Identity and Language (Northern Ireland) Bill [Lords]

– in the House of Commons at 2:01 pm on 12 October 2022.

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Votes in this debate

Second Reading

Photo of Chris Heaton-Harris Chris Heaton-Harris The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland 2:09, 12 October 2022

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

I am delighted to speak to such an important Bill this afternoon, and I hope that hon. and right hon. Members will feel similarly about its gravity and weight. This legislation will go a long way towards recognising Northern Ireland’s rich diversity in identity and language, bringing tangible benefits for Irish language speakers, Ulster Scots and the Ulster British tradition.

Before I turn to the Bill’s provisions in more detail, I pay tribute to my predecessors as Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, my right hon. Friends the Members for Great Yarmouth (Brandon Lewis) and for North West Cambridgeshire (Shailesh Vara), who both championed this Bill. I am very pleased to continue their work.

However, I must temper my enthusiasm for the Bill with regret that it is we, as hon. and right hon. Members of this House of Commons, who are debating it rather than our counterparts in the Northern Ireland Assembly. To be frank, it was never the Government’s intention to introduce the Bill in this Parliament. I explain to those who are not aware that the Northern Ireland Executive and Assembly were both restored on 11 January 2020, when all five of Northern Ireland’s main political parties came together on the basis of a very good document, New Decade, New Approach, which contained a balanced package of measures relating to identity and language. Draft legislation was prepared by the Office of the Legislative Counsel in Northern Ireland and published alongside New Decade, New Approach for the Assembly’s consideration. It is therefore a matter of enormous regret that the package was not taken forward in a timely fashion by the previous Executive.

I do not intend to relitigate those arguments. Instead, I will use this Bill to look to the future. It will be the job of a newly constituted Northern Ireland Executive to take forward the implementation of this legislation. The provisions of this Bill are based on enshrining respect and tolerance for all of Northern Ireland’s diverse identities, cultures and traditions, and indeed celebrating their contribution to Northern Ireland.

We introduced these provisions in the firm belief that Northern Ireland’s rich diversity contributes immeasurably to the Union, of which we are proud and to which this Government hold a proud and fundamental commitment. We are also taking separate but linked steps when it comes to identity and language, steps that reflect this pride in Northern Ireland’s cultural richness and diversity.

Photo of Liz Saville-Roberts Liz Saville-Roberts Shadow PC Spokesperson (Home Affairs), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Women and Equalities) , Plaid Cymru Westminster Leader, Shadow PC Spokesperson (Justice), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Transport), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Attorney General)

I am very glad to learn that the Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office, Mr Baker met representatives of Conradh na Gaeilge yesterday, and I am sure that he and the Secretary of State will both be aware that the language groups An Dream Dearg and Conradh na Gaeilge were instrumental in organising a campaign that saw 20,000 people on the streets of Belfast in May to support language rights.

Given that a commitment to reflect Welsh language legislation was made in the St Andrews agreement 16 years ago, will the Secretary of State indicate whether he is minded to accept the amendments along those lines that were discussed in the House of Lords?

Photo of Chris Heaton-Harris Chris Heaton-Harris The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland

When I was on a treadmill in the gym this morning and last night, I read the debates in Committee and on Report in the other place, and I will answer in exactly the same language. This package is exactly what was proposed in New Decade, New Approach, and we are sticking rigidly to that. As the right hon. Lady will know from those discussions, we are very proud of all the identities and languages across the four nations. The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office, my hon. Friend Mr Baker was very pleased to have that meeting yesterday, and I believe it went particularly well.

Last year we announced £2 million in funding for Northern Ireland Screen’s Ulster Scots and Irish language broadcasting funds to help deliver more high-quality Irish and Ulster Scots broadcasting in Northern Ireland. In May 2022, the Government officially recognised the Ulster Scots as a national minority under the Council of Europe’s framework convention for the protection of national minorities.

At the same time, under the section of New Decade, New Approach entitled “Addressing Northern Ireland’s unique circumstances,” we made £4 million available to the Irish Language Investment Fund to support capital projects associated with the Irish language.

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Human Rights), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health)

I thank the Secretary of State for moving Second Reading today. Does he understand that, when it comes to the Irish language, the focus is on the language, but Ulster Scots—I am very proud to be an Ulster Scot—is more than a language? It is the culture, the art, the poetry, the music and the words. It is more than just a language to the Ulster Scots. How will the Bill ensure that Ulster Scots has the central focus that the Irish language has, because it is bigger than just a language?

Photo of Chris Heaton-Harris Chris Heaton-Harris The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland

The former leader of the hon. Gentleman’s party, Dame Arlene Foster, recognised in January 2020 that this is a “fair and balanced” package that has been agreed by all parties. I completely understand the hon. Gentleman’s point, but I am delivering on the agreement, as the Government promised.

Photo of Gavin Robinson Gavin Robinson Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Home Affairs), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Defence)

I am listening intently to the Secretary of State, and he is right to quote the former First Minister but wrong to associate this Bill with what was agreed in January 2020. In this Second Reading debate, I hope he will listen with an open mind to the concerns that my colleagues and I will raise about the Bill’s departure from what was agreed.

Photo of Chris Heaton-Harris Chris Heaton-Harris The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland

I am always happy to listen to the hon. Gentleman’s contributions in this House.

Photo of Colum Eastwood Colum Eastwood Social Democratic and Labour Party, Foyle

I am glad to see the Secretary of State implementing these key parts of New Decade, New Approach. Of course, other commitments within that agreement could not be delivered even when we had an Executive. There was a key commitment for 10,000 students at Magee University in Derry. Julian Smith agreed that we could have a medical school at Magee, which has now been delivered, but the real prize is a full-scale university for the people of Derry. Will the Secretary of State commit to getting that done?

Photo of Chris Heaton-Harris Chris Heaton-Harris The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland

The Government are committed to delivering on New Decade, New Approach and all its commitments. That has come forward at different stages, as the hon. Gentleman well knows, and today we are hopefully celebrating the Second Reading of this part of that delivery.

It will not have escaped right hon. and hon. Members that the Bill began life in the other place, where the debate was typically forensic. The Government will move a number of amendments to address issues raised in the other place, and I will shortly delve into their content in slightly more depth, but I hope right hon. and hon. Members will be able to support them when the time comes. I feel strongly that the amendments will improve the Bill.

I will briefly discuss the overall strategic intention of the Bill before running through its provisions in turn. Broadly speaking, the Bill delivers on the commitments detailed in annex (e) of New Decade, New Approach to

“respect the freedom of all persons in Northern Ireland to choose, affirm, maintain and develop their national and cultural identity and to celebrate and express that identity in a manner which takes into account the sensitivities of those with different national or cultural identities and respects the rule of law.”

In practical terms, the Bill does this by broadly replicating the draft legislation on identity and language published alongside New Decade, New Approach. As I have already set out, the draft legislation was prepared by the Office of the Legislative Counsel in Northern Ireland at the request of the UK Government. We have done our utmost to stay as close as possible to the draft legislation. The Bill therefore provides for the delivery of a cultural framework, as set out in New Decade, New Approach, to the benefit of the whole community in Northern Ireland.

Photo of Stephen Farry Stephen Farry Alliance, North Down

I concur with the Secretary of State that the Bill broadly reflects New Decade, New Approach. On reflecting the community, does he agree that it is important to think about both the Irish language and Ulster Scots as shared across the community, and not the sole attribute of one side or the other? They are something that we all have in common, and the different languages and traditions are part of a very rich history in Northern Ireland and across the island, which we should promote.

Photo of Chris Heaton-Harris Chris Heaton-Harris The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland

I believe that this can be celebrated across all communities and in all ways with the respect it truly deserves, so yes, I happily agree with the hon. Gentleman on that.

Secondly, the Bill provides for a requirement for public authorities to have due regard to the national and cultural identity principles, and the establishment of the Office of Identity and Cultural Expression to oversee them, fostering mutual respect and understanding of Northern Ireland’s different national and cultural identities.

