I was on BBC Talkback on Wednesday where I expressed gloom about the prospects of agreement on an Irish Language Act before the “deadline” yesterday.
To be clear, my main point was that this is not really about the Irish Language, but rather about trust between the two main parties here. The Irish Language happens to reflect this in two ways: firstly, it was the withdrawal of funding for bursaries which proved the final straw for Nationalists in December; and secondly Nationalists (rightly or wrongly) generally feel they were promised an Act in 2006 if not before.
Nevertheless, we may look at some of the issues around it.
Unionists tend towards the view that an Act is simply not needed because the Irish Language is already well enough looked after (a view expressed by an Ulster Unionist peer yesterday) or because this is a matter for a Commission on identity and tradition due to report later in the year and has to be taken “in the round”.
Nationalists take the view that an Irish Language Act is necessary to protect and enhance the rights of Irish speakers, and perhaps implicitly because they feel respect for it should be placed in law.
For fear of being cast as a woolly Liberal, in fact I would suggest that objectively neither of those is quite right. Therein perhaps lies the compromise.
To take the last first: Irish speakers have no theoretical reason to believe their own rights alone (and not those, say, of Polish or Gujurati speakers) should be protected in law. Rights would apply equally to anyone who cannot or, arguably, prefers not to use the common language of the vast bulk of the population. That is the case for saying that rights are already protected; or it is the case for placing the rights of speakers of minority or foreign languages in a Bill of Rights; or it is even the case for a rights-based “Minority Languages and Cultural Respect Act”.
However, in fact I do believe there should be specific Irish Language legislation on the grounds that statutory responsibilities to protect and promote the language itself should be placed in law, in order for the language to be maintained as part of our cultural heritage. This is a little different from the “rights-based” approach, even if the outcome would not necessarily be too dissimilar. The issue here is that Irish is a native language in only two jurisdictions, and those jurisdictions therefore are both charged with ensuring its survival as a language in use.
This then, by the curious logic of the talks process, leads to discussion of a “Cultural Respect Act” or whether there should be a standalone “Irish Language Act” accompanied by an “Ulster Scots Act”. Here we need to be clear that an “Irish Language Act” is not just part of “culture and tradition” as Unionists suggest, but fundamental to building trust between parties charged with governing. However, we also need to be clear that delivery of “an Irish Language Act” (note specific phrasing) does not mean delivery of the exact legislation that Sinn Féin or any other party wants.
This takes us back to purpose. The objective of Irish language legislation should be to put the development of the Irish language on a sure footing, while also securing respect for it. This requires Unionists to recognise its importance to many people in Northern Ireland (not exclusively speakers and not exclusively Nationalists); and it requires Nationalists to focus on what is important for the language, noting that this means they have a right to expect an Act but not necessarily one absolutely in their own image. This last point is worth emphasising: when Sinn Féin talks of “implementing past agreements” it has a right to suggest that an Irish Language Act is part of that implementation, but it has no right to insist on the precise Act it wants.
An obvious way around this, of course, is to do both a “Cultural Respect Act” and an “Irish Language Act”. The former would put general rights and statutory requirements with regard to minority languages and cultural respect in general into law (statutory requirements to encourage awareness, spell names correctly, enable government correspondence in languages in use in NI with a written standard, set objectives for encouraging use of minority languages including 10% of the population fluent in Irish by 2031, etc). The latter would add those specifically deliverable for Irish (noting in the preamble the theoretical possibility that they could be added for Ulster Scots or indeed other languages in due course), such as official recognition for Standard Irish in NI and the right to parental choice for Irish-medium education or for their child to learn Irish regardless of which school sector the child attends – a right which is beneficial to the survival of the language as it encourages its use across the community, but which is currently impactable for anything other than Irish. (Politically, Nationalists get their standalone Irish Language Act and establish a broad “respect agenda”; Unionists deliver on matching it, as far practicable, for Ulster Scots and all cultures in general. It is not how I would do it, but it may just work for the key participants.)
Compromise is necessary, in other words. Who knew?