The British government should enact legislation to give official recognition to the Irish language “as a matter of urgency,” Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald has said.
Speaking ahead of a march planned for Belfast this weekend in support of language rights, Ms McDonald said it would have been preferable if such an act had been introduced through the Stormont Assembly as originally promised.
“It became very clear that political unionism was not prepared to legislate and afford that level of recognition and respect to the people that live side-by-side with them ,” she said.
“We are a long time waiting for this. It is a matter of equality, it is also a matter of respect and recognition. An Ghaeilge doesn’t belong to any political party or indeed any political tradition.”
The Dublin Central TD said the British government has “dragged its heels” on the issue but added that “a firm commitment” has now been given that the legislation will go through Westminster.
Irish language legislation was originally due to be introduced within 100 days of the New Decade, New Approach (NDNA) agreement negotiated in January 2020, but was subjected to numerous delays amid unionist opposition.
The package of measures included a commitment to establish the office of a language commissioner, official recognition of the status of the Irish language and to repeal the Penal Law-era Administration of Justice (Language) Act 1737 which forbids the use of any language other than English in court proceedings.
Supporters of the act argue that the failure to introduce the legislation amounts to a continued denial of rights and exclusion of the Irish language community. They see the legislation as the only way to ensure the language and those who choose to speak it are protected and respected.
Opponents have claimed official recognition of Irish would dilute their Britishness, while others have pointed to health, education and other public services as areas that are in need of greater public funding.
Ms McDonald said she now expects to see the legislation “move very quickly” through Westminster.
"I always caveat very heavily commitments that are given to us by the British government. But, I am very clear, Boris Johnson is very clear, Brandon Lewis is very clear, the Government here in Dublin is very clear, that this commitment is outstanding and that it is long past time," she said.
“I want us to foster a real sense of the richness of the language and the opportunity for happiness that cultural and linguistic diversity affords and I am very encouraged that in east Belfast many activists who are staunchly loyalist, staunchly unionist, have embraced the language as their own because it is theirs and ours, it is all of ours.”
Ms McDonald made her comments following a cross-party event organised by Conradh na Gaeilge at Leinster House to publicise a march in support of Irish language rights due to take place in Belfast on Saturday.
Conradh na Gaeilge’s Julian de Spáinn said the march, organised by rights group An Dream Dearg, is an opportunity for the community to come out and show that they are “100 per cent” behind the legislation.
“They have been promised this over and over again,” he said. “They really want to show the British government and the politicians of the North that they want this language legislation, they deserve this language legislation. They’ve been let down so often.”