Minister strangles Irish act
Minister strangles Irish act

By Robert McMillen (for the Irish News)

Thios seal, thuas seal’ it goes in Irish. Up one minute, down the next.

Recently, the Irish language community seemed quietly confident that an Irish Language Bill was to go through Westminster this week, enshrining in legislation the rights of the thousands of Irish-speakers and those who value the language.

By yesterday afternoon, however, it had dawned that that dream just wasn’t going to be realised.

It’s hard to know what to make of Maria Eagle’s attempt to strangle an Irish Language Act before it is even born. The language she used in the house of Commons yesterday was pure Yes Minister, a la Norn Iron Office.

“Government recognises that there is a divergence of views within Northern Ireland. This suggests a need to build consensus around the form of any future legislation with respect to the role of the Irish language in public life, she said (or recited).

But what about the figures, I hear you cry.

DCAL was responsible for organising the consultation process on which the proposed legislation was to be based. They got a resounding vote in favour of an Irish Language Act.

The first consultation which was published on 13 December attracted 668 responses. Of those, 625 favoured legislation, that’s around 93 per cent.

Astonishingly, this 93-7 result was seen as a draw by the minister and so she announced another 12-week period of consultation so we could come up with the answer she wanted or, as she put it: “The purpose of this further consultation exercise is to seek views on an approach which lies in between the two primary positions demonstrated in the responses to the first consultation.”

Dia duit, Sir Humphrey.

The department also received 1,376 postcards and a petition with 2,500 signatures supporting legislation. In addition a press advertisement placed by POBAL (the Irish language umbrella group) contained 800 signatures. (Their figures.)

Last month, thousands of young and old marched into Belfast city centre in a carnival atmosphere to demand an Irish Language Act, yet 46 submissions decided that Irish speakers shouldn’t have rights and so the years of diligent work by the many was scuppered by a few.

However, there are some crumbs of comfort for Gaeilgeoiri. The government is proposing that a person will be able to use Irish in legal proceedings in courts and tribunals sitting in Northern Ireland, wait for it - subject to the provision of notice and the interests of justice. In other words, almost never.

A draft provision has been included enabling certain statutory forms to be made available in Irish.

Birth certificates or just death certificates?

Someone in government - who knows - decided that Irish should be promoted based on language schemes rather than being rights-based as the Irish language community had wanted.

“It is proposed to create a duty on public authorities to prepare a language scheme specifying the measures which they will take on the use of the Irish language in the provision of their services to the public,” they say.

“Aye, dead on,” Ballymena’s Ulster Scots councillors will reply.

But we’ll have a new oversight body, an Irish Language Commissioner who will have the function of approving and overseeing language schemes. Will (s)he have to power to enforce compliance? I doubt it.

This extra 12-week consultation period will also mean that any act will have to go through the battle-a-day scenario of the increasingly likely new Stormont assembly rather than through the Mother of Parliaments - surely the kiss of death.

However, Irish speakers have been here before. Often. Their love of the language is built on inclusivity, a lesson to us all in the new disposition.

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