Any deal to restore devolution at Stormont must contain a commitment to stand-alone legislation to protect Irish, a language campaigner has declared.
The remarks were made by an official from Irish language group Conradh na Gaelige, just hours ahead of DUP leader Arlene Foster’s dramatic announcement yesterday that attempts to end the political impasse at Stormont had failed.
Over the past week there had been speculation that the two main parties were on the verge of a deal that would address the major stumbling block to salvaging power-sharing; the issue of the Irish language.
While the DUP had consistently ruled out a stand-alone act, there were suggestions that the party could be open to some form of hybrid Irish language/Ulster-Scots legislation.
But Conradh na Gaeilge yesterday told the News Letter that it would not be satisfied with anything less than stand-alone legislation.
Mr Mac Giolla Bhein said his organisation “will not rest” until a free-standing Irish language act has been secured.
He added: “To try and parcel up an Irish language act with protection for Ulster-Scots would fly in the face of all international best practice. It is a non-runner as far as we are concerned.”
Mr Mac Giolla Bhein said he had no issue with legislation being introduced to protect Ulster-Scots, but added: “I have heard people within the Ulster-Scots community who have said they do not think there is any need for an Ulster-Scots act.”
Explaining his organisation’s ultimate aims for the Irish language in Northern Ireland, Mr Mac Giolla Bhein said he envisaged a model similar to the one currently operating in Wales.
The Welsh Language Measure 2011 is a robust piece of legislation which grants equal status in the country to Welsh and English.
As part of the legislation in Wales, government departments are required to publish public documents in both languages.
The act provides for:
• bilingual signage on all roads;
• all schoolchildren under 16 are taught Welsh as part of the curriculum;
• all public bodies are required to assess language skills for every job.
Mr Mac Giolla Bhein said it was his organisation’s aim that all signage on roads and public buildings in Northern Ireland would gradually be replaced with bilingual signage.
He added that he also wanted to see “uniformity” across all local councils in the Province when it comes to erecting bilingual signage in residential streets.
“Currently all 11 local councils operate different policies when it comes to bilingual street signs,” he said.
In terms of employment, Mr Mac Giolla Bhein said the aim was that – in a similar vein to the Welsh model – some public sector jobs would have Irish as an essential requirement.
“We are not calling for quotas to be introduced for the civil service,” he added.
“The first step would be to carry out an audit to determine who has this skill base and see if they can be redirected to provide these services to the public. If there are still gaps then we would be asking for those to be filled.”
Mr Mac Giolla Bhein refuted suggestions from some unionists that having Irish as essential criteria for some public service jobs would amount to discrimination, adding: “Irish is a skill, in much the same way as ICT.”
Regarding the issue of Irish being taught in all schools, he told the News Letter: “Our ambition initially would be for all children to be afforded the opportunity to learn Irish as an option.”
When asked if he would like to see Irish eventually become compulsory in all schools in NI, Mr Mac Giolla Bhein said: “We would hope that, by laying down this foundation, society would embrace the language and could one day take that decision.”