January 2009, the SDLP presented its proposed Irish Language Bill, which was summarily rejected out of hand. The proposals in the act can be summarized as follows
(1) to make Irish an official language carrying equal status with English
(2) The right to use Irish in debates in the Assembly.
(3) to enable a party, witness or other person to present their case or give evidence in the official language of their choice to a court, tribunal or other decision-making body
(4) providing all civil servants and local government employees with the right to use either official language as a language of work
(5) Providing a pro-active requirement of public bodies to promote the Irish Language as a language of work
(6) A right for all employees of whatever business to speak either of the official languages in the course of their employment
(7) The right of all parents to have Irish taught to their children at any preschool, primary and post-primary school
(8) The right of all parents for their children to receive Irish-medium preschool, primary and post-primary school education (subject to availability of numbers of children requiring it in a particular area)
(9) Appointment of an official languages commissioner
Item (1), we have already discussed.
Item (2) is not practicable and never will be. All it can ever achieve is inconvenience. As I have pointed out, it is hardly used in the Republic of Ireland where Irish is the first Language. Without being rude, what has this got to do with promotion of the language? How can it be justified when an MLA speaking in Irish to expect an MLA who does not to understand him/her?
Our starting point for the business of Stormont is that all MLAs understand English. Judging from the Irish experience, we are never going to be in a situation where even half the politicians speak Irish. English is the universally appropriate medium for getting the business of Stormont delivered. Some tokenism might be acceptable. For example, in order to appreciate the heritage aspect of Irish, salutations and greetings, which are in use already such as “Go raibh maith agat” are acceptable.
Item (3) we have already discussed.
Item (5) of the proposals depends on item (4) while items (4) and (6) depend upon item (1). In other words, items (4) to (6) can not apply as the bill is drafted without the Irish Language being official.
Another problem with items (4), (5) and (6) is that they could be seen as anti-competitive in the commercial world.
Like MLAs, civil servants are there to serve the public. There are many important ongoing matters in public administration and they do not need to be hampered or interfered with just because somebody wants to communicate in Irish. We need to be sensible here. We are, at the very least, going to remain a predominantly English-Speaking and at best bilingual society. Where business has to be transacted, efficient and unhampered communication is of vital importance. As with Assembly business, I see in these proposals potential impairment of business without any real benefit to the Irish speaking world. Once again, heritage can be acknowledged with some tokenism as it is on headed notepaper sometimes or where sometimes official government guidelines are published in two languages. That already happens in the department of Education on websites. I see no harm in that so long as it does not interfere with the efficient flow of government business.
I also want to make it clear that a Board set up for putting forward a language development plan would have plenty of ideas flowing to plan a promotion of the Irish language. They would consider everything from the erection of road signs to the publication of Government information. In the early years of promotion, I imagine that teaching would be given priority. A Board would be able to decide upon the most efficient way of promoting the language, having regard to funding available. As I have said previously, they would look at the entire checklist provided in the Belfast Agreement.
Item (7), I have already discussed and recommended in my own way under the Education heading. The Irish medium school proposal (item (8)) will not work for the present because it requires a certain number of Irish – speaking teachers. It is perhaps a proposal which could be looked at again in the future when, hopefully, the promotion of the Irish Language will not be such a contentious matter. That can be monitored by a proposed board.
Given that I object to the SDLP proposal almost in its entirety, it follows that I would also object to the appointment of an Irish Language Commissioner (item 9).
Other Criticisms of a proposed Irish Language Act
I said in my previous post that Edwin Poots criticized a proposed Irish Language Act as being too costly and too divisive. One could argue that a DUP politician can never advanced a credible point of view given their pre-determined bias against promotion of the Irish Language. However, similar criticisms have been made by Stephen Farry of the Alliance Party. Given the non-sectarian nature of his viewpoint, it deserves respect. He said this
“We are working to find common ground in the Assembly to deliver this. However, the draft legislation tabled by the SDLP is divisive and counter-productive.”
Dr. Farry is right. The SDLP draft bill is overbearing and unacceptable. In its present form, it is certainly divisive and counter-productive.
I have left the argument about cost until last for one very good reason. It is all very well using cost as an argument. It also has far more potency during a recession. However, we can’t have a sensible argument about cost unless we discuss the cost of doing nothing.
Northern Ireland may now just about have peace. It certainly does not yet have harmony. It has a long way to go before we achieve that. There is no doubt that the cost of sectarianism is very high. Sectarianism and segregation are part of a systematic loop in which they are both the product and cause of each other. The Alliance Party says costs of segregation are £1 billion per annum. I can’t comment on the costings but would agree that they are high. Let us just say that indirectly, moving the Irish Language out of sectarianism and into a unified symbol for Northern Ireland will save money. I also happen to believe, going back to the Belfast Agreement that there is an implied term, under Article 4 of Educational Aspects (set out above) that there should be a reasonable flow of funding from the state to promote the Irish Language. I can not specify here what “reasonable” means in terms of cash. Costing would be for somebody more expertly qualified to give an opinion on than me.
Conclusion and recommendations
(1) The St. Andrews Agreement contemplated an Irish Language Act which was more substantial than the legislation that eventually emerged (a new section 28D of the Northern Ireland Act 1998).
(2) Section 28D is flawed. It only requires the Executive to make, adopt and review a strategy for promotion of the Irish Language. It lacks “teeth.” It is only as strong as the most obstructive member of the Executive and could result in a very minimal promotion of the Irish Language.
(3) The experiences of Wales and the Republic of Ireland indicate that Northern Ireland is not in any position to take implementation of an Irish Language Act along the lines of either the Irish Republic or Wales. Northern Ireland is in a much more similar position to Scotland.
(4) The proposed Irish Language Act being put forward by the SDLP is divisive and liable to lead to further sectarian division.
(5) In principle, the Irish Language should be nurtured so that it has the best chance to flourish within the Protestant community and eventually become a unifying rather than dividing (sectarian) symbol
(6) If the Irish Language can be transformed into a non-divisive and Unifying symbol for Northern Ireland, the costs of implementing promotion proposals under (8) below will actually save money indirectly in the longer run.
(7) To take no further action legislatively would be as divisive as the SDLP proposal.
(8) An Irish Language Act is recommended which would
(a) Be similar to the Scottish Act of 2005 in the sense of appointing a Board to devise a plan and strategy for promotion of the Irish Language. The Board would be required to consider the terms stated in the Belfast Agreement.
(b) Not have the same stated aspiration in the pre-amble of the Scottish Act (i.e. having a view to giving the language official status in the future). Instead, a pre-amble would be less committed. (See above under “Constitutional rights and Identity”)
(c) Place an obligation to facilitate the teaching of Irish in all Northern Ireland schools without it being made compulsory.
Filed under: Alliance Party, Conservative Party Policy, Diane Dodds, DUP, Education, Equality, Human Rights, Identity, Irish Language, Scotland, sectarianism, St. Andrews agreement, Stephen Farry, Stormont, Wales, Westminster | Tagged: Alliance Party, Bigotry, Conservative Party, Conservative Party Policy, Culture, Devolution, Diane Dodds, DUP, Education, Edwin Poots, Equality, Good Friday Agreement, Human Rights, Identity, Irish, Irish Culture, Irish Heritage, Irish Language, Irish Language Act, Northern Ireland politics, Power Sharing, Scotland, sectarianism, St. Andrews agreement, Stephen Farry, Stormont, Wales, Westminster | Leave a Comment »