Language law plan shows ‘partisan approach’: DUP

A DUP MP has accused the UK government of an “ongoing partisan approach” to the deal struck to restore Stormont in 2020, following comments on Irish language legislation from the Minister of State for Northern Ireland Conor Burns.

Irish language activists at Parliament Buildings, Stormont last year protesting in support of an Irish language act. 
Picture: Jonathan Porter/PressEye
Irish language activists at Parliament Buildings, Stormont last year protesting in support of an Irish language act. Picture: Jonathan Porter/PressEye

Mr Burns, during an evidence session at the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee at Westminster earlier this week, said laws around culture, identity and language for Northern Ireland will be introduced at Westminster before the Stormont election.

The proposed laws would provide for an Irish language commissioner, an office of ‘Identity and Cultural Expression’, and a commissioner to develop language, arts and literature associated with the Ulster-Scots/Ulster British tradition.

The so-called ‘cultural package’ was agreed as part of the New Decade, New Approach (NDNA) agreement that restored powersharing government in January 2020, three years after it collapsed following the RHI scandal.

Irish language legislation had been a key demand of Sinn Fein during the negotiations.

But the DUP say the agreement also “contains a commitment to remove the Irish Sea Border” as the party’s Upper Bann MP Carla Lockhart accused the government of a “partisan approach”.

The agreement lists, under a section outlining the UK government’s commitments, a commitment to “legislate to guarantee unfettered access for Northern Ireland’s businesses to the whole of the UK internal market.”

It also commits to ensuring the legislation “is in force for 1 January 2021”.

The latest deadline for the introduction of the language laws at Westminster, meanwhile, comes months after the Secretary of State Brandon Lewis said it would be introduced in October 2021 if the package had not already been introduced through the Northern Ireland Assembly.

He made that announcement following negotiations sparked by the resignation of Arlene Foster as First Minister, after the DUP leadership contest, when it was unclear if Sinn Fein would agree to nominate a Deputy First Minister

While the October deadline has long since passed, Mr Burns has insisted the government still intends to do so before the Stormont elections in several weeks time.

DUP MP Carla Lockhart, meanwhile, said: “The Government’s indication that they will be bringing through the cultural aspects of New Decade, New Approach sadly reflects an ongoing partisan approach by the Government to the fulfilment of that agreement.

“It is remarkable that the Government believe that these measures are a greater priority than the restoration of Northern Ireland’s place in the internal market of the United Kingdom.”

She continued: “One is costing £100,000 a day, stopping the free flow of goods into Northern Ireland, driving up prices of everyday goods and adding to the squeeze on household budgets amid a cost of living crisis.

“On the other hand, the lack of a cultural package is having no material negative impact on anyone here in Northern Ireland.

“This is a time when the Government ought to be showing urgency in addressing the Protocol, and the very damaging impact it is having on our economy, on society and the political process.

“Instead, they seem intent on causing greater division by a one-sided approach to fulfilling their commitments in NDNA.”

She added: “The more Westminster acts on matters of devolved competence, the more disillusionment there is with Stormont, and the less appetite there is for it to return.

“That is something the Prime Minister and Secretary of State need to be cognisant of.”

The DUP MLA Peter Weir, meanwhile, expressed a similar view.

“Not a single elected unionist supports the Protocol,” he said.

“Progress is only made in Northern Ireland when Agreements can command support from unionists and nationalists.

“The New Decade New Approach agreement contains a commitment to remove the Irish Sea Border.”

The Strangford MLA added: “It would be wrong for the Government to advance one element of the Agreement but fail to remove the Irish Sea Border.”