Thirdly, the Bill provides for the creation of an Irish language commissioner, providing official recognition for the Irish language, and a requirement on public authorities to have due regard to Irish language best practice standards when providing services to the public.

Fourthly, the Bill repeals the Administration of Justice (Language) Act (Ireland) 1737.

Fifthly, the Bill creates a commissioner for the Ulster Scots and Ulster British tradition, who will be responsible for the enhancement and development of the language, arts and literature associated with the Ulster Scots and Ulster British tradition; and a duty on the Northern Ireland Department of Education to encourage and facilitate the use and understanding of Ulster Scots in the education system.

Finally, the Bill provides for the safeguarding of the delivery of these New Decade, New Approach commitments by giving the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland—currently me—the ability to ensure that they are implemented.

Photo of Andrew Murrison Andrew Murrison Conservative, South West Wiltshire

Does my right hon. Friend agree that modern, 21st-century Northern Ireland is home to a large number of traditions, particularly the Polish community, who are a very valued part of Northern Ireland society? Does he agree that in everything he is outlining, which I welcome, it is important that those communities feel included, particularly when we are talking about an Irish language from which they might be excluded, as of course Polish is probably more fluently spoken in Northern Ireland than the Irish language at the moment?

Photo of Chris Heaton-Harris Chris Heaton-Harris The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland

I thank my right hon. Friend for his wise counsel on this matter. I was having a conversation earlier today where I was reminded of the large number of Hong Kong Chinese who also live in Northern Ireland, contribute to the economy and are assimilated into different communities. So I completely understand the wise point he is making.

Photo of Sammy Wilson Sammy Wilson Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Treasury), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Work and Pensions), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Brexit)

As the earlier intervention pointed out, while we agonise over an Irish language commitment there are more Chinese speakers and Polish speakers in Northern Ireland than Irish speakers. The Secretary of State quickly glossed over the role of the two commissioners, which is one of the ways in which this Bill does not faithfully reflect what was agreed in New Decade, New Approach. The Irish language commissioner will have the power to direct other public bodies, which will have a significant impact, especially on some Unionist-controlled councils, depending on the decisions he makes. The Ulster Scots commissioner will have no such power to direct. How does the Secretary of State explain the disparity between the treatment of those who are looking for the protection of Ulster Scots, where there is no power to direct, and the treatment of those looking for the protection of the Irish language?

Photo of Chris Heaton-Harris Chris Heaton-Harris The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his contribution. This serious subject was well debated in the other place and I am sure he will be tabling amendments to probe the Government further on these matters, which we will have a long time to discuss. I go back to what was said in the other place by the Minister, which was that we are trying to reflect honestly and truthfully what was agreed at the time of New Decade, New Approach. As I have detailed, the two commissioners have distinct jobs—they are slightly different. I will be happy in Committee to go through with him in great detail where those levels lie and why exactly the level of detail is as it is.

Photo of Sammy Wilson Sammy Wilson Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Treasury), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Work and Pensions), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Brexit)

The Secretary of State is right to say that the two commissioners have distinct jobs, but the important thing is that we must make sure that both these people have the same ability to deliver what they are expected to deliver when they do their job. If we give a power of direction to one commissioner but not to the other, although they may have distinct jobs they do not both have the ability to respond and to deliver for the people they are meant to represent.

Photo of Chris Heaton-Harris Chris Heaton-Harris The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland

I would never like to disagree with the right hon. Gentleman, but I would like to think that when we get to debate the detail of the responsibilities of each commissioner and how those duties could be implemented, I would be able to allay some of the concerns he has just outlined. However, I will go into some more detail now, having I hope given the House a broad picture of what this Bill does. Let me go through the clauses and schedules in turn, to try to put a tiny bit more meat on the bone.

Photo of Mike Penning Mike Penning Conservative, Hemel Hempstead

I thank my right hon. Friend for taking so many interventions. As a former Northern Ireland Minister, I am pleased that this Bill is coming forward, even though I probably agree with some of my former colleagues that it might need a little tweaking, which we can discuss as we go through it. We have discussed Chinese, Mandarin and Polish, but one language we have not discussed is British Sign Language. It came into statute after the agreements we are talking about were done. How will BSL and the people who rely on it be affected by the Bill?

Photo of Chris Heaton-Harris Chris Heaton-Harris The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland

I thank my right hon. Friend for that intervention. BSL was briefly mentioned in debate in the other place and I believe a probing amendment was tabled on it. BSL is not reflected in this Bill, because BSL is, we hope, already well respected and widely used across Northern Ireland, Scotland, England and Wales. He may like some more information or help, and perhaps he wishes to table a probing amendment on BSL. When I was a Member of the European Parliament, I tabled amendments to make sure that sign language was available in the different languages that the European Parliament used at the time, and I believe it is vital for us to be able to communicate with all parts of society. However, this package is purely about what was agreed back in January 2020 in New Decade, New Approach, and BSL was widely in use at that point in time.

Photo of Mike Penning Mike Penning Conservative, Hemel Hempstead

The point I was trying to make is that since the agreement was made—it is the basis of this legislation—it has become law in these islands that BSL is an official language. It has been used extensively for many years, but it is now in statute that BSL is an official language of this country, which is why I am interested as to how the Bill will affect that.

Photo of Chris Heaton-Harris Chris Heaton-Harris The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland

I hear what my right hon. Friend is saying, but BSL is not reflected in this Bill at this point. I am sure he can add expertise and wise counsel as to whether this is the right place for any addition of that type.

Clause 1 amends the Northern Ireland Act 1998 to make provision for the national and cultural identity principles, and requires specified public authorities to have due regard to them when carrying out their functions. These principles affirm the freedom of everybody in Northern Ireland to choose, affirm, maintain and develop their national and cultural identity, and to express and celebrate that identity in a manner that takes account of the sensitives of those with different national and cultural identities. Furthermore, public authorities should encourage and promote reconciliation, tolerance and meaningful dialogue between those with different national and cultural identities.

Clause 1 also establishes the new Office of Identity and Cultural Expression, which will be required to promote awareness of the principles, and to monitor and encourage compliance with them. It will, for example, be able to issue public guidance on best practice for complying with the new duty and to commission research into matters relating to national and cultural identity in Northern Ireland. Clause 1 was also amended in the other place, and I will tackle that when I talk about new clause 8, as inserted in the other place, a bit later in my remarks; further details are also contained on the proposed Office of Identity and Cultural Expression.

Clause 2 provides for the official recognition of the status of the Irish language in Northern Ireland and the appointment of an Irish language commissioner to enhance and protect its use by public authorities when they are providing services to the public. The commissioner, who will be appointed by the First and Deputy First Ministers acting jointly, will develop standards of best practice to which public authorities must have due regard. Those standards will have to be approved by the First and Deputy First Ministers before they can take effect. The commissioner will also monitor and promote compliance with approved standards and investigate complaints where it is claimed by a person directly affected that a public authority has failed to comply with its obligations.

Clause 3 makes provision for the appointment of a commissioner for the Ulster Scots and the Ulster British tradition. The commissioner will be required to promote awareness of services provided by public authorities in Ulster Scots or those likely to be of particular interest to those with an interest in the language, arts and literature associated with the Ulster Scots and the Ulster British tradition. The commissioner will also be required to provide and publish advice, support and guidance in respect of such language, arts and literature, reflecting the Government’s recent recognition of Ulster Scots under the framework convention, as I set out earlier. That advice will also cover the effects and implementation of that international agreement, the UN convention on the rights of the child and the Council of Europe charter for regional or minority languages. For Members who are interested in this matter, schedule 3 contains further details about the commissioner for the Ulster Scots and the Ulster British tradition.

