Irish language legislation agreed as part of the agreement which restored the Stormont Executive last year should be implemented "without further delay", the Joint Committee on the Implementation of the Good Friday Agreement was told on Tuesday.
The New Decade, New Approach agreement, negotiated by then tánaiste Simon Coveney and then secretary of state for Northern Ireland Julian Smith in January 2020, included commitments to establish the office of a language Commissioner, to provide official recognition of the status of the Irish language and to repeal the Penal Law-era Administration of Justice (Language) Act 1737.
Representatives of Conradh na Gaeilge came before a sitting of the Joint Committee and asked it to write to both governments and to the Stormont Executive to call for the implementation of the measures agreed under the 2020 agreement.
The organisation's president Niall Comer warned of the danger that the legislation would become a "bone of contention" between the parties in the run-up to the 2022 Stormont elections if it is not implemented before then.
“That would cause huge damage to the language and to the Irish-speaking community. We want to avoid that,” he said.
Conradh na Gaeilge representatives also spoke of the frustration felt by the Irish language community and called on the committee to apply pressure to expedite the implementation of the legislation.
"The motion that we are asking the committee to pass today is to apply pressure on the joint authors of that agreement which is the Irish Government and the British government and also the Executive Office which ultimately has to make the final call in triggering the legislation," said Conradh na Gaeilge's Pádraig Ó Tiarnaigh.
Referring to a case taken in the Belfast High Court in 2017 which found that Stormont had failed in its legislative duty on Irish language strategy as was previously agreed, Dr Ó Tiarnaigh said: “ Not only do we have the commitments from the Good Friday Agreement, St Andrews and New Decade, New Approach, we also have a legal direction on the Executive to get that through as soon as possible.”
“We don’t see any reason for stalling any longer. The only impasse would be a political one at this stage. The legislation is predetermined, it is prewritten. It is not the best legislation by any means, but we have to get what was promised in the bank now and start rolling that out and see how it impacts communities on the ground,” he said.
Dr Ó Tiarnaigh warned of a “huge crisis of confidence” if the legislation was not implemented during the current Stormont sitting and added his concern that the language issue could be misused as an election issue.
“We are now well past those deadlines. Our frustration is growing,” he said.
“There is no real reason that they couldn’t be implemented. We are very wary not to let this run into another election. We are very wary not to let the Irish language be used or misused as an election issue. We believe it would be to all of our benefit to adhere to the promises made in the Good Friday Agreement and as an extension of that, the promises made in the New Decade, New Approach agreement.”
Representatives from Fianna Fáil, Sinn Féin, Fine Gael, the Labour Party, the Alliance and independent senators also spoke at the meeting.
Fine Gael Senator Emer Ní Churraigh (Emer Currie) said she “never understood how we could have language acts for other jurisdictions and not for the Irish language”.
“There is nothing to be afraid of in this legislation. There is nothing to fear. It is not radical legislation, it is a reflection of the arduous journey that we’ve all been on to get to this point. We just need to get it over the line and it will be a huge source of relief to me and to most people when this is achieved,” she said.
“The commitment is there and we need to make sure that this is delivered on,” she said.
Sinn Féin Senator Niall Ó Donnghaile suggested that the committee should go beyond writing to the Ministers and “seek to engage with them on the real urgency of this agreed legislation and as to why it needs to be brought into effect.”
Alliance MP for North Down Stephen Farry said the Irish language is part of a shared heritage on the island of Ireland. He said that it was important that the agreement was "faithfully" translated into legislation as it had been agreed.
"I am very fearful that especially with an election coming up and also with the very febrile nature of politics in Northern Ireland that attempts will be made to unpick what was agreed. The flip-side of the coin therefore has to be that there are not attempts to add more into the legislation beyond what was agreed in New Decade, New Approach.
“The best way of getting this onto the statute books is to play this with a very straight bat, to use an English analogy, and that way anyone trying to unpick it can be called out,” he said.
Committee chairman Fergus O’Dowd said if the committee could facilitate resolving any political differences in the Northern Parliament on the matter that it would be “more than happy” to address them.
The motion was accepted and will go before the next meeting of the Joint Committee on Friday.