The passage of Irish language legislation into British law has been welcomed as a “historic milestone” by campaigners who are now seeking the implementation of the law, including the appointment of the north’s first Irish language commissioner.
The Identity and Language (Northern Ireland) Bill, which was introduced in the House of Commons back in May, received royal assent on Monday, officially repealing legislation from the penal law era that forbade the use of Irish in any official capacity.
The new legislation grants the native Gaelic tongue official status in the north and will lead to the appointment of Irish and Ulster Scots commissioners.
The posts are to be appointed by a Stormont first and deputy first minister, but the law allows for the appointments to be made by the British Direct Ruler in the absence of a Stormont Executive.
The legislation had been agreed in the New Decade New Approach deal to restore Stormont in 2020, but was always blocked by the unionist veto.
Welcoming the bill becoming law, Irish language campaigner Dr Pádraig Ó Tiarnaigh, of An Dream Dearg, said: “This significant and historic milestone stems from the pioneering work of the Shaws Road Gaeltacht over 50 years ago, where the seeds of the modern Irish language revival in the north were first planted.
“From those small beginnings an Irish language community has flourished and grown. Today that community has succeeded in bringing legislative change for the Irish language here. That is historic. For years Irish speakers have challenged the state as the language was marginalised and ridiculed. Today we take another step forward on our journey towards comprehensive Irish language rights.”
He said that work would now begin to ensure the act is fully implemented.
“We now hope to see the appointment of the first Irish Commissioner in the history of the northern state early in the new year,” he added.
Campaigner Paula Melvin, president of the Conradh na Gaeilge group, hailed the passing of the legislation, but said the bill was “not our final destination”.
“We have pushed hard on several important amendments to the legislation and we now turn our attention to both implementing and to strengthening the bill and bringing it up to international standards of language legislation in the future,” she said, adding: “Painful experience with the British government has taught us to take nothing for granted. Until we see this bill fully enacted and indeed implemented in practice, we will continue to push ahead with the campaign.”
Thousands of protesters marched through Belfast in May calling for the introduction of the legislation.
Conchúr Ó Muadaigh, who spoke at the Belfast rally and is advocacy manager with Conradh na Gaeilge, said “From today on, the Irish language will exist in law for the first time in a state which historically discriminated against the language and marginalised it’s community of speakers.
“The significance of this should not be lost on anyone. However, having legislation is one thing. The implementation of that legislation is another.”
He said the appointment of an Irish Language Commissioner is “the first step” in that process and added that it will be viewed as a litmus test for the British government.
“The Irish language community will wait in earnest to see how this legislation will bring the legitimate, long overdue change they require to facilitate them living their lives through Irish,” he added.