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Irish Language Act founders on unionist veto

Andrew Johnson

14 August 2007

(Editor’s note: Since this article was written Ian Paisley has indicated that there will be no Language act and it has emerged that the newAassembly has not bothered, during the time when formally no decision had been made, to ask the civil service to cost the project – in other words the act has been dead since Paisley became first minister).

One of the most controversial issues in the new devolved settlement has been the proposal for an Irish Language Act giving official recognition to the language. The question has stirred up extreme hostility from unionists at Stormont, as well as prompting two large demonstrations by republicans and Irish-speakers in support of the Act. This dispute illustrates in microcosm some of the basic contradictions of the current settlement.

The controversy derives from the negotiations last October leading up to the St Andrews Agreement. During talks with Gerry Adams, Tony Blair had apparently given assurances that a Language Act would be introduced. Sinn Fein understood that they had a firm commitment on the matter. However, once they had left the negotiating table, Sinn Fein discovered that their carrot could be the DUP’s stick. Faced with the possibility of the DUP refusing to take power, Secretary of State Peter Hain threatened the DUP with a whole array of measures he would take if they did not go into government. Chief among these were water charges, but Hain also included the abolition of academic selection at 11 and introducing the Irish Language Act – two measures favoured by nationalists, but which the DUP could block by entering government.

Since the restoration of Stormont, the DUP has indeed sought to stall the Language Act. The statutory consultation period, ending in June, saw the Department of Culture Arts and Leisure (DCAL) receive around 4000 responses, of which 93% were in favour of an Act. Devolved culture minister Edwin Poots (DUP) has responded by opening a second consultation. In addition, on meeting a Sinn Fein delegation headed by Gerry Adams on 26 July, Poots indicated that he may not bring a bill before the Assembly, although he might be willing to consider some non-legislative actions. Poots, however, might retract even this under pressure from his party.

Lessons from Wales

It has been noticeable that the parties to this argument have all been vague about what a Language Act would do. Many of the concrete issues involved have already been worked through in Wales, where the native language is in a much stronger position and there is a far larger community of speakers. From the institution of the Laws in Wales Acts 1535-42 until 1967, the Welsh language had no official recognition at all – most notably, English was the only language allowed in the courts. An increasingly assertive language movement in the 1960s led to the Wilson government passing the Welsh Language Act 1967, which basically made limited provision for the use of Welsh in the courts. It would be a further 26 years before any more legal advances were made.

The current legal framework is that of the Welsh Language Act 1993, slightly amended by the Government of Wales Act 1998, which does three things. It establishes the Welsh Language Board as a statutory body with the duty of promoting the language; it lifts restrictions on the use of Welsh in the courts; and it obliges the public services to give Welsh equal status with English. This is the sort of relatively modest framework that might be considered for the North. In Wales, however, it has attracted criticism for its numerous loopholes – for example, the private sector is totally exempted from its provisions, prompting the activist group Cymdeithas yr Iaith Gymraeg to run campaigns around issues such as employers in Welsh-speaking areas imposing English-only policies on staff. The new Labour-Plaid coalition in the devolved Cardiff government has signalled that it may consider a new language act with more wide-ranging provisions.

It is important to note that none of these advances in legislation, nor other measures like the establishment of Welsh-language TV in 1982, have been granted by the British government out of the goodness of its heart. Since the early 1960s there has been a high level of grassroots activism around language preservation, with a wide variety of tactics ranging from lobbying through education to non-violent direct action. It would hardly be an exaggeration to state that, had there not been sustained pressure from below, central government would never have moved. The grassroots activism has also itself helped to sustain the language, in contrast to the Irish state where the Irish language’s position as national language under the 1937 constitution, and all manner of official protections, have done little to slow its decline.

Language and identity

The situation in the North, of course, is much more complicated. The Irish Language Act was not developed as a concession to language activists, although they would be glad to have it. It was put forward by the British as a bargaining chip to get Stormont up and running. And, since Sinn Fein were promised the Act and the DUP were given to understand that they could stop the Act by taking power at Stormont, the duplicity of the British has created a running argument.

