Irish language legislation to be introduced within weeks: Michelle O’Neill

Irish language legislation for Northern Ireland could be introduced by the UK Government as early as next week, Sinn Fein’s Michelle O’Neill has said.

Wednesday, 27th October 2021, 7:35 am
A protest at Stormont in May 2019 in support of an Irish language act. Photo: Colm Lenaghan/Pacemaker

The deputy first minister was commenting after NI Secretary Brandon Lewis said the government was committed to ensuring all elements of the New Decade, New Approach (NDNA) agreement are “delivered in full”.

In the Commons on Tuesday, Mr Lewis stressed that a “culture package” is a part of that agreement, and that the government would like to see it “delivered within this mandate for Stormont”.

He was speaking as a new bill – which would reduce the risk of the power-sharing assembly collapsing again – was debated at Westminster.

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In June this year, the government pledged to progress the legislation through Westminster if Stormont was no closer to implementing its own bill by the autumn.

Speaking in Belfast after addressing the Irish Congress of Trade Unions (ICTU) conference, Ms O’Neill, said, that as a NDNA political commitment, Irish language legislation must be delivered upon.

“Unfortunately the DUP reneged on that commitment and we had to find a solution and a way around the DUP, that was delivered upon by the British Government, so we expect to see that legislation tabled over the course of the next week or so,” she said.

The Northern Ireland (Ministers, Elections and Petitions of Concern) Bill relates to undertakings the UK Government made in the New Decade, New Approach Deal, such as extending the time period within which a snap election must be called if devolution collapses again.

It would also lengthen the time allowed to appoint Northern Ireland ministers after an election, and also allow ministers to stay in office for up to 24 weeks or for up to 48 weeks if the first minister or deputy first minister resigns.

Labour has also promised to support the bill as it passes through Parliament.

Ms O’Neill was expected to meet with Brandon Lewis and Brexit Minister Lord Frost later on Tuesday.

Also, a group of cross-party MPs and campaigners gathered outside the Houses of Parliament to pressure the UK Government to deliver legislation quickly.

The government pledged to press ahead with legislating for Irish language protections at Westminster after failed attempts at Stormont, with Mr Lewis saying the move would come at some point in October.

The government previously faced calls from the DUP not to press ahead with the legislation while unionist concerns about Brexit’s Northern Ireland Protocol remain unaddressed.

As the end of October looms, supporters and members of Conradh na Gaeilge, a group pushing for the legislation, gathered outside the Palace of Westminster on Tuesday to prompt the government into taking quicker action.

Dr Niall Comer, president of Conradh na Gaeilge and lecturer in Irish at Ulster University, said the legislation was “vital” for future generations of Irish speakers.

He said: “In 2006 an Irish Language Act was promised as part of the St Andrews agreement and we’ve been waiting since then for this.

“Earlier this year, the Secretary of State, Brandon Lewis stated that if the Stormont Government was not able to bring through the Irish language legislation, that this would be brought through Westminster, and if this hadn’t been done by the end of September that it would be brought through a month later.

“This is the reason we’re here now – to make sure that the Government honours its commitments and that an Irish Language Act will actually be brought through Westminster.

“It’s vital that this legislation is passed and is done quickly.”

John Finucane, Sinn Féin MP for North Belfast, accused the DUP of blocking previous attempts.

He said: “Ideally Stormont should be the place to legislate for this but what we have witnessed at Stormont over a number of years is one party, particularly the DUP, using their veto to block equality legislation.

“What we now want is for the British Government to step up and stand over their commitment, which was that if Stormont didn’t legislate for this then it would be legislated for here in London, so we want to see that delivered as soon as possible.”

Shadow NI Secretary Louise Haigh announced Labour would support the bill.

She said: “This was agreed at New Decade, New Approach and it is therefore extremely disappointing that this has not been delivered. I believe it would be an important step to build confidence in a shared future.

“Nevertheless, in the absence of a move by the Northern Ireland Assembly, Labour will support the passage of legislation should it come before Parliament in the Autumn.”

The power-sharing executive at Stormont collapsed in January 2017 when the DUP and Sinn Fein split in a bitter row over the DUP’s handling of the RHI green energy scheme abuses.