Dublin wanted Irish to have parity with English in North

Files from 1992 reveal British efforts to legalise use of Irish in NI courts undermined internally

Former secretary of state for Northern Ireland Patrick Mayhew warned in 1992 that retention of a 1737 Act conflicted with the ‘liberalising approach’ of the British government which sought to place Irish on the same level as Welsh in the courts. Photograph: Matt Kavanagh

Former secretary of state for Northern Ireland Patrick Mayhew warned in 1992 that retention of a 1737 Act conflicted with the ‘liberalising approach’ of the British government which sought to place Irish on the same level as Welsh in the courts. Photograph: Matt Kavanagh

 

The ongoing dispute between the DUP and Sinn Féin over an Irish Language Act in Northern Ireland is prefigured in previously confidential files released in Belfast.

The papers highlight Irish government pressure on the British in 1992 for the adoption of a Welsh-style Irish language act in the North. They also reveal how British efforts to legalise the use of Irish in Northern Ireland courts unexpectedly encountered difficulties with the Lord Chancellor James Mackay.

The files, which have just been declassified by the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland, contain a paper on the Irish language in the country submitted by Irish officials at the joint secretariat at Maryfield, Co Down, for consideration by their British counterparts.

In this document, Irish officials claim that the language fell under Article 5(a) of the 1985 Anglo-Irish Agreement on respect for cultural heritage and identity. “Implicit in this”, the paper stated, “is a recognition and acceptance that the Irish language is an important part of Irish national identity”.

The Irish government’s view was that “measures to widen its appeal should be encouraged” and that any barriers should be removed.

The Irish officials recognised the recent progress through the establishment of the Ultach Trust, a charity aimed at promoting the language in the North, and a question on the language in the 1991 Census. However, the Irish government believed that some of its long-standing concerns remained unaddressed.

This included, in particular, the repeal of the 1949 Stormont Public Health and Local Government Act which prohibited Irish street names.

The official wrote: “We have consistently urged the repeal of this provision as it is seen as symbolising official hostility to the language and, by extension, to the cultural identity of the nationalist community.” Specifically, Irish officials argued, “the Irish language should be given parity of esteem with English” and that legislation should be introduced “similar to the Welsh Language Act of 1967”. Such a move, Dublin argued, would be a positive step and would reduce mischief by “politically motivated elements”.

The files reveal a clear effort by the UK’s Northern Ireland Office to enable litigants to use Irish in the Northern Irish courts. In a memo to the private secretary of the Northern secretary Patrick Mayhew, dated October 29th, 1992, D J Watkins of the Stormont central secretariat reported that Mr Mayhew had written to the Lord Chancellor, Lord Mackay of Clashfern, seeking agreement to amend the 1737 Administration of Justice (Language) Act (Ireland) which had enacted that only English could be used in the courts. In his reply, the Lord Chancellor had agreed in principle to the removal of this barrier to the use of Irish in court while treating it as a non-indigenous language.

This did not satisfy Mr Watkins who felt that his approach was at variance with the British government’s more “liberal” stance. In his view, the Lord Chancellor had wrongly concluded that the 1737 Act had not inhibited the use of Irish in court. In his memo dated October 29th, 1992, Mr Watkins advised Mr Mayhew to write to the Lord Chancellor asking him to consider the issue further.

In his letter to the Lord Mackay, dated November 11th, 1992, Mr Mayhew welcomed the fact that the Lord Chancellor was prepared to remove the legislative barrier to the use of Irish in Northern courts. However, he stated that his advice was that the retention of the 1737 Act would conflict with the “liberalising approach” of the government which sought to place Irish on the same level as Welsh in the courts.

In support of the this approach, Tony McCusker, a Stormont official, stressed “the fact that the government was seeking to depoliticise the Irish language”. In such circumstances, he informed J Bailie of the Northern Ireland Court Service, “a negative approach by the judiciary would undoubtedly be seen as political”.

The issue arose in the Belfast courts in 2012 when an attempt by a private citizen to permit the use of Irish in the courts was rejected.

Other files recorded concerns that the use of Irish might pose to British soldiers and police, although in a note dated November 27th, 1992, Peter Bell of the Northern Ireland Office informed colleagues that “the problem for the security forces would be no greater than they are currently for the police in Cardiff and Dublin”.

He drew attention to a recent case in Dublin, as reported in The Irish Times on November 26th, 1992, where an Irish speaker from Ballyferriter in Co Kerry won damages in an action against gardaí who had verbally abused him for refusing to give his name in English.

The official added humorously that the case “demonstrated how the use of the Irish national language can prove perilous. Bad practice down South will, of course, be no deterrent to us – but perhaps we ought not to forget it, if only to tease the Irish if ever they are so unfriendly as to criticise our policy in regard to Irish-language matters”.