Over recent weeks the debate around proposals for a Northern Ireland Irish language act has reached a fever pitch in our public discourse.
The lines are drawn but the arguments, on both sides, remain unclear or underdeveloped.
Criticisms directed towards a proposed Irish language act have largely objected on the grounds of cost: it is unreasonable, the argument runs, to fund a minority language act at a time when budget cuts to the health service are constricting healthcare provision for all.
While the ‘cost argument’ is an important one, it singularly fails to elucidate the wider criteria by which a piece of legislation might be assessed.
Specifically, the unwritten assumption of the cost argument is that, in principle, there is nothing wrong with the passing of an Irish language act into legislation: it is simply not expedient in a time of financial constraint. However, in all likelihood, events will eventually leave this argument redundant as the economic cycle progresses and financial restrictions become less severe.
If we turn to the detail of their proposals; proponents of an Irish language act argue that formal protection for the language is necessary.
This invites the question: ‘protection from what?’
To answer this question we might refer to an article published last week by Mr Eamonn Mallie.
In his article, Mr Mallie seems to argue that the central raison d’etre for an Irish Language Act is to “…protect the use of ‘Gaeilge’ from abusers of the language like Gregory Campbell MP”. The implications of this line of argument is extreme; so much so that I wonder if Mr Mallie has paused to consider them fully.
Principally, it seems that Mr Mallie et al are arguing for an Irish language act which functions to place limitations on a citizen’s right to free speech.
As such, the Irish language, and its uses, is to be held above both satire and criticism under threat of legal censure.
Je suis Charlie?
While it is Mr Mallie’s democratic right to object to the content of another’s speech, it does not follow that the appropriate response is to legislate against it.
In Northern Ireland, of all places, the freedom to criticise and disagree verbally should be defended as the alternative to violent conflict.
Instead, the proposed Irish language act should be assessed according to principles such as those enclosed in an archived report by the UK government’s ‘Better Regulation Taskforce’, which argues that policy interventions should be “necessary, fair, effective, affordable, and enjoy a broad degree of public confidence”.
In the assessment of many within the wider unionist community the current proposals for an Irish language act meet none of the above criteria.
The adoption of the above principles would place a dual onus on proponents of both sides of the argument: those in favour must prove that the above conditions are met by any proposed Irish language act, and those opposed must maintain their opposition, at any cost, until the conditions are met.
Anything less would fundamentally undermine the credibility of our entire legislative process.
Philip Lynn, Gracehill, Ballymena