Photo of Jeffrey M. Donaldson Jeffrey M. Donaldson DUP Westminster Leader

To those on the DUP Benches, it is evident from the Secretary of State’s explanation that there is a disparity between the power of the two commissioners. One has the power to direct; the other has the power to issue advice. That is important, because I was involved in the discussions on the New Decade, New Approach agreement, and we were very clear. We have seen local council buildings in Northern Ireland stripped bare of any vestige of British identity. We wanted to protect the right to reflect our identity in public buildings and public spaces, yet I do not see any power for the Ulster British commissioner to direct councils where they are stripping out the Ulster British identity from their public buildings and public spaces. He can offer advice, but does that compel a council to act? For us, this is a key issue.

Photo of Chris Heaton-Harris Chris Heaton-Harris The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland

The right hon. Gentleman is correct; the duty is to give due regard to the items that I have listed. I would like to think that some of the measures that I have outlined would act as safeguards. The appointment of the commissioners must be made by the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister in agreement, and there will be a level of understanding at that point in time, but I completely understand the point that the right hon. Gentleman has been making.

Photo of Andrew Murrison Andrew Murrison Conservative, South West Wiltshire

My right hon. Friend is being very generous in giving way. The fact of the matter is that the 2021 census showed that there is pretty much equality of facility, at least at some level, between the Irish language and Ulster Scots, at I think 12.4% and 10.4%. We also want parity of esteem between the two communities, yet it is not clear to me—I hope he can help me out on this—why there is such a difference between the commissioners in the legislation. It seems to me, on the principle of parity of esteem and given the more or less equal pegging between the two languages in the most recent census, that they should be dealt with equally.

Photo of Chris Heaton-Harris Chris Heaton-Harris The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland

I thank my right hon. Friend for his contribution. I have some statistics that back up his point, from the 2021 “Knowledge and use of Irish and Ulster-Scots in Northern Ireland” report, which is published annually by the Department for Communities. It states that 17% of adults have some knowledge of Irish, 8% can read in Irish and 5% can write in Irish, whereas 16% of adults have some knowledge of Ulster Scots, 4% can read Ulster Scots and 1% can write in Ulster Scots.

I completely understand my right hon. Friend’s main point, but I hope he will understand that we have faithfully lifted from what was agreed at the time of the New Decade, New Approach agreement. That is what I am currently talking about, and I am quite sure that we can go into detail in debate in Committee about why that needs to remain as it is, but if he will allow me, I shall now move on a tiny bit.

Photo of Sammy Wilson Sammy Wilson Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Treasury), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Work and Pensions), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Brexit)

The Minister is being very generous. Does he understand the point that has been made? As far as the Ulster Scots community is concerned, the attack on that community, especially by Sinn Féin-dominated councils in the west of Northern Ireland, has meant the stripping out of any of the symbols identified with the Unionist community. If the role of the Ulster Scots commissioner is to look at the whole remit of culture, and if there is already known to be a problem in Sinn Féin-dominated councils that ruthlessly try to stamp out any of the Unionist tradition, surely that is the most compelling reason to give that commissioner the ability to stop that kind of cultural destruction through the power to direct.

Photo of Chris Heaton-Harris Chris Heaton-Harris The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for making his point with strength and passion. I will not go any further on this particular point today, as I believe I have outlined the case that I would make, but as I said to my right hon. Friend Dr Murrison, I would be very happy to listen to, and hopefully explain and debate, various amendments that might be brought forward on the matter in Committee.

If the House will indulge me, I shall race through the final piece of my speech, because I do not want to take all the time, which is rapidly running out. Of the various other clauses, clause 8 is a new clause inserted by Members of the other place following a further set of amendments from the Government. That clause, alongside the amended clause 1, relates to the establishment of the Castlereagh Foundation. The Government are committed to fund the establishment of the Castlereagh Foundation, as Members will see from paragraph 25 of annex A to the New Decade, New Approach agreement. It was envisaged that the foundation would explore identity and the shifting patterns of social identity in Northern Ireland, and more detail will obviously come to the fore during further debates.

Taken as a whole, the Bill is a hugely important milestone when it comes to identity and language in Northern Ireland. Communities in Northern Ireland have long been awaiting progress in this area. The Bill celebrates Northern Ireland’s different identities and cultures, which contribute immeasurably to the strength and character of our Union, and demonstrates the Government’s commitments to all parts of it. Having followed the debate in the other place, I am cognisant of the fact that not all right hon. and hon. Members, from across all parties, will like everything in this Bill. I accept and respect that, and my door, and indeed that of my hon. Friend the Minister of State, is always open.

However, the Government are determined to see the Bill through this House in a timely fashion, given how long it has taken to get here. We owe it to all communities in Northern Ireland to do that. Indeed, it is our sincere and genuine hope that the parties in Northern Ireland will form an Executive in the not-too-distant future, to make the necessary appointments, oversee the implementation of this important package and maybe deal with some of the issues raised by hon. Members in today’s debate. Until then, the Bill is a reminder that the UK Government will always deliver on our commitments to Northern Ireland and care deeply about its people of all communities, and I commend it to the House.

Photo of Peter Kyle Peter Kyle Shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland 2:38, 12 October 2022

I would like to begin by passing on my condolences and that of the Labour party for the 10 people who were tragically killed last week in Creeslough. I would also like to thank the emergency workers in Northern Ireland who provided help, working in partnership with their colleagues across the border.

I thank the new Secretary of State for setting out the measures in the Bill and welcome the new Minister for Northern Ireland to his place. The Bill broadly keeps with the identity and language commitments made in the New Decade, New Approach agreement—I see the former Secretary of State, Julian Smith, in his place—and the achievements of those on both sides of the Chamber who negotiated it are recognised across the House, and certainly by us in the Labour party. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will be speaking, so that we can benefit from his insight into the deal at the time.

That deal led to the restoration of the Executive after an extended period of absence and had, at the time, the agreement of all parties. This legislation is a serious undertaking and I pay tribute to the officials who have worked on it. It combines three separate draft Bills, which were supposed to be taken forward in the Northern Ireland Assembly, where they would have benefited from the enhanced scrutiny of local representatives. The Bill creates the Office of Identity and Cultural Expression, recognises the status of the Irish language in Northern Ireland and provides for the appointment of an Irish language commissioner and a commissioner for the Ulster Scots. To effect these changes, the Bill directly amends the Northern Ireland Act 1998. Crucially, it adheres to the principles that underpin the Belfast/Good Friday agreement: equality, respect and parity of esteem.

As the Bill was introduced in the other place, it has benefited from a wealth of expertise from our colleagues there. I strongly recommend that Members read those insightful debates—whether they do so on a running machine is for them to decide; how the Secretary of State managed to read those contributions while running is something that I cannot quite comprehend. I pay particular tribute to Lord Murphy of Torfaen, who helped to negotiate the rights, safeguards and equality of opportunity section of the Belfast/Good Friday agreement. The agreement recognises that the Irish language and Ulster Scots form part of the cultural wealth of the island of Ireland. These languages are part of our shared heritage, too, as the United Kingdom. Indeed, it was enriching to see Mark Logan recently swear allegiance to the King in Ulster Scots.

Other contributions during the Bill’s passage recognise the wider history behind the identity and language issues. The Bill contains a clause that repeals the Administration of Justice (Language) Act (Ireland) 1737—very long awaited by Irish language groups. It includes an amendment passed in the other place establishing the Castlereagh Foundation, which will explore shifting patterns of identity in Northern Ireland. We welcome the provisions that create a clear, unambiguous legal framework, which will help and inform public authorities and Government Departments about their duties and responsibilities regarding language promotion.

Language and identity issues have clearly always been a part of the peace process. They have often featured in the agreements made to restore devolution in Northern Ireland, as happened during the St Andrews and the New Decade, New Approach periods. The Government have set out that they believe the Bill will help to take the sting out of these issues and to prevent them from paralysing the institutions again in future. We also support the Bill on that basis, and we want to see the normalisation of language rights to take some of the politics out of them. Of course, it is a matter of regret that this legislation is not being discussed and passed at Stormont. Sadly, we are experiencing another period in which devolved government in Northern Ireland is not functioning. But the Government are doing the right thing by introducing this legislation here. We welcome that and that they are the honouring commitments made in the New Decade, New Approach agreement.

