The following is a proposal from The Alliance party on the Irish Language. This document consists of proposals which provide the foundation for cross-community agreement on language and culture issues while meeting the requirements of past Agreements. These proposals consist of an outline of the legislation to be implemented (and notes on implementation of it). It bears repeating that they are designed as a foundation – this is a discussion document.
Much of the proposed legislation reflects the position which already exists, essentially codifying or appropriately enhancing recognition and public service obligations in law. However, there is some extension of provision to enshrine rights in law, and to ensure respect for all languages and dialects used in Northern Ireland and their associated heritage and culture. This work reflects the reality that there are three broad types of minority language (in addition to Sign, which is also to be considered):
- Indigenous languages which have a standard form and an established symbolic national value (Irish; also Basque in Spain, Sardinian in Italy, Welsh in UK);
- Indigenous languages linguistically close to the majority language whose use is limited but which carry significant value in terms of linguistic heritage (Ulster Scots; also Low Saxon in Germany, Swiss German in Switzerland, Scots in UK); and,
- National languages spoken by minorities (Polish, Chinese, Bengali etc.).
The process of providing equality of access for speakers of those languages will be necessarily different given their different stages of development (and different types), and what speakers themselves want varies from one language to another. It should be noted, for example, that the development of Swiss German in Switzerland post-War has had significantly better outcomes, in terms of encouraging daily use, than Irish in Ireland – despite the fact Swiss German lacks a written standard (and there is no desire for one). There is, inevitably, a political aspect to all of this. The proposals in this outline reflect the requirement for both:
- legislation for Irish on a stand-alone basis in order to meet the requirements of past Agreements, as well as specifically reflecting the fact that Irish currently has a distinct level of development and distinct need for protection in Northern Ireland; and
- A package of legislation which reflects the desire to build a genuine partnership on language and cultural issues among all Executive parties on a cross-community basis.
This emphasises that the legislation is mutually beneficial and complementary, even though by political necessity be usefully placed in separate pieces of legislation. This is a draft Alliance Party position paper on the issue of legislation on language and culture designed to meet the requirements of past agreements and future cross-community benefit. Politically, various agreements from 1998 and 2015 have included support in various forms for the Irish language and Ulster Scots.
Political Position The 2006 St Andrews Agreement states: The [UK] Government will introduce an Irish Language Act reflecting on the experience of Wales and Ireland and work with the incoming Executive to enhance and protect the development of the Irish language. It also refers to ‘enhancing Ulster Scots’. This was odd, because legislation for the Irish language was always going to rest with the Executive and the Assembly after restoration of devolution, not the UK Government. The latter did introduce a strategy, allowing for an Act, but did not introduce an Act. Nevertheless, continual foul play by the DUP on the issue has meant this issue has been highlighted as an example of the non-implementation of past Agreements. The Alliance Party regards it as clear that the spirit of the 2006 Agreement was that legislation to protect the development of the Irish language should have been and must now be directly introduced, but is open to doing this alongside legislation on other linguistic and cultural commitments (including but not limited to ‘enhancing Ulster Scots’).
Linguistic Position There is some deliberate confusion around the issue of spoken minority languages in Northern Ireland. These may usefully be split into three broad categories:
- national languages which are clearly spoken natively and regularly by large numbers of people in Northern Ireland, e.g. Polish [these do not require political action to ‘enhance’ or ‘protect’ them because they are under no threat, but legally resident speakers do have rights as citizens];
- minority languages which have standards and some administrative status, which are spoken fluently and regularly by some people in Northern Ireland, but which without support may fall out of use, e.g. Irish [here again legally resident speakers do have rights as citizens but additionally there is a need on the island of Ireland to act to ‘enhance’ and/or ‘protect’]; and
- minority languages which are close to the main language and which are at a restricted level of development to the extent that their status may even be disputed, e.g. Ulster Scots [here there is recognition, but speakers themselves may opt not to demand rights because they regard their written language as ‘English’ – a concept known in linguistics as Dachsprache].
This means that although certain specific rights may be the same, fundamentally the means of achieving equity will necessarily differ in each of the three cases.
Proposals In line with the political and linguistic position outlined above, the Alliance Assembly team has shared proposals to resolve the outstanding dispute on the issue of language and culture legislation with all the other party groups in the Assembly. It bears repeating that the purpose of highlighting this issue is that it has been chosen by those two parties as one where agreement is necessary for devolution to be restored. There is a broad proposal for language and culture legislation designed to ensure respect for all minority languages and dialects in Northern Ireland, as well as for their associated culture and heritage. This includes:
- recognition that indigenous spoken languages and regional dialects of Northern Ireland form part of a common cultural wealth;
- recognition that people may wish to express identities associated with these languages and associated culture and heritage;
- recognition of the contribution to our cultural wealth of languages and associated identities recently brought to Northern Ireland; and
- placing of a duty in the Ministerial Code to respect all minority languages and their associated culture and heritage.
There is then a specific proposal for Irish language legislation, including:
- recognition of Irish as an official language of public and legal authorities;
- provision for public signage in Irish in line with local demand (in practice, this requirement would specifically be for cross-community assent in the case of traffic signage);
- establishment of a Commissioner to design and implement standards for meeting the requirements of this legislation, and to provide oversight of the quality of Irish translating and interpreting services;
- placing of a duty to respond in Irish to correspondence in Irish (and recognise legal documents); and
- placing of a duty to ensure Irish-language education is open to all those who want it (through shared facilities where necessary).
There is then a proposal for legislation covering languages and associated culture and heritage in general, including:
- recognition of Irish and Ulster Scots as indigenous spoken languages as per the Council of Europe Charter;
- recognition of English as the common language of law and administration;
- placing of a duty on public authorities to ensure no one is unduly disadvantaged by having a native language other than English;
- recognition of Ulster-Scots language, culture and heritage in the education system and academia and of the desirability of meeting best practice in linguistic development; and
- addition of functions to the Ombudsman to ensure that public authorities meet the duty to respond to correspondence in the language in which it was sent and provide services in languages other than English in line with demand.
Implementation The proposals also contained an implementation process designed to provide maximum assurance that this legislation would have a single commencement date not more than one year after the first meeting of an incoming Executive. Specifically, this disallowed the use of the Petition of Concern to veto any section of the legislation (although it would be allowed to veto any amendments or additions) and put in place a clear timescale for passage of legislation. There is also a case for the UK Government to meet its obligation by passing a short Act committing to the continuing provision of broadcasting in the Irish language. The fundamental objective here is to provide absolute assurance that the legislation will be passed in roughly the form presented. The proposals take no specific stance on whether the legislation should form a single piece of legislation or several (most obviously three) separate Bills – fundamentally what becomes law is the same either way. The passage of a short Act on broadcasting by the UK Government would fulfil the requirement arising from the 2006 St Andrews Agreement with reference to Irish. However, given the clearly distinct nature of each section and the desire to implement past agreements in good faith, there is a preference for three separate Bills passing through the Assembly, albeit with the same commencement date given their interconnected nature.