Government opposed bilingualism, despite giving more support for Irish

Sir Patrick Mayhew, centre, pictured here in Carrickfergus, was told that the Irish language was a symbolic issue for nationalists
Sir Patrick Mayhew, centre, pictured here in Carrickfergus, was told that the Irish language was a symbolic issue for nationalists

The government’s commitment to increase support for the Irish language but determination not to pursue a policy of bilingualism are set out in recently declassified files from the early 1990s.

At that point, a major review of government policy on the Irish language had been instigated in response to the looming European Charter on Regional or Minority Languages.

The government believed that not being seen to support the Irish language would not only alienate moderate nationalists who saw it as symbolic of accepting their Irish identity, but of bolstering support for Sinn Féin and the IRA, an analysis shared by the Irish Government.

Almost three decades later, the Irish language is the most explicit issue which appears to be preventing Sinn Féin from restoring devolution by re-entering power-sharing with the DUP.

NIO junior minister Jeremy Hanley wrote in an August 1992 memo to the Secretary of State, Sir Patrick Mayhew: “Inconclusive as the legal arguments may be, political considerations drive us to recognise Irish as a regional minority do otherwise, or indeed to adopt anything less than a liberal stance towards the language as a whole, risks putting it (and the whole issue of mutual cultural respect) back on the political agenda unhelpfully both within Northern Ireland and in our dealings with the public.”

The document went on to highlight two difficulties - the Administration of Justice (Language) Act 1737 (which prohibits court cases being heard in any language other than English) and the Public Health and Local Government Miscellaneous Provisions Act (NI) 1949, which related to street names and was repealed in 1995.

“As to the courts, the Lord Chancellor’s letter of 25 June to the Lord Privy Seal expressed concerns at Irish speakers having rights [underlined] to use Irish in courts here.

“His officials do not however object to ratification even if this means amendment of the 1737 act in a way which might for example still leave discretion in the hands of the judiciary whether to allow spoken evidence in Irish translated by an interpreter. (There is no question of bilingual court proceedings.)”

He went on: “The major justification for tackling these barriers to a more liberal approach lies in political arguments. We are wholly committed, especially in the Talks, to ‘the development of a society in which both main traditions would be respected’ - and removing barriers to Irish is a litmus test of our intent...a positive approach will also remove this as a salient political issue, enable us to respond positively to criticism from the Irish and internationally and help undermine Sinn Féin/PIRA’s exploitation of the language issue, not least by providing moderate nationalist politicians with a chance to pursue, through constitutional channels, an appropriate recognition of the identity of particular areas.

“But ratification of the draft charter is a long way from bilingualism which would not be justified.”

Although the Tory minister said that unionist reaction to the proposals would be difficult to predict, “my judgement, and that of officials, is that unionists (some of whom are Irish language activists) will accept the removal of barriers, though perhaps with bad grace”.