There were repeated promises to proceed with this legislation following that agreement. It is remarkable that, in the written ministerial statement of 21 June 2021, the Government promised to introduce this Bill by October 2021. When Brandon Lewis was Secretary of State, he repeatedly said from the Dispatch Box that the Bill would be introduced before the end of the last Stormont mandate. It should not be so easy for the Government to let slip their own deadlines and promises to Northern Ireland.

We should all be concerned that the Executive have not been functioning for more than 40% of the time since the Belfast/Good Friday agreement. People need a stable, functioning Executive to meet the enormous health and economic challenges facing Northern Ireland in the coming months amid the cost of living crisis that our entire country is facing. The Government are trying to prevent any further identity and language issues destabilising Northern Ireland by giving the Secretary of State new powers. This legislation would permit them to step in, if necessary, to implement what the Bill is trying to achieve.

I want to repeat that it should be for the Northern Ireland Assembly to discuss and debate legislation whose territorial extent is within Northern Ireland. However, the Opposition will scrutinise the Bill and suggest amendments in areas where we think it can be improved. We have concerns about how cultural expression on the basis of “sensitivities” is to be interpreted in practice. It might be more appropriate to use a human rights basis. I would be grateful if the Minister responded to that in his winding- up speech.

We would also welcome further clarification on the Castlereagh Foundation, and on whether the Government will publish the written advice available to the Northern Ireland Office before the Bill reaches Committee stage. It is positive that the Government are trying to uphold other commitments that they made in the New Decade, New Approach agreement. We would be glad to hear an update from the Minister on the connected classrooms programme, which was another promise made by this Government. We could do with some clarification on when that will be brought forward.

There is also the question of whether the Bill needs to address the recent court ruling about the Executive being in breach of their legal duty by failing to adopt strategies on Irish language and Ulster Scots. Additionally, while the Bill gives the Secretary of State powers to step in, I know that there is concern that there are no timeframes or conditions for when they will take action. Assurances that there will not be undue delay would be welcome especially considering the history of this legislation and the delays that it has undergone. Overall, however, I reiterate the Labour party’s support for the Bill and hope it receives swift passage through this place.

Photo of Julian Smith Julian Smith Conservative, Skipton and Ripon 2:46, 12 October 2022

May I add to the comments of Peter Kyle about the tragedy in Creeslough?

I welcome the Bill that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has brought to the House, although I echo and support the comments that have been made about how it would have been better if such legislation had taken place in a devolved space. None the less, I accept that it is great that the Bill is being brought forward. Language rights in Northern Ireland is an extremely emotive issue, and it was a very emotive issue during the negotiations over the New Decade, New Approach agreement. I genuinely believe that the Bill enhances the language provision, the culture provision and the rights that stem from the Belfast/Good Friday agreement, the St Andrews agreement and previous agreements, so I support the Government in moving forward with it.

There was a lot of talk at the time about the Irish language. Many campaigners, some of whom are in the House today, campaigned hard for clearer Irish language rights, despite the fact that councils in Northern Ireland can already conduct their business in the Irish language. There was some very strong campaigning on the issue here and by youth groups and other groups in Northern Ireland, so I hope that the Bill provides a good and balanced approach to what they have been wanting for many years.

The Bill will establish the Office of Identity and Cultural Expression. It is worth paying tribute to the former MP for Belfast South who did a lot of work, along with other Northern Ireland colleagues, on the structure of aspects of this Bill, particularly the Office of Identity and Cultural Expression. There is the provision for two commissioners: the Irish language commissioner and the commissioner for Ulster Scots and the Ulster British tradition. It had been difficult, during New Decade, New Approach, to get adequate balancing for the two commissioners. I accept some of the points that have been made today about duties: at the time, there were concerns about the commissioners having direction and directive powers, but further aspects have been raised today that may require more analysis.

There has been a huge debate about the Irish language that has resulted in this Bill, but, as my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said, Ulster Scots is spoken, or at least understood, by an increasing number of people in Northern Ireland. It is not a fringe dialect but a growing language that is integral to many traditions across Northern Ireland, particularly in North Antrim and Strangford, as I am sure we will hear. That is reflected in the recent census, which showed that many people do not identify as British or Irish but have a Northern Irish identity and that Ulster-Scots is extremely important to them.

I note that concerns have been raised by the Ulster-Scots Agency, who I spoke to today, and I am pleased that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will look at aspects of the powers of the commissioners. I recall that during that negotiation there was concern on both sides about directive powers of the commissioners.

The official recognition of Ulster-Scots as a national minority under the framework convention is a positive move, and I will speak a little about the vibrancy of Ulster-Scots. In Derry, Derry and Raphoe Action has organised Ulster-Scots cultural evenings and runs initiatives to increase skills for young people in the Ulster-Scots community, including piping and drumming, singing and dancing classes. The Kildoag pipe band, made up of young people from Derry, was successful at the world championships in Glasgow in August.

The strong Ulster-Scots culture in Derry city and Strabane reflects the huge cultural diversity across Northern Ireland. The poet Angeline King, who is from Larne in County Antrim and is writer in residence at Ulster University—her work includes “A Belfast Tale”—focuses on Ulster-Scots and explores the complex and diverse culture in Northern Ireland. It is worth also reiterating the vibrancy of Ulster-Scots in the Republic of Ireland. Three Ulster counties of Cavan, Monaghan and County Donegal—particularly, although I might be corrected, in the Finn Valley area of County Donegal—have a significant amount of Ulster-Scots culture. The Frances Browne Ulster-Scots poetry competition in Donegal, which celebrates the legacy of Frances Browne, the blind poetess of Ulster from Donegal’s Finn Valley, runs competitions in Ireland’s three traditional languages, Irish, English and Ulster-Scots. It is obviously not appropriate to comment on the broadcasters of other nations, but I think I am right in saying that on RTÉ there is no broadcast programming in Ulster-Scots, which is something that might be looked at or considered in future campaigns.

When I was Secretary of State, I had the privilege of engaging with several groups dedicated to the Ulster-Scots tradition. Those organisations continue to be supported by the Department for Communities—there are more than 1,000 active Ulster-Scots groups. The Ulster-Scots writing competition will be hosted in the Linen Hall library, the oldest cultural establishment in Belfast. National Museums NI has introduced a new “Languages of Ulster” project, which offers people the opportunity to explore the rich and diverse language traditions associated with both Irish and Ulster-Scots.

There is a fantastic blogger and Tweeter called Lentil Pentil in Scotland—I do not think she is the sort of person who wants a push from a Tory MP, but she does an Ulster-Scots word of the day and is well worth having a look at. As we have heard, my hon. Friend Mark Logan recently swore his oath in the dialect.

I welcome the fact that the Bill proposes that the Department of Education will “encourage and facilitate” the use of Ulster-Scots in the Northern Ireland school curriculum. I note also that the Ulster-Scots Agency would like more support with grants and funding to make that happen. There is also the question of Ulster-Scots A-levels, university degrees and the creation of research institutes, and I hope those will be considered in the future. There has been a very good review of the Ulster-Scots tradition by the Department for Communities, and that report is well worth considering.

On the issue of funding, my understanding is that the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport did cover funding for broadcast, but that has now come to an end. I hope the Government, with their sizeable budget, could have a look at that and continue to support broadcasting activities in Ulster-Scots.

This Bill is a significant step forward. The Good Friday agreement states:

“An essential aspect of the reconciliation process is the promotion of a culture of tolerance at every level of society”.

The Bill delivers on fundamental rights for Irish speakers and Ulster-Scots speakers. As we approach the 25th anniversary of the agreement, the Bill follows its spirit and will ensure that the Ulster-Scots tradition thrives over the next decade and beyond.

I grew up in Scotland where there is a fantastic word, “scunnered”, which I think adequately reflects the sentiment on the Government side of the House today.

Photo of Richard Thomson Richard Thomson Shadow SNP Deputy Spokesperson (Treasury - Financial Secretary), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Wales), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Northern Ireland) 2:55, 12 October 2022

How do I follow that word?

