Dr Niall Comer Interview: “The Language has to have its Place…”

On June 26th, a mere fifteen days before Stormont’s Summer recess, we were given a substantial update regarding the New Decade, New Approach Deal (NDNA) from Communities Minister Deirdre Hargey. Not only was a deal to progress language rights finally agreed between the DUP and Sinn Féin, but we also learned that “initial work [had] started on the development of an Irish language strategy and an Ulster Scots language, heritage and culture strategy”. Since then, however, it is unclear what progress – if any – has been made. Certainly, to some extent, this can be ascribed to the announcement being made on the mouth of Stormont’s Summer recess – but perhaps the blocking of attempts to bring Irish Language strategy before the Executive on 26 different occasions over the past year played a part as well.

Cue NI Secretary of State Brandon Lewis who, at the start of October, confirmed that the UK Government willtake the necessary steps to introduce the legislation through the UK Parliament” – on the grounds that “the Executive has not progressed legislation to deliver the balanced identity, language and culture package as agreed in the New Decade, New Approach agreement”. This is not the first time Westminster has ‘taken the reins’ over a contentious and gridlocked issue here – yet however much history repeats itself, that does not make the pill any easier to swallow for some. The TUV’s Jim Allister, for instance, characterised Lewis’ latest move as “payment of a Sinn Fein ransom demand”.

Whether or not our local MLAs approve, however, Westminster ‘taking the reins’ arguably gets results – if notbetter, then at least faster. Same-sex marriage is now legally recognised in the North of Ireland as of last year, for instance. Seven years after it was recognised in England, Scotland, and Wales, granted – yet were it not for Westminster’s intervention, it is quite possible that we would still be waiting. What is clear, however, is that regardless of local political qualms – once Westminster ‘takes the reins’, there is no going back. In light of Westminster having done so now with regard to Irish Language legislation, I interviewed Dr Niall Comer, President of Conradh na Gaeilge (CnaG). One of Ireland’s oldest and largest Irish language organisations, CnaG has been – and continues to be – at the forefront of the ongoing campaign for Irish language legislation. Now that it appears the matter will finally be resolved in Westminster, however, I put the following questions to Dr Comer:

BMcC: Are you optimistic about Westminster taking control of the upcoming Irish Language legislation?

NC: If you had asked me this question a year ago…it was always in the back of our minds that if this couldn’t be progressed at a local level, that Westminster was an option…but obviously we would have preferred it to be passed through Stormont. The legislation that was written into NDNA, it’s not what we wanted, and it’s certainly not what the Irish language community wanted. It was a very watered-down version…but we were saying: “Okay, we have something that we didn’t have before, we were very much aware that the Irish language community really did need a positive outcome after all the campaigning.” When Brandon Lewis made his statement that it was going to be taken through Westminster, we gave it a cautious welcome. My concern is that it has been tied up with Protocol issues, that there’s almost going to be a quid-pro-quo. This is wrong and if anything is politicising a language, that is doing it.

BMcC: What would you most like to see in the Irish language legislation that Westminster will eventually produce, and what do you realistically expect to see? Any overlap?

NC: I don’t think it’s a case that Westminster are suggesting a new package, they’re basically saying that they’re going to legislate for what is in the NDNA package. We don’t expect anything different; we expect what is in the NDNA package…anything less would not be acceptable, because the negotiation is done and the agreement was made, so really this shouldn’t be up for renegotiation. Obviously, we would prefer much stronger legislation based on the legislation in Wales and in the south of Ireland as was promised in St. Andrews, particularly in relation to the visual presentation of the Irish language, signs etcetera.

BMcC: Do you anticipate the UK Government will adopt a consultative approach when progressing Irish language legislation, or a more ‘top-down’ approach in which what was previously agreed (i.e., NDNA) is simply passed into law?

NC: What is on the table is what is written in the NDNA. The heavy lifting has been done…everything we’ve done has been very much research-based, international best practice. I think now we’re at the situation where the content has been agreed and has been written up. We did have particular input into that. [Ultimately], this is a simple case of implementation and passing the legislation. I wouldn’t expect there to be, and in fact I’d be rather concerned, if the suggestion of public consultation was made. What we expect now is a quick passage. Whilst we have welcomed this legislation as an historic staging post in our campaign for language rights, we must also recognise it falls a long way short of what we were promised in 2006, and indeed of our legitimate expectations as a community. When stacked up against the Welsh laws, it is no comparison really. The issue of an Irish language Act has been subject to 3 public consultations since 2007. The most recent, in 2015, saw 13000 responses, with over 94.7% of respondents in favour of the bill and official status for Irish here. We don’t need to rerun those consultations; the debates have been had and the issue has been discussed intensely for 4 or 5 long years. We now need action.

BMcC: Earlier this year, CnaG was granted leave to take the Stormont Executive to court over its failure to implement an Irish Language strategy. Now that Brandon Lewis has seemingly taken the matter out of Stormont’s hands, do you anticipate that CnaG will instead assume a sort of ‘guarantor’ role regarding the actual implementation of the upcoming Irish Language legislation?

NC: The Irish language strategy is not out of the hands of Stormont. The strategy and the legislation are two separate issues. The strategy is an internal issue, and that court action is continuing in relation to that. It’s a parallel approach, where we’re challenging [the Stormont Executive over its failure to implement an Irish Language strategy] and also trying to get the legislation [in Westminster]. I think there’s a level of confusion where people think ‘Act’ equals ‘Strategy’, which is not to say they’re totally divorced. Really, what Westminster is doing is passing the legislation, but the implementation will be very much at a local level. Stormont still has a massive part to play in this, and rightly so. Conradh na Gaeilge will continue to advocate for full implementation of the strategy and the legislation and will monitor both. The Strategy belongs to the Department for Communities, and will be an outcomes based 20 year action plan to develop the language. The legislation is a legal text, outlining a clear framework for compliance for public authorities and government. The Strategy and the Legislation should complement each other, leading to increased legal and daily support for language communities, families, speakers, and schools.

BMcC: Do you anticipate that any foot-dragging from Stormont departments/ministers in terms of implementing the Irish Language legislation, or are you more optimistic in terms of the departmental/ministerial willingness?

NC: I think with the very nature of Stormont – the different departments, one department is controlled by, say, one party – we have seen in the past that without legislation, how decisions concerning the Irish language can be at the whim of whoever the minister is at the time. Yes, of course there will be opposition, and there will be attempts to slow the process down…but I think the whole purpose of the legislation is to take it out of the whims of whichever party is there at the time. That protects everyone, it protects the language, but it alsoprotects the parties from accusations in that they can say this is now legal. I’m sure in all other political spheres, people do things they don’t particularly agree with but, because it’s law, they have to do it. That’s why we’ve gone down this line. I think, with this legislation, we will take a step towards where we want to get.

BMcC: Finally, Dr Comer, any concluding remarks?

NC: The focus of all this should be on how we develop and protect our language. This will present us with a genuine opportunity to address generations of institutional neglect. In the next number of years, the whole dynamic of life in Ireland, north and south, is destined to change in one way or another, so the language has to have its place…

[Finally], this idea that the language isn’t popular, the language isn’t in demand, needs to be challenged. There are many of people, in both communities who didn’t get the opportunity in school to learn Irish or who were fed a false narrative regarding the language. There is a great love and support for the language there, but unfortunately, we haven’t got the appropriate mechanisms in place yet for it to be properly developed. That’s where the legislation comes in.