Hopes fade for language rights as ‘hocus-pocus’ deal dissolves

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An admission by the British government that it has no immediate plans to introduce Irish language legislation in the north of Ireland has been angrily condemned by Irish language speakers.

The New Decade, New Approach (NDNA) agreement negotiated in January 2020 included commitments to introduce measures protecting the Irish language and Ulster-Scots.

The plans included 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 unionist tradition.

Originally due to be introduced within 100 days of the NDNA agreement, the legislation was subjected to repeated delays as unionists reneged on the deal. As part of an agreement to convince Sinn Fein to restore the Stormont Assembly, British Direct Ruler Brandon Lewis (pictured, left) had vowed in June last year that he would introduce the legislation by the end of the Assembly mandate this month.

That promise was hailed as “historic” by Sinn Fein, but treated with suspicion by language activists, and has now been officially reneged upon. British officials said on Monday they could not introduce the legislation until after the Stormont elections in May “due to pressures on the parliamentary timetable”.

Irish language body Conradh na Gaeilge issued a strongly-worded statement in response, condemning the move and said that the British government continues “to delay and deny Irish language rights”.

It said it was “bitterly disappointed but not surprised” at the move and added that the British government “once again breaks clear promises on language rights”.

Blaming “a lack of political will, rather than a lack of time” for the ongoing delay it said the British “had adequate time and opportunities” to bring forward the legislation as promised.

Conradh na Gaeilge president Paula Melvin (pictured, right) said: “Since meeting with Brandon Lewis last summer we have had total radio silence” from Britain’s ‘Northern Ireland Office’ (NIO).

That the NIO “could not update our community directly” about the decision “adds insult to injury,” she said.

“If you start counting at the St Andrew’s Agreement, they have had the best part of 16 years to do this. At every juncture they have decided not to prioritise this legislation, or to kick it further down the line to suit their own political agenda,” she said.

“We aren’t surprised. We told them time and time again if not resolved, this issue would re-emerge throughout the election and afterwards remain a core outstanding issue.

“They decided not to act on that. Our community will continue to organise and ensure this issue remains to the fore during the election and throughout the following negotiations to form a new Executive,” she said.

At its first election rally in Belfast on Tuesday, Sinn Fein leaders avoided the controversy, instead placing the emphasis of their campaign on ‘bread and butter’ issues. A statement by Assembly member Pat Sheehan accused the British government of acting in bad faith and said it must be delivered with ‘no more delays’.

“Irish Language legislation is crucial to delivering rights and guaranteeing protections in law to the thriving Gaeilgeoirí community across our island,” he said.

“Irish speakers have been waiting 15 years for the British government to live up to its promises to bring forward Acht Gaeilge.

“The British government needs to end the delays, honour its commitments, implement its agreements and end the denial of rights to the Irish Language community.”

Aontú leader Peadar Tóibín, speaking in the Dublin parliament, said the Good Friday Agreement had been “gutted” by the British.

“Brandon Lewis has said he will not bring forward Irish language legislation at Westminster before May’s assembly election,” he said.

“The Irish Language Act has been promised for 15 years.

“Sinn Féin returned to Stormont in January 2020 after previously collapsing it, because they said, they had achieved an Irish Language Act. In a combination of bad faith by London and naivety from Sinn Féin, we find out that that commitment was hocus pocus all along.”

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