I begin in all seriousness by echoing the sentiments expressed on both sides of the House about the appalling events in Creeslough. I send my personal condolences to all who have lost their lives, their families and all those who have been deeply affected by that awful tragedy.

The Scottish National party welcomes this Bill, although we, like others, very much regret that the legislation is being brought forward in this place rather than through the Northern Ireland Assembly. It deals with two languages that are clearly integral to the cultural heritage of Northern Ireland. As hon. Members have mentioned, both Irish and Ulster-Scots are languages with significant usage; the latest census shows that 12.5% of people in Northern Ireland have use or some use of the Irish language and some 10% have use or some use of Ulster-Scots.

Ahead of this debate, I happened across a publication online produced by the British Council on Ulster-Scots. Obviously, I was familiar with the strong cultural links and shared vocabulary between Ulster-Scots and Scots, but I do not think I had fully taken on board how similar they were. There was such similarity that, were I to live in Northern Ireland, I think I would be able to include myself in that 10%.

We have already heard the word “scunnered” from Julian Smith; it is a word that frequently applies to how we feel when things in this place do not go our way. “Aye”—for yes—is a word that every hon. Member ought to be familiar with, along with blether—always more than a few of those about the place—boak, crabbit, eejit, flit, oxter and thrawn. Then of course there is “sleekit”, although, were I to apply that word specifically to any hon. Member, I am sure I would be getting my knuckles rapped from the Chair, so I will not seek to do so. There may be an occasion where I want to push my luck, but it is not this afternoon.

Photo of Eleanor Laing Eleanor Laing Deputy Speaker and Chairman of Ways and Means, Chair, Standing Orders Committee (Commons), Chair, Standing Orders Committee (Commons)

Order. For the sake of clarity, I appreciate that a great many people in the House do not understand the words the hon. Gentleman has just used, but I do, and he is absolutely right about the way in which he might apply them. I will be listening carefully.

Photo of Richard Thomson Richard Thomson Shadow SNP Deputy Spokesperson (Treasury - Financial Secretary), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Wales), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Northern Ireland)

I am grateful for that, Madam Deputy Speaker, and I shall take care to ensure that the rest of my remarks are within the parameters of normal parliamentary debate.

A language Act has been promised from the Good Friday agreement through the St Andrews agreement and, most recently, the New Decade, New Approach agreement, so in our view the Bill is long overdue. Language, culture and identity matter.

Linguistic rights are human rights, as reflected in various international conventions that seek to uphold the ability of linguistic minorities around the world to practise and use their own languages. Citizens have a fundamental right to their identity and to cultural expression. Those linguistic rights are contained in the United Nations declaration of human rights, the international covenant on civil and political rights, the European convention on human rights and the European charter for regional or minority languages.

Across these islands there is an unhappy legacy of the suppression of some of those rights. Thankfully, we have left behind the dark days of physical and cultural barbarism where children had their native tongues thrashed out of them in schools, but that is not the only reason for languages being marginalised.

Mass media produced in a dominant language has been a key driver of that as well. Indeed, the correlation between the decline in the use of Scots Gaelic in the home and the rise and availability of television in the English language is marked. Without action to rectify that, indigenous languages are often left in a parlous state, with a diminished and marginalised status. Steps can of course be taken to remedy that through schooling, broadcasting in those languages and support for cultural activities—those are just some of the more obvious examples.

Although a language might be in fairly common everyday usage—it could be a language of conversation, a language of song and poetry, or even a language of print—if it is not in daily use as a language of law, commerce or administration, any existing lack of parity of esteem is reinforced. That is deeply regrettable, because our languages are an essential part of our culture and heritage. Even if we speak more than one language, we will default to the language that is our most natural form of expression. Whether or not we speak all the languages from the places where we live, we are shaped by them and the inheritance they give as part of a cultural wealth that belongs to all. I firmly believe that, just as the promotion, support and legal recognition of Scotland’s languages—particularly Gaelic—has threatened no one, promoting the Irish and Ulster Scots languages should pose no danger to anyone’s culture or identity.

The Bill clearly gives official status to the Irish language, giving citizens in Northern Ireland the right to register births, deaths and marriages in Irish and to request court proceedings to take in place in Irish; increasing support for Irish-medium schools and more; and giving official recognition to the Ulster Scots language and culture. I recognise, as others have, the disparity in that, but the Bill would create an identifiable and recognisable policy landscape similar—at least in part—to that of Scotland, where the Gaelic Language (Scotland) Act 2005 gives Gaelic legal official status, while the Scots language, which is spoken by upwards of 1.5 million Scots, does not have the same legal status. The Scottish Government are currently consulting on ways to support the Scots language, and I hope that one of the outcomes of that consultation will be a similar language Act recognising and giving status to Scots. I would be the first to acknowledge, however, that whatever similarities there are, the issues at play in Scotland are somewhat different.

A language Act might be a necessary step towards ensuring that a language survives and thrives, but it is insufficient on its own. I fully take on board the point made by Jim Shannon about the importance of the culture, music, song, poetry and everything else that supports a language and keeps it in daily popular use.

To draw my remarks to a close, giving official status to the Irish language and recognition to the Ulster Scots language and culture is a positive step, but I cannot help but feel that to enhance mutual respect not just between languages but between communities and traditions, there should also be parity of esteem in law, not just between the English and Irish languages, but between Ulster Scots and those languages, and that the institutions being created and the powers granted by the Bill should be equal. Both commissioners should have the same status in law with the same powers behind them. That would be hugely beneficial to what I think we would all like the Bill to achieve: parity of esteem and helping to work towards mutual respect.

Photo of Carla Lockhart Carla Lockhart DUP, Upper Bann 3:04, 12 October 2022

On behalf of our party, I offer our deepest sympathies to the families who lost loved ones in the horrific incident in Creeslough—it is heartbreaking to see those scenes and the funerals that are taking place. Our thoughts are very much with the families.

It would be remiss of me not to point out at the outset that this matter is devolved to the Northern Ireland Assembly and Executive, and it therefore ought not to be a matter of decision for this place. The deliberate move by the Government to bring the legislation through this place is yet another example of how the devolution settlement is set aside at the whim of the Government of the day if doing so is deemed politically expedient. It appears that this Government increasingly believe that the Northern Ireland Executive are best suited to performing a management-board function rather than acting as a democratically elected decision-making body. That weakens local democracy and, indeed, the very reason for a return of devolution in already very challenging circumstances.

Photo of Sammy Wilson Sammy Wilson Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Treasury), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Work and Pensions), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Brexit)

Does my hon. Friend also notice a correlation between matters being brought to this House and out of the hands of the Northern Ireland Assembly, and the demands made by Sinn Féin for that to happen? Even though Sinn Féin Members refuse to take their places in the House, they are quite happy to lobby the Government to get the things that they want through the House. In most cases, the Government simply ignore things that concern Unionists, such as the protocol.

Photo of Carla Lockhart Carla Lockhart DUP, Upper Bann

Absolutely—kowtowing to the demands of Sinn Féin is often the way that it goes. For those reasons, we will vote against the Bill on Second Reading and table amendments. Should those changes not be made, we will continue to oppose the Bill.

Many Members have referred to New Decade, New Approach. It is almost as if that document consists of one issue—namely, that of language and identity. It does not, and I could list a range of commitments that the Government have given that are yet to be fulfilled. One, of course, relates to the UK internal market and Northern Ireland’s place in it. That remains unresolved, and I remind the Government that the Prime Minister has given quite explicit commitments to the House on the essential components of any solution to the protocol issue. Those commitments must be delivered upon.

Language and identity are extremely sensitive issues in Northern Ireland because they mean a lot to sections of our population, whether they cherish the Irish language and identity, or their Ulster Scots identity and language is fundamental to who they are and how they express themselves. It is of deep regret that there have been times when language and identity—whether Irish or Ulster Scots—have been denigrated, abused by derision or abused by the weaponising of such language and identity by those for whom they are simply vehicles to pursue an overtly political goal.

