Language, language

I don‘t want to major on the Irish Language Act right now – we’ll save up for it later. But just taking up the point from Henry McDonald’s Observer piece.

“The government won’t bring it in via Westminster because the danger is they would be legally bound to recognise other languages such as Urdu, Hindi, Arabic and so on as being of equal legal status to English. Which would cost millions and millions to implement in a time of depleted public finances “

The government seems to have no such obligation anyway under the European Charter for Regional and Minorities languages which they ratified in March 2001 specifically to apply to NI.
According to the Wikipedia article on the Charter it only applies to languages traditionally used by the nationals of the State Parties (thus excluding languages used by recent immigrants from other states). That would seem to nail the Downing St reply as tendentious. I suppose it depends on what is meant by “recent” immigrants. Many Urdu and Arabic speakers, close relatives of those already settled, arrived here recently although immigration from Arabic-speaking countries and Pakistan dates back to the fifties – and those minorities continues to enjoy extensive language support.
Furthermore this casual briefing line can hardly be regarded as a considered reply. No doubt Mr Adams, who will feel rebuffed by the report, is on the case already.

Even if the government as such doesn’t wish to be “legally bound to recognise foreign languages as being of equal legal status to English,” whatever that entails anyway, lots of other public bodies in England especially councils “recognise” them in droves. The merest acquaintance with foreign language policy in England shows what a tiddler the NI language issue is by comparison – divesting it for a moment of its political resonance.
Browse in the National Centre for Languages website and you’ll be knocked sideways, unless you’re familiar with the facts already. 300 languages are spoken in London. Councils provide translation services for many of them and specialised English teaching for all. Of course Irish as an – I’ll use the word – optional – language is conceptually a different issue. But if you think rights and you think diversity and you think yes, costs; if you cool down the politics and play up cultural goodwill , you’ll grope your way towards a solution.

Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London

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