UUP and SDLP at odds over Irish language act

Mike Nesbitt said the UUP bears 'no ill-will to those who cherish the Irish language'
Mike Nesbitt said the UUP bears 'no ill-will to those who cherish the Irish language'

The Ulster Unionist Party does not support an Irish language act but bears “no ill will” to those who “cherish” the language, party leader Mike Nesbitt has said.

DUP leader Arlene Foster said on Monday, at her party’s election campaign launch, that they would never support an Irish language act.

Mr Nesbitt also declined to give his party’s backing to such an act but adopted a much more conciliatory tone.

His position also contrasts sharply with their potential partners in government, the SDLP, who stressed their commitment to – and attempts to introduce – an Irish language act.

Following Mrs Foster’s forthright comments, the News Letter asked the two oppposition parties to outline their official positions.

Mr Nesbitt said: “We bear no ill-will to those who cherish the Irish language. Indeed we supported a commitment to the language in the 1998 Belfast Agreement which we have honoured in full.

“The proposed Irish language act was a product of the DUP’s negotiations at St Andrews. In the current financial climate, we could not justify the costs associated with an Irish language act but again stress that we have no difficulty with those who wish to speak the language.”

The SDLP, however, made no secret of their support for such an act.

A party spokesman said: “At the far side of the election, the need for statutory protection for Irish language speakers is more important than ever. Arlene Foster’s attitude has proven that there are parties that refuse to respect the rights and ambitions of those who speak Irish. In those circumstances, those rights and protections must be written into law.

“The SDLP was the first party to table a draft Irish language act in the Assembly when Dominic Bradley made radical proposals. Before the collapse of Executive last month, Patsy McGlone has taken up the mantle and was preparing a Private Member’s Bill to protect, promote and enhance the rights of Irish speakers.

“Where others have been big on rhetoric, we have been taking action. That work will continue. It is more important than ever.”

On Monday, Mrs Foster had said if there was to be an Irish language act, there should be a Polish language act because more people in Northern Ireland speak Polish than speak Irish.