The UK government will introduce later on Wednesday, long-awaited legislation which will give the Irish language official recognition and legal protection in the North.
Irish language campaigners hailed the move as "historic" but said they would wait to see the detail and remained concerned over how the new laws would be implemented in the absence of a functioning Executive in Northern Ireland.
The measures are part of a wider cultural package which will include the appointment of Irish language and Ulster Scots/Ulster British commissioners and establishment of an Office of Identity and Cultural Expression which is intended to promote cultural pluralism and respect for diversity.
It will also repeal an 18th-century ban on the use of Irish in northern courts. Ulster Scots will receive official recognition as a national minority language.
Agreement on the introduction of Irish language legislation was a key aspect of the New Decade, New Approach (NDNA) agreement which restored the North’s Assembly in 2020 after a three-year absence.
It was delayed due to unionist opposition and, last year, the UK government committed to introduce the new laws in the absence of any progress at Stormont
The northern secretary, Brandon Lewis, said the introduction of the Bill represented a "significant milestone, not just in the continued delivery of New Decade, New Approach, but in laying down a new cultural framework for the people of Northern Ireland.
“This legislation is carefully balanced, as negotiated by all parties, to ensure everyone in Northern Ireland benefits,” he said.
‘Respect and tolerance’
"Not only will the legislation faithfully deliver on the measures within New Decade, New Approach, it will also, importantly, ensure the principles of respect and tolerance, as stated in the Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement, continue to be realised."
Last weekend, thousands protested in Belfast amid fears of further delays to the legislation.
Campaigner Ciarán Mac Giolla Bhéin of An Dream Dearg said the introduction of the legislation was “historic” but added “we would urge a degree of caution because we don’t have a functioning Assembly.
“We would appeal for the secretary of state to start building the infrastructure, such as appointing a commissioner, as without that the legislation is almost meaningless.”
The president of Conradh na Gaeilge, Paula Melvin, also welcomed the move but warned it was “only the beginning of the legislative journey for this Bill [and] painful experience with the British government has taught us to take nothing for granted”.