The DUP has once again been warned not to concede to Sinn Fein’s demand for legal protection for Irish, as language activists spelled out their legislative wish lists.
With speculation mounting that the two main parties are on the verge of reaching an agreement to salvage devolution, Irish language advocacy groups yesterday set out their criteria for what they expected be included in a mooted Irish language act.
Conradh na Gaeilge, which has been has been at the forefront of the promotion of the Irish language for over 100 years, said “essential criteria” for any legislation should include “official status, public services, visibility and an independent commissioner”.
Meanwhile, advocacy organisation Pobal said any Irish language act “must be rights-based” and must make it “crystal clear what rights Irish speakers can expect”.
Former Ulster Unionist leader Sir Reg Empey said the vision laid out by these groups should “serve as a warning” to unionists.
He told the News Letter that granting legal protection to Irish would “create huge divisions” in Northern Ireland and could jeopardise the Province’s place within the UK.
President of Conradh na Gaeilge, Dr Niall Comer, yesterday claimed that the Irish language was an “integral part” of NI’s society, adding: “Until that is recognised officially, and until the appropriate provisions are in place, the efforts to secure an independent Irish language act will not cease.”
The group’s advocacy manager, Ciaran Mac Giolla Bhein, added that any new government, new settlement or any new political arrangements “must facilitate the rights and recognition of Irish speakers”.
He added: “Only a strong, rights-based, stand-alone Irish language act can ensure sustainable government here.”
In a radio intervew last Friday, Mr Mac Giolla Bhein said his organisation’s “ultimate ambition” was to see all public services, including those as mundane as a trip to the doctor, available through the Irish language.
He told BBC’s The Nolan Show that an “audit” of the public sector should be carried out to “grade” public bodies on their “obligations” under such an act, and that all signs on public buildings and roads would be gradually replaced with bilingual signs.
He also said this should happen even in fiercely loyalist areas such as the Shankill Road.
Yesterday, Irish language organisation Pobal echoed these sentiments and said Irish speakers “must not have their rights denied”.
Janet Muller, director of Pobal told the News Letter: “Any Irish language act must be rights-based and make crystal clear what rights Irish speakers can expect so that they can be encouarged to use these services.
“This legislation wouldn’t impact on the daily lives of people who are not Irish speakers, as no one is going to have to use these services if they don’t want to.”
When asked if she would support Conradh Na Gaeilge’s call for bilingual signs on all public buildings and roads, she said: “The alternative is to only select certain areas, but that would lead to arguments of ghettoisation.
“There are people who live in what are considered traditionally Protestant areas who class themselves as Irish speakers, so why should they be denied the same treatment as people in other areas?”
Lord Empey said he was glad that the goals of Irish language groups have been “laid bare for all to see”, adding: “I am concerned that this would be the thin end of the wedge.
“Introducing bilingualism in our public services would transform Northern Ireland and further chip away at our position within the UK.”
Sinn Fein’s call for legislation to protect Irish has been the main barrier to restoring power-sharing at Stormont, with the DUP making it clear they will never accede to a stand-alone act.
But there have been reports that the two main parties are in the final stages of thrashing out a deal which could see the creation of three separate bills; one for the Irish language, one dealing with Ulster-Scots and one for wider cultural issues.
The BBC yesterday suggested that these three bills could end up merging together as one act.
A similar approach was put forward by the Alliance Party during negotiations last September in a bid to break the political logjam.
However, Lord Empey has urged the DUP not to concede on Irish and claimed the language was being used as a “political tool” by republicans.
He also claimed that Sinn Fein’s demands for an Irish language act were “a smokescreen to mask their desire to sow divisions” in Northern Ireland.
Urging the DUP not to “play into Sinn Fein’s hands”, Lord Empey added: “During the Belfast Agreement negotiations, Sinn Fein never mentioned the Irish language.
“If it was so fundamental to them why was it not raised then?
“Sinn Fein pulled the government down over the RHI scandal last year and said they wouldn’t accept Arlene Foster as first minister. Yet they never mention this anymore. The RHI inquiry is still ongoing, but they have moved on to focus on the issue of Irish instead.
“It shows that their outrage over RHI was a scam from the start.
“Sinn Fein simply want to show that they are in control and make it seem like they can push unionists around.
“If the DUP is going to play into their hands then that is sad.”
The UUP peer accused Sinn Fein of “poisioning the well” and using the Irish language as a “political weapon” against unionism.
“Instead of it being used to bring people together it is being used to sow divisions,” he added.
Calls for an Irish language act are also supported by the Alliance Party, the SDLP, the Green Party and People Before Profit.