Irish Language Strategy
Private Members’ Business
2:15 pm

Photo of David McClarty

David McClarty (UUP)

The Business Committee has agreed to allow up to one hour and 30 minutes for the debate. The proposer of the motion will have 10 minutes in which to propose and 10 minutes in which to make a winding-up speech. One amendment has been selected and published on the Marshalled List. The proposer of the amendment will have 10 minutes in which to propose and five minutes to make a winding-up speech. All other Members who wish to speak will have five minutes. A valid petition of concern in relation to the motion was presented on Thursday 4 November. The effect of the petition is that any vote on the motion will be decided on a cross-community basis.

Photo of Barry McElduff

Barry McElduff

I beg to move

That this Assembly notes that correspondence sent to the Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure by the NI Human Rights Commission on 17 August 2010 stated that the Minister’s failure to introduce Irish language legislation is not human rights-compliant; and calls on the Minister to bring forward his proposals for a strategy to enhance and protect the development of the Irish language in accordance with obligations agreed in the St Andrews Agreement 2006.

Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. The motion contains two parts. It reminds Members that the Human Rights Commission (NIHRC) wrote to the Minister in August this year, saying that his failure to introduce Irish language legislation and an Irish language strategy is not human rights compliant because of the manner in which he is going about his business, particularly his citing a lack of community consensus. The motion calls on the Minister to bring forward his proposals and a strategy to enhance and to promote the development of the Irish language in accordance with obligations agreed in the St Andrews Agreement 2006.

Tá mé an-sásta, a LeasCheann Comhairle, an rún seo a chur chun tosaigh agus a mholadh.

Our party is pleased that the amendment has been tabled. It adds value to our motion.

Táimid an-sásta glacadh leis an leasú chomh maith.

The petition of concern is a device open to parties — for example, the DUP — and it is not entirely surprising that it has been deployed in this instance. The vexed issue of the Irish language seems to bring out irrational opposition from the DUP, often at the mere mention of an Ghaeilge — the Irish language. It often has that effect, as observed in a book written by Ian Malcolm called ‘Towards Inclusion: Protestants and the Irish Language’ — ‘i dTreo na Cuimsitheachta: Protastúnaigh agus an Ghaeilge’.

I want to outline the framework of support for the Irish language. It is the oldest written language in Europe and survives as a written community language today. In places such as Carntogher in south Derry, it is alive in the community. Although I am speaking in a private capacity, the Committee for Culture, Arts and Leisure recently received a presentation from the Carntogher Community Association about how the Irish language is a community development tool for people in that area.

Irish is, of course, the first official language of the 26-county state, and it is an official language of the European Union. It should be actively promoted by the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure (DCAL). The Department and the Minister should not have to be dragged squealing on the issue. As for interest in and demand for the Irish language, thousands of children attend Irish-medium schools in the North alone, and there is increasing interest in establishing Irish-medium units in some English-medium schools. There are Irish language officers employed in a number of local government authorities, reflecting the level of demand in those areas.

Foras na Gaeilge, established in 1999 on foot of the Good Friday Agreement, forms part of the North/South Language Body. It provides a range of support to Irish language groups and to public sector organisations on an all-Ireland basis. The Gaeltacht quarter in Belfast is a very exciting proposal and the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure should be doing everything in its power to assist, facilitate and encourage it, as opposed to finding fault.

International obligations in the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages, the Good Friday Agreement of 1998 and the St Andrews Agreement of 2006 mean that it is obvious that legislation, Acht na Gaelige, is the way forward. That is a given. It commands Sinn Féin support and the support of other parties in the Chamber.

I remind the Minister that, following two DCAL consultation exercises, the message came back from people that they wanted an Irish language strategy. The then Minister was unhappy with the first consultation exercise and a second took place. He needed a second opinion. That consultation said the same thing: people expect and demand Irish language legislation to protect their rights as Irish speakers. There is an onus on the British Government to proceed if the DCAL Minister is unwilling, but evidence from the Administration in Dublin, the National Assembly for Wales and the Scottish Parliament is that legislation is the way forward to protect people’s rights and to depoliticise an issue that has been politicised.

