By Gerry Adams MP
Edwin Poots, minister at the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure (DCAL) has a unique opportunity to reach out beyond his own political constituency to those of a different opinion by defending and upholding the right of Irish speakers to use the Irish language in their everyday business and life.
The census returns for 2001 clearly show a significant number of people, 167,000 or 10% of the population in the north, have a working knowledge of the Irish language. 116,000 or 7% can speak Irish.
These citizens have rights just like all others and one of these is the right to speak and use their language.
The importance of this was recognised in the Good Friday Agreement and in the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages, signed by the British in 2001.
In both documents the British government made commitments to the securing and development of the Irish language.
Last year under the St Andrews Agreement the British government made a commitment to introduce “an Irish language act reflecting on the experience of Wales and Ireland and work with the incoming executive to enhance and protect the development of the Irish language”.
The British prime minister also committed to legislating at Westminster for the Irish language in the event of any difficulties with the Irish Language Act in the assembly.
Such an act must be rights based; properly resourced and overseen by the appointment of a commissioner with real authority and responsibility.
For those who perceive the Irish language as in some way a threat let me assure them that it is not.
The Irish language is the common heritage of everyone on this island.
It does not belong to any one section of our people. It threatens no-one. It is not and will not be compulsory.
People have the right to live their lives, entirely or in part, through the medium of Irish if they so wish.
Irish language rights are not reliant on the consensus of some other group in society.
In the last 40 years - but especially since the 1980s - there has been a popular, organic renaissance of the Irish language.
There are 65 naiscoileanna, bunscoileanna and meanscoileanna providing Irish-medium education to 3,228 pupils and students across the six-county region and this is growing steadily each year.
This required great determination and dedication on the part of Irish language enthusiasts and parents and children.
It will require more of the same in the time ahead.
Achieving an effective Irish language act and securing its implementation is only part of what needs to be done.
Breaking down the barriers, real and imagined, administrative and social and political will take time.
No-one understands this more than Irish language speakers.
It took the Irish government decades to finally enshrine the rights of Irish speakers in legislation.
The Official Languages Act 2003 came about as a result of long years of campaigning by Irish speakers who, despite the state’s constitutional obligation, were denied their rights to use the Irish language in their dealings with public bodies.
This places an obligation on public bodies to facilitate the use of the Irish language and thus to play the key role they should be playing in creating the climate where Irish can flourish.
We should expect no less here in the six counties and a similar effort will be required.
However, we are not prepared to wait for decades. In this as in other key areas of public policy, equality of rights and entitlements is what is required.
At my meeting with Mr Poots I will also outline where Sinn Féin believes the DCAL consultation paper published in March 2007 and its indicative clauses fail to meet the needs of Irish language speakers.
* it claims to draw heavily on the experience of Wales and the south of Ireland. It is however considerably weaker than the legislation in both of these jurisdictions
* there is no reference to the status of Irish. Irish should be enshrined in the title and the text of the legislation as an official language
* there is no provision for Irish medium education or the learning of the language
* there is no provision for Irish language rights in the political institutions, local councils, media, public services, courts and employment
* there is only a limited definition of schemes and services. An Irish language act needs to describe the services that government and public bodies must provide and the timescale in which they will provide them. There is no provision for the use of place names, street names, personal names and organisational names
* the role of an Irish language commissioner as outlined would merely serve to give the commissioner the same role as Foras na Gaeilge has, thereby placing the act in conflict with the legislation that established Foras na Gaeilge.
The Irish language commissioner should have a clear remit as well as the staff and resources to implement it. The part of the indicative clauses that refer to court services and the repeal of the 1737 Administration of Justice (Language) Act (Ireland) is generally strong.
However, there is a clause that suggests that the use of Irish may be subject to exemption based on the “interests of justice”.
I am sure that Mr Poots will listen attentively to what we have to say and that he and DCAL will amend the draft legislation accordingly and agree to move ahead with it.
This issue provides a unique opportunity for the minister.
I will be urging him and our colleagues in the assembly to copper fasten the rights of citizens and to implement the agreement made at St Andrews.