What lies behind the language issue is the question of identity. It is true that the 10% of the Northern population – and the 30% in the South – who claim to know Irish is far out of proportion to the number of people who use the language on a daily basis. These figures might be better taken to represent a level of passive competence combined with a positive attitude towards the language. Amongst Northern nationalists the “positive attitude” can be taken as going beyond that. The peace process has promised nationalists that, if they are to remain part of the British state, their identity will be recognised. Most nationalists, even those who speak not a word of Irish, will regard the language as a part of their identity, not least because of unionist hostility towards it, and would view some official recognition of Irish as an equality issue.

Unionists are opposed to recognition of Irish for the same reason. Because unionism is based on the defence of sectarian privilege, any move towards equality is intolerable. This extends even to the symbolic sphere, where any recognition of the legitimacy of an Irish identity in the North is held to be weakening the British character of “the province”. There was a small example of this in the first Assembly, when David Trimble tried to force civil servants to address letters to “Londonderry”. Unionism’s hysterical reaction to the proposed Language Act is the same thing on a bigger scale.

Clear evidence of this hostility can be found in the statements of unionist MLAs. On 31 May Nelson McCausland (DUP), at a meeting of the Assembly Culture, Arts and Leisure Committee, called for equal funding and broadcast time for Ulster Scots. Perhaps he hadn’t heard the story of the Ulster Scots helpline that received no calls in three years. But this is a standard ploy for unionists who would prefer Irish to have no recognition at all. On 19 May senior DUP member Gregory Campbell said the DUP would veto any bill: “It is a no-brainer. It is my view that the party will not introduce or allow this. It is more about cultural equality rather than the introduction of an Irish Language Act. As things stand at the minute, Ulster-Scots is under-funded in comparison to the Irish language. It is about making up (the funding gap) for Ulster-Scots rather than extending the Irish language.”

Representing the moderate wing of unionism, on 4 June David McNarry (UUP), deputy chair of the same committee, had an apocalyptic letter in the News Letter stating, “Not only is the formation of a pro-Irish language pan-nationalist front a warning to unionists. It sends out a chilling reminder to all unionists of how a previous axis of pan-nationalism destabilised our country… Unite as unionists, or risk waking up to find the Irish language taking over your lives in both permanent and prominent manifestations of visible displays unfolding before your eyes. Co-existence in a shared future under an Irish Language Act awaits you.”

As things stand, the Irish Language Act is not going to happen. The Good Friday-St Andrews settlement means the unionist parties, mainly the DUP, can block any measure they don’t like, and this means there is virtually no chance of getting a language bill through the Assembly. Another possibility would be to lobby the British to impose an Act over the objections of the Assembly – but that would underline the impossibility of getting real equality under a unionist-dominated administration. Language activists have little prospect ahead except to organise at the grass roots and hope they can bring some pressure to bear on Stormont.

However, the central political point was not primarily about language.  The move from the Good Friday Agreement to St. Andrews involved multiple concessions to loyalism and multiple retreats by Sinn Fein.  The first concession was to demand unconditional support for police and state by Sinn Fein, with no more talk of reform. The second concession was to give the executive control over ministerial decisions and therefore meet the central DUP demand for some form of majority rule.  The language act was gifted by the British as cover for Sinn Fein when they agreed to these concessions and was intended to replace the substance of some limited ministerial power with the appearance of equality.  However, in the aftermath of St, Andrews it became clear that the concessions were not enough and the British gave back the language act, and the appearance of equal status for nationalists, for loyalism to bury.  Again, Sinn Fein would have been aware that this was the case when they were finally allowed to sign up for Stormont.

The twin problem for nationalist workers is that the new dispensation does not give equality, nor even the appearance of equality, and that their political representatives have accepted the ‘Eddie McAteer scenario’ (a former nationalist party leader who remarked that half a loaf was better than no bread).

At the moment the situation is resolved by Sinn Fein, the party of government, pretending that they are in opposition and organising demonstrations to publicly oppose what they have privately accepted, by the complacency of the Catholic middle class and by the withdrawal of nationalist workers from the political arena.

Given the keenness of the DUP to demonstrate that the new statelet is both Orange and British, it is not a situation that can last forever.


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