There is an absolute requirement for the Minister to move in the short term to develop a strategy. It is my understanding that the DUP Minister, on paper at least, is committed to taking forward a strategy for the enhancement and promotion of the Irish language, even if he has been slow — his previous ministerial colleagues have been incredibly slow — to do that.

I will give an example of how slow the DUP Ministers have been in taking the matter forward. On 25 October 2007, the then Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure, Edwin Poots, attended a meeting of the Committee for Culture, Arts and Leisure to brief it on his decision not to take forward the introduction of Irish language legislation. At the end of January 2008, Minister Poots attended the Committee again and said that his Department was considering drawing up a strategy that would protect the development of the Irish language and Ulster Scots in line with the St Andrews Agreement. On 4 December 2008, Minister Gregory Campbell attended the Committee and said that an interdepartmental group was involved in taking forward the strategy, it had received an early draft of a skeletal strategy in October 2008, and the comments of the group would be considered carefully. The Minister then said that he intended to submit a paper to the Executive in January 2009, setting out the high-level principles on which a strategy might be based.

On 22 October 2009, the Committee received a briefing from DCAL officials who said that Minister McCausland had reviewed the existing draft Executive paper and had undertaken some investigation and research into language issues. His next step would be to submit a paper to the Executive, setting out the high-level principles on which a strategy might be based. Minister McCausland had been scheduled to attend a Committee for Culture, Arts and Leisure meeting on 10 December 2009. However, he said that, because the paper had not yet been submitted to the Executive, he was not in a position to update the Committee. Minister McCausland was scheduled to attend a Committee meeting in late March 2010 to brief the Committee on the draft language strategy. However, his officials cancelled his appearance and stated that he was out of the country on that day. During Question Time on 2 March 2010, Minister McCausland stated that strategies for Irish and Ulster Scots would be ready by the end of that month. Minister McCausland was then scheduled to brief the Committee on the draft language strategy on 3 June 2010, but his officials advised that the paper had not yet gone to the Executive and the Minister was not in a position to brief the Committee.

Eventually, that briefing took place on 1 July this year. I recall that, at that juncture, Raymond McCartney, a member of the Committee, made an observation, and he hit the nail on the head. He said that he found it difficult to ask the Minister a question because the situation was like the scene in the ‘Wizard of Oz’ where there is a big, booming clear voice — then someone pulls back the curtain and there is nothing behind it.

He would not ask a question in those circumstances because the pretence had been going on for a long time. We have seen endless delay mechanisms — [Interruption.]

Photo of David McClarty

David McClarty (UUP)

Order. I ask Members in a sedentary position not to intervene. If a point of order is raised, I am sure that the Member would give way.

Photo of Barry McElduff

Barry McElduff

There have been endless delay mechanisms and great dishonesty on this matter over a lengthy period. Sinn Féin sticks to and honours political agreements and commitments. It appears to me that the DUP has been messing about on this matter for a long time. That does it no credit whatsoever. We now know that the Minister is engaged in correspondence with the Department of Education and the BBC in further attempts to stall the strategy. That is game-playing, and it is not acceptable. People are quite angry about the lack of respect for Gaelic culture and the Irish language. The Human Rights Commission’s letter to Minister McCausland stated that his approach is not human rights compliant.

I expect that there will be spurious arguments today about the cost of a strategy at a time of economic difficulty. Of course we all want to minimise costs, but there is a duty to respect people’s rights. So far, DUP Ministers have been totally dishonest on this matter. [Interruption.]

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Jonathan Bell (DUP)

On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. Are we allowed to use the word “dishonest” in this Chamber?

Photo of David McClarty

David McClarty (UUP)

Let me check the terminology that was used. The Speaker will come back on that point.

As Question Time commences at 2.30 pm, I suggest that the House takes its ease until that time. [Interruption.] Order. I was asked for some information. Now I am giving you other information. I ask Members to listen.

The debate will continue after Question Time, when the next Member to speak will be Mr Dominic Bradley. I call Mr Bradley. [Interruption.] I am sorry; my mistake. The next person to speak, after Question Time, will be Mr Dominic Bradley.