Unionists have given clear signals that they will firmly oppose an Irish language Act – after Sinn Fein launched a consultation on the matter.
Official recognition of Gaeltacht areas, a guaranteed right to avail of an Irish medium education, and the appointment of an Irish language commissioner are among draft measures outlined by Sinn Fein Culture Minister Caral Ni Chuilin.
The minister is pressing ahead with her efforts to secure greater legal protections for the language even though the prospect of legislation remains highly unlikely in the face of unionist opposition.
Launching a public consultation on her proposals, the minister insisted she was “optimistic” she could convince unionists.
“I am of an age where I can remember lots of things that I was told would never happen and they did happen,” she said. “I am optimistic.”
Ms Ni Chuilin denied the renewed bid to legislate was merely an electioneering tactic.
She further claimed unionist representatives were out of step with people in their communities, many of whom she said had no issue with the Irish language.
“There will be a thousand reasons why people will criticise this,” she said.
“They will criticise the timing of it, criticise the reasons for doing it. I don’t acknowledge any of that. One reason is good enough for me – it’s the right thing to do, and that’s why I am doing it.”
The UK Government made a commitment to introduce an Irish Language Act in the 2006 St Andrews Agreement but legislation has never materialised.
Her department recently released figures which showed that only 4 per cent of the population use Irish sometimes at home or socially,
The DUP’s East Londonderry MP Gregory Campbell, who recently vowed that his party would never allow the act to pass, said that the bill was not a priority in the current climate for the public sector.
“This consultation is a pointless exercise as there will not be cross-community support for Irish language legislation,” he said. “This is a Sinn Fein stunt designed to demonstrate to the Irish language lobby that they are doing something. SF knows this is going nowhere.”
A UUP spokesman said it had repeatedly asked nationalists why an Irish Language Act is needed and that “we have still not had an answer”. The UUP made commitments to minority languages in 1998 which have all been met, he added.
TUV leader Jim Allister said the proposals are “merely another stage in Sinn Fein’s plan to erode the Britishness of Northern Ireland”, while Ukip MLA David McNarry described them as “a dictatorial pathway to an all-Ireland cultural state”.
A Sinn Fein spokesman said: “The Irish language threatens no-one. It does not belong to any section of the community or any particular tradition or group.
”It is a rich part of our shared cultural heritage and as such, belongs to everyone in our society and can help build a strong and united community.
“No-one has anything to fear from protecting the Irish language and the rights of Irish speakers.”
In December the News Letter revealed that in 1986 Northern Ireland Office officials believed the Irish government were angered at Sinn Fein’s “hijacking” of the language.
A 1986 memo from the NIO said Irish officials “believe that [Gerry] Adams and his colleagues have effectively hijacked the language and cast a shadow over all those who speak it”.