It is my belief that, rather than addressing the facilitation and respect for language and identity, the Bill is, in fact, a reward for those who have weaponised the Irish language for decades. Those people have neither love nor learning when it comes to the Irish language; rather, their motive is to use it as part of a wider cultural war. Indeed, imposing the legislation on Northern Ireland society will only result in language and identity being a more potent weapon that causes greater damage to community relations and cohesion at a time when many of us wish to see a more united community focused on healing divisions, not aggravating them.

When talking about the political dynamic of Northern Ireland in this House, it is very rare that we do not hear words such as “consensus” or phrases such as “cross-community support”, which are deemed the cornerstone of the political process and progress made to date. Yet the legislation removes that cornerstone, and the self-proclaimed guardians of the Belfast Agreement are those behind its removal.

Photo of Carla Lockhart Carla Lockhart DUP, Upper Bann

The hon. Gentleman will have plenty of opportunity to speak later.

Part 2 of the Bill is the very antithesis of cross-community consent. Specifically, clauses 6 and 7 provide carte blanche for the Secretary of State to do as he or she wishes in these deeply controversial policy areas—something that was not agreed in the NDNA. Clause 6 states:

The Secretary of State may do anything that a Northern Ireland Minister or Northern Ireland department could do in the exercise of an identity and language function”— anything; anything at all, regardless of the democratic mandate given to the Minister in that Department, regardless of the manifesto on which that Minister may have stood before the electorate and received his or her mandate. It is the power of direction taking precedence over the power of local voters: neither community consulted; rather, being instructed.

With increasing tendency, cross-community safeguards, at the heart of the Belfast and St Andrews agreement, are simply set aside when it suits the Government to do so. The word “disregarded” in the Bill stands out like a sore thumb. While Government figures and Members of this House may be ordering a birthday cake to mark the 25th year of the Belfast agreement next year, it is worth stating that the same people cannot have their cake and eat it—surely they cannot celebrate something while at the same time destroying it.

There is a deep-lying and justified suspicion within the Unionist community that such powers have only been taken, and will only be used, to appease the demands of the most vociferous and most divisive elements within the language and identity lobby. That being the case, it is not possible for us to support the legislation, in which there are no safeguards to address the concerns of Unionists and, indeed, those of a non-Unionist persuasion who do not subscribe to the radical agenda of the language and identity lobby. We rightly question whether the vast amount of public money set aside to satisfy those demands is the best use of finite public resources.

The data from the 2021 census of Northern Ireland shows that 228,617 people have some ability in Irish, with almost the same number—190,613—having some ability in Ulster Scots. On the basis of those numbers alone, it is hard to rationalise the disparity in this legislation between the status and powers of the Irish language commissioner, and that of the commissioner for the Ulster Scots and the Ulster British tradition. It is a matter of deep regret that amendments tabled in the other place that could have provided recourse for at least some of these legislative inequalities were not accepted. That further cements belief among Unionists that the Government are more concerned with the concerns of one community over the other. That is a dangerous mindset in the context of Northern Ireland.

If the Government are serious about providing some degree of balance in the Bill, they must look at a number of areas with reference to the powers of the commissioner for the Ulster Scots and the Ulster British tradition. The DUP believes that the functions of the commissioner should be extended to reference explicitly heritage and culture. Currently, the Bill provides only for language, arts and literature. If the ambition is to make this legislation as comprehensive as possible, such a change would be desirable to better reflect the extent and importance of the distinct traditions.

There are a series of shortcomings in the Bill relating to how the commissioners can respond to alleged breaches by public authorities of the requirements relating to Irish language and Ulster Scots. Should a public body face an alleged breach and is found to be culpable, the Irish commissioner can make recommendations on how a public body can

“remedy its failure and avoid future failures”.

In terms of the Ulster/British commissioner however, the remit is much more limited to giving advice only on how a body

“might have better regard to published facilitation guidance.”

That is insulting, to say the least.

Furthermore, the admissibility grounds for making merely a valid complaint are much weightier in relation to Irish. Even when it comes to devising an action plan on how a public authority will fulfil its obligations, there appears to be a requirement for Irish, but no similar requirement for Ulster/British. I ask the Secretary of State, in his summing up, to address that point specifically and to explain how such an imbalance is in the public interest and how it represents a balanced approach to both identities.

Let us not ignore the costs that will be associated with this Bill. If—and it is a big if—the Executive are restored, they will have an in-tray of issues that will come at unprecedented cost to the public purse: delivering on the Bengoa reforms to our health service; investment in schools; addressing historic underfunding of special educational needs; road and rail investment; and tackling the problems associated with a crumbling water network. Yet this legislation will take money away from those priorities, which have an impact on us all, regardless of identity, and add further strain to the budgets of public authorities. What is more important: a bed for a cancer patient or an Irish or Ulster Scots translation of a public document that can be read in English by all?

I urge the Government to think long and hard about the core message that this Bill sends to those in Northern Ireland—not just around the lack of balance, as I have outlined—and fundamentally to consider the wisdom of cultural supremacy being enshrined in law.

Photo of Gavin Robinson Gavin Robinson Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Home Affairs), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Defence) 3:15, 12 October 2022

I had not intended to speak until perhaps the very end, so I am grateful to be called so early. I am delighted to follow in the footsteps of my hon. Friend Carla Lockhart. She very clearly and very fairly outlined some of the serious concerns that we have raised and will continue to raise, and which show the dangerous departure that the Government have adopted from what was agreed in NDNA.

There was an old television advert for Harp lager starring Colin Murphy, a comedian in Belfast. The question he posed in it was, “Is your glass half empty? Is your glass half full? Or more importantly, what’s in the glass?” It is through that prism that I shall approach my contribution this afternoon.

It is incredibly easy to be caught by arguments of the past around the Irish language and continue to stand in its way; and our most recent history will show what impact that had on good government in Northern Ireland, on progress in Northern Ireland and on showing respect for one another. I do not want to repeat that process; I am incredibly comfortable with what was agreed in NDNA.

The lengths and efforts that went into that negotiation were not only important in the wider context of social cohesion in Northern Ireland; they were important for our political progress at that time. Should somebody have an interest in the Irish language, which I do not, should somebody want to engage in a language that is of no interest to me, that is entirely a matter for them. If they want to take it further and build on the support that is there under the Belfast agreement for the Irish language and for Ulster Scots tradition—the Government support that is there, encouraging people to explore and build upon a flourishing language—that is entirely a matter for them. If they want to engage with Government Departments, if they want to write to a Government body and get a response, that is not something that will ordinarily trouble me; that is not something that I will be overly exercised by, and that is not something that I think we should be overly concerned about.

I think of the political aspirations that were outlined for year upon year, and government denied in Northern Ireland for these quests—they were not achieved in NDNA. In fact, Conradh na Gaeilge, one of the organisations that championed the cause of what it described as a “stand-alone Irish language Act” summarily failed, and Sinn Féin summarily failed in its negotiations at the time of NDNA. It wanted a stand-alone Irish language Act, but did not get it. It is not in New Decade, New Approach, and it is not in the Bill. It wanted a commissioner with unfettered powers; it did not get it. It was not agreed in NDNA, and it is not in the Bill. It wanted an imposition on what would otherwise be equality legislation in Northern Ireland to provide for quotas in employment; it did not get it. It was not achieved: it is not there in NDNA, and it is not in the Bill. It wanted the Irish language imposed on me, on my neighbours and constituents, and residents throughout Northern Ireland through road signs and everything else, but it did not get it. It was not negotiated in NDNA, it was not agreed in NDNA, and it is not in the Bill. From that perspective, I can take some comfort from what was agreed.

