Language legislation passes final stages at Westminster

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Irish language activists have hailed another major step towards comprehensive language rights as new legislation passed through its final stages at Westminster.

The Bill moved closer to becoming law after it received a third reading in the Commons and it is now in its final stages in the London parliament.

After countless false dawns, the move should bring an end to decades of unimplemented treaties, agreements and declarations and deliver basic legislation for the recognition of the rights of Irish speakers.

Measures for the support of both Ireland’s native language and the Ulster dialect of Scots were included in an attempt to win over unionists, many of whom identify with a Scots culture. Despite this, unionist hardliners opposed the legislation as it was debated in the House of Commons on Wednesday.

Only a handful of British MPs were present to hear DUP MP Jim Shannon describe the Bill as “nothing more than a sop to Sinn Féin”. A rambling 20-minute tirade by fellow DUP MP Sammy Wilson had to be cut short by the Speaker of the House, who accused him of failing to “show consideration” for those forced to listen.

That didn’t stop unionists from continuing with the absurd claim that the British government was acting like “a wing of Sinn Féin”, with Brexit complaints also featuring.

SDLP leader Colum Eastwood criticised the fact that the legislation had been blocked for so long at Stormont by the unionist veto, and then watered down by the Tories.

“This is not in fact the Irish language act that we would like to have seen but this is a very important step on the way to recognising that the Irish language is a key part of the identity of many people in our community and that has to be recognised in law,” he said.

The use of Irish has been increasing in the North and it is now one of the strongest regions in the country for spoken Irish.

When the legislation receives the royal assent, sectarian laws banning the use of Irish will be repealed and the language can begin to be used in public services and in courts. An Irish language commissioner is also due to be appointed, with statutory powers to ensure compliance with new public service standards.

Sinn Féin hailed events at Westminster as “a defining moment” and a “historic” official recognition for Gaelic speakers in the Six Counties. Sinn Féin First Minister-designate Michelle O’Neill believed the goals of an ‘Acht Gaeilge’, a long-sought stand-alone Irish language act, had been delivered.

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