The British government has begun a 12-week consultation process on an Irish language Act for the Six Counties.
As Ian Paisley’s DUP immediately railed against the bill, Sinn Féin’s Caitriona Ruane said that the legislation must not be diluted and said that her party want to see the creation of a Language Commissioner and sufficient resources to support the full implementation of the legislation.
Maria Eagle, the British minister announcing the consultation, said support for a language did not mean imposition of it.
“Legislation to protect a minority indigenous language is not a novel idea,” she said.
“It is well established in other parts of the UK and in the Republic of Ireland. This paper sets out a number of approaches on which views are welcome.
Feedback is being sought on four main language-support proposals including a rights-based approach; prescribed duties on public bodies; a language scheme approach; or a combination of these.
Sinn Féin has consistently raised the status of Irish in the Six Counties with the British government and a commitment received on an Irish Language Act at negotiations in St Andrews in October was seen as a success.
“Irish language speakers in the north are entitled to the same rights and entitlements as everyone else,” said Ms Ruane.
“Of course, there will be resistance to an Irish Language Act but it is essential that this consultation process delivers maximum protections and fundamentally ensures that there are sufficient resources to promote Irish.
“Beimid ag cinntiu go bhfuil cearta do Ghaeilgeoiri, agus creatlach dleathach d’fhorbairt na teanga mar a mholtar san Acht seo, beidh muid ag cinntiu go mbeidh siad ag croi-lar na gcainteanna idir muid fein, an da rialtas agus na pairtithe eile.”
However, the DUP has branded the proposal “iniquitous, divisive and discriminatory” and “sponsored by Sinn Féin”. The party has also called for a detailed audit of funding already contributed to Irish language projects, which it criticised as a “scandal”.
Sinn Féin president Gerry Adams said a language act would “ensure that Irish speakers have rights, recognised before the law, to communicate and do business with government departments and services through the medium of Irish”.
“It is an issue of equality and parity of esteem.
“Irish threatens no-one and we will not allow our rights to be subject to the whims and dislikes of our political opponents or bigots.”
Irish speaking organisation Pobal welcomed the consultation document.
Chief executive Janet Muller said: “Irish speakers have been pushing very hard to have this document released so that a full consultation process can be completed and the Irish Language Bill introduced at Westminster in March.”
BILL OF RIGHTS?
Today [Monday] has also witnessed the first meeting of a Bill of Rights Forum at Stormont in Belfast designed to assist the conclusion of proposals for rights legislation.
Speaking after the meeting, Sinn Féin’s Caitriona Ruane said: the meeting was “very much the first step along the road of the British government delivering on the  Good Friday Agreement commitment to ensure a Bill of Rights is put in place.
“During the recent talks at St. Andrews Sinn Féin made this issue a priority. It is now vital that the next steps are put in place. That means an independent chairperson being appointed to oversee this work and a funded secretariat put in place.”
In a concession to unionists, the first meeting has taken place in Belfast of the “Northern Ireland Grand Committee” of Westminster MPs.
The committee, comprising all 18 Northern MPs in the House of Commons, along with up to 25 others, held its first scheduled meeting in Belfast City Hall.
Unionists have said the meeting had “strengthened the union”. The nationalist SDLP questioned unionist interpretation of the meeting. Party leader Mark Durkan and deputy leader Alasdair McDonnell were in attendance.
DUP deputy leader Peter Robinson claimed it was the result of lobbying by his party. The East Belfast MP said it was “utterly ridiculous” that the grand committee met exclusively in London.
“The DUP has long wanted to see the Northern Ireland grand committee treated in exactly the same way as its Scottish and Welsh counterparts,” he said.
Sinn Féin’s MPs do not attend meetings of the committee.