Time for action on rights for Irish speakers is now

By Ciarán Mac Giolla Bhéin

History teaches us many things, or so we are told. One of the most important lessons that we all have long experience of in Ireland and that the whole of Europe is now painfully discovering is that the British Government can never be trusted to implement international agreements, even the ones they helped negotiate. The latest developments concerning the Irish Language Act serve as a timely reminder of this fact; the British Government committed to introducing the Act in 2006 and it has taken three public consultations, a collapsed assembly, majority political support, huge international pressure and a vibrant, five-year community campaign for them to finally, belatedly agree to fulfil this promise.

There is, however, a fair degree of scepticism as to whether or not this will happen even though Brandon Lewis stood outside Stormont and stated that “If the executive has not progressed legislation by the end of September, the UK government will take the legislation through parliament in Westminster. If that becomes necessary, we will introduce legislation in October 2021.” October has now passed and although various statements have been issued and briefing papers distributed to the parties by the NIO, we have no firm indication as to when exactly the legislation will be introduced at Westminster.

Some commentators have suggested that the ongoing turmoil within Unionism concerning the protocol has made progress on the Irish language Act that bit more difficult. That does not, however, stand up to any kind of scrutiny. The reality is that since 2006, when it comes to rights for Irish speakers, there has always been some reason or another as to why ‘now’ is not the best time, why it needs to be delayed and why Irish speakers should demonstrate patience in the face of intransigence and hostility, euphemistically described by some as ‘legitimate unionist concerns’ re the implementation of human rights. For some, there will never be a right time for rights.

We have, like too many others here, waited much too long for parity of esteem and the equality promised to us all as part of the ‘peace-dividend’ post Good Friday. The passage of time, however, hasn’t diminished political unionism’s opposition to rights for Irish speakers, if anything, it could be said that that opposition has intensified as turmoil within the DUP has encouraged other Unionist parties to up-the-ante on this issue, keen to point out the former DUP leader, Edwin Poots agreed to the fulfil the NDNA commitments within this mandate in June of this year. The UUP, described as progressive by their new leader and by many commentators, have accused the DUP of ‘talking tough on the Irish language Act’ while preparing for a ‘climb down’. Doug Beattie’s interpretation of ‘Progressive politics’ obviously doesn’t extend to fulfilling international agreements and human rights standards when it comes to the Irish language and our burgeoning community.

The inescapable truth is that if we are waiting on unionist consent before implementing language rights then it will never happen. Our community cannot be held hostage to the crisis in Unionism and its unwillingness to accept us as their equals. To be fair to the main unionist parties though, they have been pretty candid and consistent about their opposition to the Irish language act, and more often than not it has been others trying to make excuses on their behalf for the lack of progress. The recent moves by the British Government, however, could render their opposition meaningless and nothing more than an anachronistic legacy of the colonial subjugation of language over many centuries which ultimately defines political unionisms attitude to the language to this day.

Let us not forget either, that the Irish language community has no basis whatsoever to place trust in the word of the British Government who have a horrendous record when it comes to discriminatory legislation that has always suppressed and hindered the language. If the British Government do introduce legislation to protect the Irish language it will be the first time they have brought forward legislation to protect the language in their long history of unsavoury involvement in the affairs of this country. From the Statutes of Kilkenny in 1336 on, all previous legislative measures have been aimed at hastening the destruction of Irish as a viable community language. That context is important in understanding why Irish is a minoritised language and why we need this protective legislation.

As things stand, however, no legislation has been passed nor has a timetable for passage been made public. Not for the first time, the British Government have missed their own deadline, which was unconditional and unequivocal. They retain the status as the sovereign Government and have the power to act now and must do so. Whatever credibility they accrued as a result of the NDNA deal and the intervention of Brandon Lewis in June will be lost if there is further delay on this issue. Likewise, Sinn Féin must speak as clearly and unambiguously on this issue as they did during the summer when they ensured the provision of language rights was central to the deal brokered with the British Government that saw them nominate Michelle O’Neill as deputy-first minister again. The same goes for the other parties who support the Act and indeed the Irish Government, as co-guarantors of both St Andrews and NDNA. For some, there will never be a right time but for many there has never been a better time. Our community can wait no longer.