As Irish language activists brought their protest for an Irish language act to the steps of Stormont, the three main unionist parties stressed that sufficient protection was already in place.
Friday’s protest follows an open letter earlier this week, signed by 200 civic, political and sporting figures and published in the Irish News, calling on both the UK and Irish prime ministers to take “resolute action” on Irish language.
The Ulster Unionists, DUP and TUV have all spoken out against having further legal obligations placed on public bodies in terms of making provision for Northern Ireland’s small number of Irish speakers.
Immediately following yesterday’s protest, a DUP spokesman said: “We recognise that Irish is important to some people but schools and hospitals matter to everyone. That’s why Sinn Fein should lift their blockade of the Assembly so we can progress issues which matter to everyone.”
The spokesman added: “The Irish language is already supported through public funds. Irish culture and language should not be elevated above any other culture in NI. We want a fair and balanced deal.”
Doug Beattie of the UUP said his party has “respect” for the language and its cultural contribution, and added: “It is part of our shared culture and identity and should be respected and cherished.”
However, he added: “All commitments under the Belfast Agreement have been met. Nobody is prevented from learning and speaking Irish and it is well provided for in terms of public funding. We do not believe there is the need for an Irish language act but that does not mean we do not support the language community.”
The TUV is also opposed to new legislation, with a spokesman saying that “Northern Ireland already provides Irish medium schooling at a cost to the public purse of £20m per year”.
He said the republican call for “equality” has already been shown to be “the Trojan horse of the entire republican strategy,” and added: “There would be discrimination against non-Irish speakers when it came to employment, particularly in the legal profession and civil service.”
Sinn Fein’s Michelle O’Neill said the message of a growing demand for an Irish language act was being heard “loud and clear”.
The party’s NI leader said: “Sinn Fein will continue to support the campaign for an Acht Gaeilge which includes rights and legal protections for Irish speakers in the north, just as exists elsewhere on these islands.”