Irish speakers face “a battle a day” to get services in the language despite featuring in a new multi-party agreement to restore the Six County political institutions, according to language activists.
A meeting in the Cultúrlann centre in west Belfast was organised by the Conradh na Gaeilge (Gaelic League) organisation to debate the proposed new language laws.
Daniel Holder from the Committee on the Administration of Justice (CAJ) and lawyer Niall Murphy of Belfast legal firm KRW Law spoke at the event. They also provided written analysis of the proposed Irish language legislation.
An Irish language bill was part of Stormont’s ‘New Decade, New Approach’ agreement alongside a new Office of Identity and Cultural Expression, and a commissioner for the “Ulster Scots and Ulster British tradition” for the Six Counties. The bill should lead to the appointment of an Irish language commissioner to ensure public bodies meet standards for service in Irish.
However, what the language commissioner proposes must be approved by the DUP First Minister Arlene Foster before becoming practice, it has emerged. In his written analysis, Mr Holder said that there was a “risk” the commissioner would be “constrained.”
“The weakness in the legislation relates to the potential for political interference,” he wrote.
“There is, however, a long track record of political obstruction of Irish language measures by the DUP in particular and the provision will test whether there is a ‘new approach’ in this new decade.”
As a result, a number of attendees at the meeting expressed frustration, and said that Irish language speakers could face “a battle a day” to achieve basic measures like bilingual signage.
Mr Murphy said that “only time will tell” if that was the case. In his written analysis of the draft bill, Mr Murphy said that it was “not a free standing Irish language act, official status is official status only in so far as the commissioner interprets it to be so”.
“There is zero mention in the draft bill about public visibility of an Ghaeilge, with no commitments whatsoever on public signage.”
Mr Murphy believes that the measure is an advance. “For the first time in any of our lives, there is statutory recognition of the Irish language on this part of the island, there will be statutory protection through the office of an Irish language commissioner,” he wrote.
But he noted the draft bill was just the start of the process. “We have not arrived at the destination at the end of the journey, we have merely attained the tools to build the bus... for the rest of our journey,” he said.