The Irish language Act: What to expect?

Blaine McCartney is a Co. Down-based writer

William F. Buckley once mused that “A conservative is someone who stands athwart history, yelling ‘Stop!”. Being a conservative of sorts himself, however, he meant that as a compliment – going on to say that the conservative yells ‘Stop!’ at a time “when no one is inclined to do so, or to have much patience with those who so urge it.” It does not seem to have occurred him that some conservatives yell ‘Stop!’ without good reason – but then to my knowledge, he never encountered the DUP. The lingo is a little different, to be sure – “No! Nay! Never! No Surrender!” – yet they have helpfully demonstrated, time and time again, what happens when you “stand athwart history” for far too long. Somewhat reminiscent of Roman emperor Caligula, who allegedly launched a battle against the sea, you can only last so long before the tide of tomorrow washes over you and drags you down. Indeed, a week of intense negotiations has added another addition to the DUP’s portfolio of ‘Culture War’ defeats – battles like Caligula’s, fought in vain. We have had equal marriage and abortion, to name a couple of examples – and now we have the Irish Language Act. Talks concluded last night, with Brandon Lewis, the Northern Ireland Secretary of State, delivering the outcome:

“Following my intensive negotiations with the parties over the last few days, I can confirm that if the executive has not progressed legislation by the end of September, the UK government will take the legislation through Parliament in Westminster.”

The parallels which can be drawn here with the process of abortion decriminalisation in NI are hard to ignore. Not for the first time, Westminster has stepped in – or been called in, as the case may be – to drag some of us kicking and screaming into the 21st century. Of particular note is the repeated deployment of a deadline. In relation to abortion, for instance, Westminster set the clock ticking from July 2019 for Stormont to restore devolution – with the failure to do so entailing significant changes to NI’s abortion laws from March 2020. This failure was eventually – and perhaps inevitably – realized, and significant changes to NI’s abortion laws duly followed. Nevertheless, it would be a mistake to hope that the ILA example will be totally parallel with the abortion example – despite having been decriminalized and effectively legalized, for instance, Health Minister Robin Swann continues to drag his feet over the actual commissioning of abortion services. What good is the decriminalization and legalization of something if it still cannot be accessed? What good would an ILA be if it is an ILA in name only?

Nevertheless, for Irish language learners, friends, and advocates, there are reasons to be hopeful – if not cheerful. First and foremost, concerns that an ILA would be predominantly or entirely on the DUP’s terms can be put to rest. SF has no incentive to sign off on any Stormont-derived ILA if it is not at least on par with its Scottish/Welsh equivalents. It is reasonable to assume – unless proven otherwise – that when the UK government legislates for an ILA through Westminster, it will be equivalent to its Scottish/Welsh predecessors. In drawing it up, for instance, the equivalents aforementioned would constitute an effective and convenient blueprint. Therefore, in the likely event that the ILA goes the way of abortion – and is taken into Westminster’s hands following a predictable lack of agreement between the DUP and SF – they give us perhaps the most reasonable idea of what to expect. Yet are they comparable? Would an ILA derived from both be equally worthy of the name, or is there a risk that it might be an ILA in name only even then? Below are the key points from both Acts:

Welsh Language Act (1993)

  • Certain public bodies should give effect, so far as is appropriate in the circumstances and reasonably practicable, to the principle that the Welsh and English languages should be treated equally in the conduct of public business in Wales
  • Bodies which provide services to the public in Wales, and who have received a notice from the Welsh Language Board, to prepare a Welsh language scheme setting out the steps the body will take in relation to the use of Welsh while providing those services.
  • Welsh Ministers have the power to give a Welsh name to any Body, office or place to which legislation gives a name
  • Where an Act confers power to specify a form of document or a form of words, the Welsh Ministers may prescribe Welsh versions of these documents or forms.
  • In any legal proceedings in Wales the Welsh language may be spoken by any party, witness or other person who desires to use it…and any necessary provision for interpretation shall be made accordingly.

Gaelic Language (Scotland) Act 2005

  • Secure Gaelic as an official language of Scotland, “commanding equal respect” with English
  • Establish the Bòrd na Gàidhlig to promote the use and understanding of the Gaelic language, Gaelic education, and Gaelic culture
  • Propose a National Language Plan to the above effect (to be approved, implemented, monitored and reviewed)

The most immediate difference between both acts is the former contains far more concrete changes and proposals, whilst the latter is thinner on the ground and much less standalone – effectively a precursor to the National Language Plan which, published in 2012, included proposals – some of which were rather vague and far from concrete – for “the promotion of strategies for increasing the number able to speak Gaelic, encouraging its use and facilitating access to Gaelic language and culture.” These included the expansion in the availability of Gaelic-medium subjects in secondary schools, the development of Gaelic arts and media as a means of promoting the language, and an increased profile for Gaelic in the heritage and tourism sectors alongside an increased use of Gaelic in the interpretation of Scotland’s history and culture. Crucially, however, and to the detriment of the Gaelic Language (Scotland) Act 2005, it created no general rights of citizens or obligations on statutory authorities to actually use the language.

Aside from these Acts, and closer to home, New Decade, New Approach also provides some additional indications as to what we might expect, as it:

  • Places commitments and responsibilities upon the British and Irish governments in a wide range of areas, – including rights language, and identity – with an emphasis throughout upon a “shared and integrated society”
  • Places a commitment and responsibility upon The Executive Office to “Celebrate and support all aspects of Northern Ireland’s rich cultural and linguistic heritage, recognising the equal validity and importance of all identities and traditions.”
  • Places a commitment upon the First Minister, Deputy First Minister, and Executive Office to oversee a “new framework” which, in respect of language, comprises legislation for the creation of a commissioner to “recognize, support, protect and enhance the development of the Irish language in Northern Ireland” – and a further such commissioner for Ulster Scots.
  • Places a commitment upon The Executive Office to “promote cultural pluralism and respect for diversity, including Northern Ireland’s ethnic, national, linguistic and faith communities” through enabling people to “choose, affirm, maintain and develop their national and cultural identity”

If – or when – then, the time comes for Westminster to deliver the ILA, will that necessarily be a cause for celebration? The worst case scenario – and perhaps the best case scenario for DUP foot-draggers – it could be an ILA on par with the Gaelic Language (Scotland) Act 2005. One that is thin on the ground, light on detail, and with little by way of rights and obligations. A better case scenario, however, would be an ILA in the mould of the Welsh Language Act (1993) – concrete, carrying rights and obligations. Perhaps the best case scenario, however, would be an ILA that combines the best of the Welsh language Act (1993) and New Decade, New Approach. This, to my mind, is the most likely outcome, as I do not expect Westminster to completely throw away New Decade, New Approach – not only because the ink is hardly dry, but also because is the most home-grown piece of legislation to draw upon. At a minimum, I therefore expect the upcoming ILA to affect the following concrete changes:

1) Make provision for the equal use of Irish, alongside English, in:

a) The conduct of Public business

b) The naming of Bodies, offices and places [Eg. Signage]

c) Documents and forms

d) Legal proceedings [Thus effectively repealing the Administration of Justice (Language) Act (Ireland) 1737, which still stands/applies in NI)

2) Create an Irish Language Commissioner (and Ulster-Scots equivalent) to “recognize, support, protect and enhance the development of the Irish language in Northern Ireland” (both in abstract and concrete ways)

In any case, time will tell – but now is a time for cautious optimism.

Photo by athree23 is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA

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