Sinn Fein celebrates as Tory government unveils Irish language act for Northern Ireland saying it ‘ends the blockade of rights’

After years of bitter political punch-ups among Ulster politicians, the Tory government has tonight unveiled an Irish language act for Northern Ireland.

Handout photo of protesters at the Irish language rights demonstration in Belfast city centre. Picture date: Saturday May 21, 2022.
Handout photo of protesters at the Irish language rights demonstration in Belfast city centre. Picture date: Saturday May 21, 2022.

The bill, introduced to parliament in London, involves the creation of both Irish and Ulster-Scots language commissioners as well as another more general body to “promote cultural pluralism and respect for diversity”.

It comes amid a refusal of the DUP to set up a new government at Stormont following the May election, in protest over the NI Protocol.

Sinn Fein collapsed the Executive in January of 2017, ostensibly over the RHI scandal, but in the three years of governmental limbo which followed it became widely understood that an Irish act was the party’s price for re-entering government.

Irish activists An Dream Dearg (meaning something similar to 'the red group') held a demonstration at Stormont to mark the new bill

The party tonight issued a statement (in English only) from president Mary Lou McDonald, saying it was a welcome “breakthrough” that will “end the blockade on basic rights”.

She said: “There can be no more false dawns, this needs to be done now and before Westminster breaks for the summer. No more delays.”

She noted that the DUP signed up to an Irish language act in the 2006 St Andrews Agreement under Ian Paisley, and again in the 2020 New Decade New Approach agreement under Arlene Foster.

Here are some of the key aspects of the bill, published this evening:

> An Irish Language Commissioner will be appointed, in charge of an as-yet unknown complement of staff;

> They can serve in the role for a term of five years, maximum, and it appears they can only serve for two terms;

> This commissioner must “prepare written standards of best practice relating to the use of the Irish language by public authorities”;

> There will also be “a requirement on public authorities to have due regard for such standards”;

> The idea is for the First and Deputy First Ministers to choose a commissioner, but the bill will also give “exceptional powers” to the Northern Ireland Office minister of the day, allowing them to appoint a commissioner and “direct Northern Ireland Ministers and departments to support appointees”;

> The bill will also create an Ulster-Scots commissioner, and will place a “duty” on the NI Department of Education “to encourage and facilitate the use and understanding of Ulster Scots in the education system”;

> It will repeal the Administration of Justice (Language) Act (Ireland) 1737, barring languages other than English in court proceedings;

> And, in addition to the two language commissioners, it will create an Office of Identity and Cultural Expression (OICE).

On the surface of it, the bill’s broad wording commits the OICE to promoting far more than just Irish and Ulster Scots traditions.

Specifically, the bill says OICE should foster “reconciliation between those of different national and cultural identities” and “promote the celebration of, the cultural and linguistic heritage of all people living in Northern Ireland”.

Tucked away in the bill’s explanatory notes is a vague price tag, with all three new bodies (the Irish and Ulster-Scots offices plus OICE) estimated to cost a combined total of £9m per annum.

And as to who will pay, the notes state that the whole bill will be “a matter for the NI Executive and Assembly to administer, support and fund”.

In a statement announcing the bill, the government today also pledged £4m to a charity called the Irish Language Investment Fund.

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