That is before we add in the counterbalances and the support for Ulster Scots and, for the first time, Ulster British. Why is it, if we look through the prism of a glass half full, that Unionists do not stand back and say, “For the first time, rather than being faced with having our culture and identity stripped out of buildings, civically or otherwise, throughout Northern Ireland, this is a legislative vehicle to enhance the Unionist and Ulster British tradition in Northern Ireland?” That is something that I support and welcome; it was secured through the NDNA negotiations, and through the provision of the commissioner for identity and the Ulster British commissioner. Those are good things. The provision of, and the agreement to provide for, the Castlereagh Foundation—providing Government-supported academic rigour to the case for the Union for the first time—is a great thing. It is something in the Bill that I welcome, and something that it was important for us to get agreement on at the time of NDNA.

But then, we get to the last part of the prism that I started with: what is in the glass? During the three years when there was no Government in Northern Ireland, I was incredibly frustrated by this faux argument about whether there was a stand-alone Irish language Act or not. It was totally irrelevant. The question is not, “Is it one chapter of a bigger book, or is it a book itself?” but “What does it say? What does it do?” However, that debate rarely featured in Northern Ireland society during those three years. Yes, the Scots have Scots legislation and the Welsh have Welsh legislation, so why can the Irish not have Irish legislation? That is a fair enough question, but the Scots legislation is not the same as the Welsh legislation, and neither is the same as the provisions in this Bill. They are different.

So, what is in the glass? What does it do? The fundamental error that Members will hear about from me and all of my colleagues this afternoon is that the Government have taken what was agreed through negotiation between parties in Northern Ireland, corralled, encouraged and spearheaded by Julian Smith, and decided to deliver in a one-handed fashion through this Bill aspirations that were not agreed at the time of NDNA. That is a fundamental disaster.

Within the Office of Identity, as the former Secretary of State will recall, it was important that no commissioner could proceed with their agenda for the year, their budget-setting process, or what they intended to do in their annual reports without the consent of the Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister—the Executive Office. For the Secretary of State to assume the power to do whatever he wants anyway, not just in the absence of a Northern Ireland Executive but even in the presence of one, is an incredibly foolish approach to Northern Ireland politics. When we have an agreement that has been painstakingly thrashed out for years, whether it was officials in the Northern Ireland Office or former Ministers who thought it was a good idea to assume that power themselves through this Bill, it was a fool’s errand. That point will be discussed in Committee.

Photo of Stephen Farry Stephen Farry Alliance, North Down

Given the argument that the hon. Member is making, would he explain why it was that over a two-year period when the Assembly and Executive were functioning, no effort was made to bring forward legislation within the Northern Ireland Assembly at a time when all those issues could have been addressed in the correct forum, rather than them defaulting to Westminster?

Photo of Gavin Robinson Gavin Robinson Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Home Affairs), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Defence)

Coronavirus. I am not sure whether the hon. Member was aware, but there was a pandemic in our country and around the world, and normal government was set aside in the interests of public health and public safety.

The Bill even envisages a situation—I think it is one of the subsections of clause 6—where an issue has been raised with an Executive Minister and brought to the Executive, but agreement has not been found. Sorry? Leaving aside our own personal political aspirations for this or any other Bill, where the Executive collectively decide not to do something but the Secretary of State, at the request of a one-sided aspiration, can decide to supersede them, what is the point in devolution? The presentation of the Secretary of State’s powers in the Bill makes it incredibly difficult for somebody who can stand here and openly and honestly say that he thinks the agreement two years ago was worthwhile, and should have been reached. It is causing support to crumble, because what was agreed is being set aside for things that could not, and would not, have been negotiated or agreed at the time.

Photo of Sammy Wilson Sammy Wilson Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Treasury), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Work and Pensions), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Brexit)

Does my hon. Friend also accept that the Secretary of State then brings himself into the quagmire of disagreement in the Executive, and will increasingly find himself—as has happened on a number of occasions when legislation has come to Westminster—put under pressure by one particular political party, with all the threats of “If you do not act in the way that you are enabled to act and we want you to act, there will be consequences”?

Photo of Gavin Robinson Gavin Robinson Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Home Affairs), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Defence)

It is the antithesis of democracy; it has applied to a couple of other issues over the last number of years, and here we see it again. The Secretary of State and his colleague the junior Minister, Mr Baker, will today—as they did yesterday and will do tomorrow—implore that devolution be restored in Northern Ireland. That is a laudable idea, and I would like to see it, but the Minister cannot stand up today with a straight face and say, “I would love to see devolution restored so that we can get on with these issues, even though I am proposing through this Bill provisions that would mean that when you do not do what we like, we will do it for you anyway.” That is not the way in which we should proceed.

Photo of Steven Baker Steven Baker The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office

I will deal with that point more fully later on, but I put on record on behalf of the Government that we have absolutely no intention whatsoever of behaving in that way, as is the long-standing position of the Government. We have no intention whatsoever of leaping in to use powers; they are all for the last resort, as I think the hon. Gentleman knows.

Photo of Gavin Robinson Gavin Robinson Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Home Affairs), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Defence)

If there was—and I cannot doubt the veracity of what the Minister says about the intention the Government may have—there is absolutely no need for the power in circumstances where the Executive is functioning. There is no need for the power in circumstances where the Ministers who are responsible for these issues are in office. If what he says is genuine, that should be an amendment that I trust he will engage with fully.

Photo of Sammy Wilson Sammy Wilson Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Treasury), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Work and Pensions), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Brexit)

Would my hon. Friend accept that, while it may not be the intention—and we accept the word of the Minister in his intervention—the reality is that once the power is in this Bill, there will be pressure, when somebody does not get their way, to go to the Secretary of State and demand that he or she exercises those powers, and if they do not then there could well be consequences? That is the whole point: put the power in the Bill and someone will expect it to be used.

Photo of Gavin Robinson Gavin Robinson Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Home Affairs), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Defence)

Now, and if not now, probably more purposefully in the future when circumstances change, personnel change and Government change. It is a road down which this Government should not have trod.

I started by indicating what I believe was right in the NDNA. I am culminating, having canvassed on the issues where I think the Government have erred in the presentation of the Bill, and it cannot have our support if it remains in this state. The Government have got themselves in a position where, having engaged with parties across the spectrum and with various aspirations, that is now crumbling, and I think that is hugely regrettable. I do not want that to be the end to this process, so I do hope that after Second Reading there will be a willingness to engage in a way that there has not been over the past four, five or six months, when officials and Ministers have ignored, baulked at or just fundamentally disagreed on what they think the Bill means and what we believe it means. We cannot proceed on that basis.

In asking whether the glass is half full or half empty, and highlighting the question of what is in the glass, I want to be in a position where we can raise a glass to the provisions in this Bill. It is the same position I was in when I stood in this Chamber, worked on and brought through—having brought in a private Member’s Bill myself—the provision about the statutory duty for the armed forces covenant. I brought that forward myself, we got it into the NDNA and it was delivered by this Government. Similarly, other provisions were secured in the NDNA, and we want to see them delivered. So I hope that we will be in a position where we can raise a glass, with a fully functioning Executive, to the progress that has been made. However, given the way the Government have brought forward this Bill and are advancing the aims of it, I am sorry to say that I do not see that happening any time soon.

Photo of Claire Hanna Claire Hanna Social Democratic and Labour Party, Belfast South 3:31, 12 October 2022

I want, like others, formally to convey our condolences to and our solidarity with the people of Creeslough after the unimaginable tragedy that struck them on Friday. I know that the very sincere words from the Prime Minister, the Leader of the Opposition and the King have been warmly received and felt by every community across the island. Ar dheis Dé go raibh a n-anamacha.

I would like to speak about this important—overdue, but welcome—legislation. It has been a long road to get here at length, but credit is due to the lovers of the language throughout the decades for their persistence and to those who did campaign for this legislation. Is fearr go mall ná go deo—it is better late than never.

I am glad to follow Gavin Robinson—I am sure he would like to clarify that other beers are available—who made a thoughtful contribution. If that is his party’s position, it will be easier to engage with, because there are good provisions in the Bill and, crucially, these are provisions that the DUP agreed to in New Decade, New Approach.

