Q&A: What’s going on with Irish language legislation in the North?

The UK government has said it will legislate on Irish and other cultural issues by autumn

There is now a time limit attached to the introduction of Irish language and other measures

There is now a time limit attached to the introduction of Irish language and other measures

 

The UK government has committed to legislating at Westminster on the Irish language and other cultural provisions if they are not dealt with at Stormont by October.

But what is the background to the impasse around the Irish language and the other cultural provisions which the UK government may end up stepping in to address this autumn? And why is it so controversial?

Firstly, what does this move mean for the Irish language?

The big change is that there is now a time limit attached to the introduction of Irish language and other measures, often referred to as the cultural package, which were agreed by the Irish and British governments and by the five parties in the Northern Executive as part of the New Decade, New Approach (NDNA) deal which restored the Assembly after a three-year absence in January 2020.

Following several days of negotiation, the Northern Secretary announced early on Thursday that if the Executive has not progressed the legislation by the end of September, it will be introduced in the UK parliament in Westminster in October.

What are the provisions?

In NDNA, the first and deputy first minister committed to “sponsor and oversee a new framework both recognising and celebrating Northern Ireland’s diversity of identities and culture, and accommodating cultural difference.”

This includes the creation of an Office of Identity and Cultural Expression and legislation to create a Commissioner to “recognise, support, protect and enhance the development of the Irish language in Northern Ireland. ”

The legislation will also provide official recognition of the status of the Irish language.

Ulster-Scots will also receive official recognition, and an Ulster-Scots commissioner will be created.

A Central Translation Hub will be established to provide language translation services for the Executive departments, arm’s-length bodies and local government and public bodies.

Business at the Assembly or an Assembly Committee can be conducted through Irish or Ulster-Scots, and a simultaneous translation service will be provided.

The measures are similar to longstanding provisions in Scotland and Wales.

Why is this controversial?

The Irish language was the key sticking point that frustrated attempts to restore the Assembly before January 2020.

For nationalists it went beyond the Irish language and became a litmus test of unionist attitudes towards the Irish identity, as expressed through the “crocodile” comments of the then-first minister Arlene Foster, the cancellation of a £50,000 grant scheme to send students to the Gaeltacht and the renaming of a boat because its original name was in the Irish language.

These incidents were viewed as being hugely disrespectful to the Irish language and therefore, as nationalists saw it, to people with an Irish identity.

So it’s all sorted then?

This has been around since an Irish Language Act was first agreed at St Andrew’s 15 years ago, and given the last few weeks have demonstrated yet again the tensions around it.

While a way has been found around this latest impasse, it seems unlikely that the road ahead will not throw up further roadblocks, not least given the continuing opposition to Irish language legislation within some sections of unionism and – given its record on other matters – the dependence for this latest solution on the word of the UK government.

There will also be consequences to the internal revolt triggered within the DUP; just how damaging they will be remains to be seen.