It is thought that some type of fixed quota system to get more Irish speakers into the civil service is one of the measures Sinn Fein has raised in the talks process.
Sources have said the republican party mooted a kind of ‘positive discrimination’ plan as part of blueprints for an Irish language act, with the idea being that preferential treatment will be given to speakers of the language when it comes to recruitment.
The figure Sinn Fein has in mind is said to be 10% of civil servants.
However, it is not certain if this is a target to make 10% of the entire civil service Irish speakers, or whether Sinn Fein wants only for 10% of new recruits in the immediate future to be Irish speakers.
Nor is it clear if the intention is for this to cover other public workers outside the civil service.
The party itself has refused to confirm any of this, or a raft of other possible elements of the act which it is seeking –an act which lies at the centre of the deadlock holding up the re-establishment of the Stormont Executive.
On Monday night, Michelle O’Neill said it had been “another exasperating day” of negotiations with the DUP, and that Arlene Foster’s party is continuing to block “basic rights”, including those of Irish speakers.
Michael McGimpsey, the UUP veteran who was the first person to take on the mantle of culture minister in the newly-created devolved government (holding the post from 1999 to 2002), said the 10% figure has come up in the talks and met with a very frosty reaction from the UUP – adding that there are notes of “sectarianism” about the idea.
“This was their idea of affirmative action – 10% of the civil service would be Irish speakers,” he said. “That 10%, by definition, would be set aside for Catholics.”
He said that “Protestants don’t speak Irish, don’t do Irish in school – they have actually no channel to learn Irish”, whereas it is often taught readily in Catholic schools.
He added: “It boils down [to] Sinn Fein’s political war and there are very strong elements of sectarianism within the approach of Adams’ and Sinn Fein.”
Other sources also confirmed that this 10% figure had indeed been discussed.
It echoes a proposal put forward by Irish group Conradh na Gaeilge in its own proposals in March for what an Irish language act should look like.
Under the heading ‘Ensure that Irish speakers are progressing in the public sector’, it said that “10% of those who are appointed should have both spoken and written Irish in the future” – but added that the “final percentage” for each department and public body should be decided by a Language Commissioner.
It suggested such a commissioner would make sure public bodies are fulfilling their duties on the language, and could fine them if they were not.
This, in turn, echoes a suggestion put forward by former culture minister Caral Ni Chuilin in 2015.
In all, she set out nine proposals – including for an Irish Language Commissioner to ensure that Irish “is treated no less favourably” than English.
Ms Ni Chuilin suggested her version of the commissioner should be able to “initiate prosecutions for a newly-reated summary offence of refusing or failing to co-operate with the work of the Irish Language Commissioner”.
She also mooted “affirmative action [also known as positive discrimination] in favour of Irish speakers in recruitment to the Civil Service and other public bodies”.
Asked if these proposals from Caral Ni Chuilin were part of its present list of demands, Sinn Fein said: “Sinn Fein is seeking the British government and the DUP to implement the commitment to an Irish Language Act contained in the St Andrew’s Agreement.”
In April 2016, out of 23,853 civil servants, 49.5% were Protestant, 47.6% Catholic, and 2.8% not determined.
The Department of Finance and Personnel was asked how many spoke Irish, but did not answer.
According to the 2011 Census, out of all Northern Irish residents aged three or over, only 3.7% could speak, read, write and understand Irish (the comparable figure for Ulster-Scots was 0.94%).
Michael McGimpsey said the Good Friday Agreement amounted to a virtual Irish language act in itself because of the protections which it gave the Irish language.
One of his acts as minister was to help establish an all-island body – Foras na Gaeilge – to promote Irish. At the time, it boasted 70 staff a budget of £11m (three-quarters of which was drawn from the Republic’s government). He believes the budget has probably increased since.
However, written into the 1998 Good Friday treaty is a line that both Irish and Ulster-Scots can only be promoted “where they are so desired”.
Mr McGimpsey said this means the agreement makes no allowance for people trying to “ram it down your throat”.