Explainer: Breaking the deadlock over an Irish Language Act

Promised legislation would provide legislative protection for the language in Northern Ireland

Fourteen years after the signing of the St Andrews Agreement in which the British government agreed to introduce an Irish Language Act (ILA) the issues surrounding this proposed piece of legislation continue to divide opinion.

The purpose of the promised act was to provide legislative protection for the language in Northern Ireland. It would be similar to legislation in Wales and Scotland and would bring with it measures such as the right to use Irish in the courts and the right to access public services in Irish.

At its core, the act would provide for:

· official status for the Irish language


· bilingual signage on main roads and shared spaces

· a language commissioner

· public services to the Irish language community

· the right to use Irish in court

So why the controversy? Political unionism for many years has had an uncomfortable relationship with Irish and its speakers. The idea of an Irish Language Act is controversial is because language is at the heart of culture and identity.

As if to underline the point, senior Orangeman Rev Mervyn Gibson reiterated the Orange Order's opposition to a standalone act this week saying it would be unacceptable to his organisation's members.

He was quoted by the BBC as saying he was concerned an act would be used to “further the Irish identity in a way that puts it above the British identity”.

Some of the arguments against the act also include claims that Irish would become a compulsory subject taught in all schools; it would dilute the North’s ‘Britishness’; it would see Irish lifted above all other languages (such as English and Polish) while health, education and other public services are in need of greater funding; that Irish has been ‘weaponised’ and ‘politicised’, and that quotas would be introduced for Irish speakers in the civil service which would discriminate against people from a unionist background.

While such generalisations and critiques are undoubtedly promoted in some political quarters, language campaigners say they are also largely inaccurate.

Crucially, people who are not speakers of Irish or who do not wish to engage with it would not have to use or learn Irish.

Costed proposals from Conradh na Gaeilge show an act would cost £2 million (€2.35 million) per annum with a once-off initial set-up cost of £9 million (€10.58 million). This is a mere drop in the ocean when compared with the £15 billion (€17.63 billion) it is estimated would be required to build a bridge between Northern Ireland and Scotland.

To those who say the language has been politicised, supporters of the act argue that it is the denial of rights and the exclusion of the Irish language community that has made it a political issue.

They add that the best way of countering this is by embedding it in state legislation, something which would ensure the status of the language is not dependent on the will of any single politician, party or community.

There are no calls for mandatory quotas in the Civil Service as campaigners say a goal of 10 per cent of civil service workers with an ability to speak Irish is aspirational and reflects the 10.65 per cent who reported some knowledge of Irish in the 2011 census.

Many see the refusal to agree to an act as a failure by political unionism to accept the concept of parity of esteem which is seen as a basic condition of any new relationship between the two communities.

The demand for legislation is not confined to one party. It is supported by Sinn Féin, the SDLP, the Alliance Party, the Green Party and People Before Profit.

Members of An Dream Dearg, a non-party group recognisable by their distinct red T-shirts, have been at the forefront of the campaign and have brought thousands onto the streets while presenting a youthful and energetic image of the modern Irish speaker.

For them and many others in the wider community, the introduction of a stand-alone Irish Language Act is the only way to ensure the language and those who choose to use it are protected and respected.