Scepticism over UK government’s plan to legislate for languages in N Ireland

Sinn Fein vice president Michelle O’Neill said she will wait to see the ink on the paper.

10 May 2022

Scepticism has been voiced over Government plans to legislate on culture and language in Northern Ireland.

A paper published after the Queen’s Speech included plans for the Identity and Language (Northern Ireland) Bill.

There had been an expectation that the Westminster government would introduce the legislation before the Stormont election last week.

It fell to the Northern Ireland Office after the Stormont parties were unable to agree to introduce cultural and language legislation in the Northern Ireland Assembly – which was part of the New Decade, New Approach (NDNA) deal.

The plans include an Office of Identity and Cultural Expression to promote respect for diversity as well as an Irish Language Commissioner and a commissioner to develop language, arts and literature associated with the Ulster Scots/Ulster British tradition.

Sinn Fein vice president Michelle O’Neill voiced scepticism the mooted plans.

Speaking to media during a visit to the Ulster Hospital in east Belfast on Tuesday, she said: “I have never trusted Boris Johnson, I don’t trust the Tories, but what I will do is hold their feet to the fire on political commitments that they have made.

“They have shown time and time again that they renege on political commitments, so I will wait until I see the ink on the paper in terms of the language and cultural bills.”

The package of identity and language measures had been promised in the NDNA deal that restored powersharing in early 2020.

The move had been flagged in advance of the speech, but delays in bringing forward the measures had been criticised by Irish language campaigners.

Earlier this year, campaigners said that they walked out of a meeting with UK junior minister Conor Burns, citing a lack of clarity on when legislation would be brought forward.

The promised legislation will also place a duty on the Northern Ireland Department of Education to encourage and facilitate the use of Ulster Scots, with the Secretary of State empowered to step in to ensure the commitments are followed by the Executive.

Irish language lobby group Conradh na Gaeilge reacted cautiously.

President Paula Melvin said they have been here “many, many times before” and called for a date for delivery.

“The British Government originally gave the commitment to introduce an Irish language act in the Saint Andrew’s agreement in 2006,” she said.

“British Secretary of State Brandon Lewis gave a public commitment in June 2021 to bring in the Irish language legislation by October.

“That timeline was missed and pushed out to the end of the mandate. That deadline was also missed.

“Our painful experience on this issue is that commitments have been made in the past and have never been fulfilled.

“Naturally, therefore, we take today’s announcement with a huge degree of caution.

“We need a date for delivery. We need to see the legislation timetabled into the parliamentary diary.

“Until there is a specific date for implementing Irish language legislation we have no reason to trust the British Government when it comes to language rights. Now is the time for delivery.”

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