Allister: draft text could impose Irish road signs and staff quotas

TUV leader Jim Allister argues that fears about an Irish language act are either implied or explicit in the draft text
TUV leader Jim Allister argues that fears about an Irish language act are either implied or explicit in the draft text

The draft Sinn Fein-DUP deal would result in the imposition of Irish language road signs across Northern Ireland – and require substantial public sector recruitment of Gaelic speakers, says Jim Allister.

The TUV leader and QC also believes the document could result in a criminal offence of non-compliance with directions issued by the proposed Irish language commissioner.

And he said it is quite clear that the accompanying Ulster-Scots commissioner would be “a toothless tiger” with virtually no power compared to the Irish language counterpart.

Mr Allister was giving his analysis of the leaked text of the draft Sinn Fein-DUP deal published by the EamonnMallie.com web site on Tuesday.

“The legislation will place a duty on the Irish language commissioner to set Irish standards for all departments and public bodies for the promotion and use of Irish in the delivery of services through the medium of Irish,” he said.

One example would be the the Department of Infrastructure – which has responsibility for road signs.

“So if you have a situation where he [the commissioner] will set standards for the department to set standards in Irish, it seems to me that there will be Irish roads signs here through the back door.

“And if there are any impediments to this happening, there will likely be a judicial review at public expense.”

His analysis is subject to the fact that he has not yet seen the fine print of the proposed legislation, he said.

The text says there would be a duty on the commissioner to “review the best practice every five years” which, according to the MLA, means he will be able to “up the standards” of Irish each time.

He was basing his analysis on Scotland and Wales where they started out with a relatively low level of legislation for the native language but gradually increased it, he said.

The bill does not have recruitment quotas, but if all public services must use Irish, preferment must be given to Irish speakers during recruitment in order to cope, he said.

There is no explicit requirement for the commissioner to have the power to prosecute, as had been the case with Sinn Fein proposals published in 2015.

However, Mr Allister noted that the commissioner would formally have the capacity to deal with complaints about any non-compliance with his standards.

“So if a public authority is defiant in use of Irish will the bill say it is a criminal offence? It would seem logical if the commissioner is to have the power to investigate complaints.”

It is a criminal offence not to obey the Welsh language commissioner, he noted.

But by comparison the proposed Ulster-Scots commissioner would have no powers.

“It would just be a toothless tiger. He would just give guidance, he would just be a token.”

The document does not even pretend equality, though neither commissioner is justified, he added.