The Bill provides for an Office of Identity and Cultural Expression for both Irish and Ulster Scots, with the aim of promoting pluralism and respect for diversity and shared cultural and linguistic heritage. It guarantees no diminution of the status of the English language, and yes, it does repeal the Administration of Justice (Language) Act (Ireland) 1737. It provides for commissioner oversight to promote and ensure best practice in the use of language by public bodies.

Just for clarity, Members will be aware of the Social Democratic and Labour party’s approach to public bodies and public buildings. We believe in levelling up—to borrow a phrase of the time—on identity. We do not believe in expunging the shared history of this place, but it is just a fact that in many public buildings there will be no markers of identity for people of an Irish tradition, women, the LGBT community or trade unions. Buildings have been very much of a single identity for many generations, and it is appropriate that they will change. However, we stand by our shared history and seek to protect it, and this Bill will not undermine that.

We hope that this Bill will normalise and mainstream, and that it will remove a lot of the poisonous party politics that has thwarted the language. Language has of course been political on the island of Ireland for many hundreds of years. Unfortunately, party politicisation has not improved—in fact, it has deepened in recent years—and the SDLP is hopeful that this Bill will take the business of promoting and protecting language and culture out of such everyday thwarting and weaponisation. However, we do have very serious concerns about re-embedding it in the Executive Office, which over the last decade and more has become a place of veto and deadlock, where good ideas in Northern Ireland have been going to die. We will be seeking, by amendment, to address that to prevent delay and language provision being held hostage in future years.

Those provisions have to be put into legislation because of the commitment to protect language, on which there has been dither, delay and denial for decades of devolution. It is also correct that this should absolutely be done on the Floor of the Assembly. We would all wish that to be the case, but it is also important to note that the Northern Ireland Assembly, to the best of my knowledge, has never delivered a piece of equality legislation.

Those who think that they are holding some imaginary line by undermining equality provisions should be aware that they are doing the opposite of what they think they are doing. They are making many people believe that the rights, lives and opportunities that they want are not available to them under devolution in the United Kingdom. Níor bhris focal maith fiacail riamh—a good word never broke a tooth—so I think it is appropriate that people find it within themselves to be positive about these provisions.

Photo of Claire Hanna Claire Hanna Social Democratic and Labour Party, Belfast South

I would be delighted to do so—I would use my Ulster Scots and say, “Houl yer whisht, Jeffrey,” but I will let you speak.

Photo of Jeffrey M. Donaldson Jeffrey M. Donaldson DUP Westminster Leader

Well, I will try not to be thran about it.

I welcome the approach that the hon. Lady is taking. In her, I see someone who lives the Irish language, who values it and sees it as an important part of her culture and identity, and I have no difficulty with that. She spoke about the importance of words. Does she agree with me—and I quote the words of Danny Morrison, the former publicity director for Sinn Féin—that every word spoken in Irish is

“another bullet…fired in the struggle for Irish freedom”?

It is that kind of use of the language as a political weapon that causes concern. I am not for a moment suggesting that the hon. Lady is guilty of that in any way, but does she agree that we need to move beyond that and get away from politicisation? Language is a means of communication. It should not be used as a political weapon.

Photo of Claire Hanna Claire Hanna Social Democratic and Labour Party, Belfast South

I will come on to address exactly that politicisation, but it is also about the collective punishment that is applied to children learning Irish in the nursery school. Of course the right hon. Member knows that I would not support language like that, but neither do I damn all protection of Ulster Scots and Ulster British identity because of some words of Ulster Scots or Irish that may appear on a loyalist mural or drum. That is why we need those protections, so that people cannot deny everyday provisions because of the perceptions that they have. I should be delighted to come on to that, and I want to discuss how we build up the confidence of everyone in these cultural provisions by implementing things that were agreed many years ago and which could take some of the heat, poison and damage out of everyday politics.

A fair and wise point was made earlier about the need for things such as a sign language Act as well. It is a fact that the stop-start stand-off culture in which the Assembly has been bogged down over recent decades has damaged the wider rights and entitlements of everyone in Northern Ireland to decent public services and economic opportunities. Those who have withdrawn governance, in this stand-off or the previous one, which was ostensibly over the Irish language, are doing far more to undermine rights and entitlements than a Bill such as this will ever do.

The measure is far from perfect, and it has been a long time coming. I would like to mention two of my Gaelgóirí colleagues, Patsy McGlone and Dominic Bradley, who tried to bring forward private Members’ legislation in 2008 and 2016, before it was introduced. At least we are on the path now, even if it falls short of what was promised at St Andrews—an Irish language Act based on the experience of Wales and the Republic of Ireland. This legislation is not that, and it is fair to say that it is very far from radical. Language in the Republic of Ireland and Wales thrives in part because it is underpinned and financed by a strategy to focus on promotion, because those nations have been able to proceed without the toxification that language and identity have experienced in our region. I really, really regret that language has become zero sum—if they win this, we lose this—like a lot of other things in our region. That is not unique to Northern Ireland or the Irish language, but we all have to work to counter it.

Photo of Julian Smith Julian Smith Conservative, Skipton and Ripon

It was key during the negotiation that neither of the commissioners had the right to promote, and the hon. Member’s party and others—including the DUP—were correct in ensuring that promotion was nowhere near the focus of the Bill.

Photo of Claire Hanna Claire Hanna Social Democratic and Labour Party, Belfast South

The right hon. Member is right to clarify that, but we do need a promotion strategy. As someone with an interest in the language and who is inspired when I hear names and place names, if I want to read a council’s accounts, I go and do it as Béarla—I will read it in the English. The promotion is what will allow the language to be transmitted and to thrive, and the Bill is not as expansive as many people would wish it to be.

I want to address the point made by Sir Jeffrey M. Donaldson. I really regret the suspicion of Irish by many Unionists, but I do not pretend not to understand the roots of it. Some of that is just about the experience that we have all had in our lives. Few state schools, which the majority of Protestant, Unionist and loyalist children would attend, promote Irish, and trips to the Republic, where Irish-language signs are normal, were not as commonplace. They probably did not spend their summers learning Irish in Rann na Feirste or Machaire Rabhartaigh, as I and friends of mine did. I therefore appreciate that some of it is about cultural experience; that in many cases people perceive Irish language as something to be used for a buttressing phrase in a political contribution; and that some perceive it as a manifestation of aggressive Irish nationalism, but that is not what it is to so many speakers.

Yes, no doubt there has been weaponisation in the past, but some of that is about the failure of political parties over decades to internalise and sell the concept of parity of esteem where it applies to culture, and to tar and tarnish an entire community of people because of the phraseology of others. The reality of the long war and the long peace that we have had is that “their” and “our” cultural archetypes are reinforced all the time with all the decades of suspicion and baggage that many people have. But we have an opportunity, through legislation such as this and more, to fly by those nets, particularly to a generation for whom “us” and “them” does not mean as much as “all of us.”

As the right hon. Member said, we can make language about the richness of communication and heritage and not about an identity marker. That is why so many take such inspiration from the work of Linda Ervine and Turas—Irish for “Journey”—the project that she set up with the east Belfast mission of the Methodist Church. Linda has not changed who she is—she has not changed her identity or her aspirations—but she is connecting many hundreds of people from a Protestant background with their own history and the Irish language. She received an MBE from Her Majesty the Queen for her efforts in that work, where she has taken such a mature approach to these issues. Her views on Irish, like Ulster Scots, are rooted in a real understanding of the entwined nature of nationalist and Unionist history. She said:

“I believe that the people of Northern Ireland have a rich cultural identity, a mixture of native Irish and of the many peoples who made Ireland their home. This rich ancestry influenced our surnames, our place names and our everyday language. Our vernacular of hiberno English reflects this mixed identity. We are native…speakers whose English is littered with beautiful Scots and Gaelic words. The syntax of our speech reflects that of Gaelic. As a people, we are culturally rich, yet instead of embracing that wonderful cultural mix, we separate it into narrow divisive boxes and deny ourselves.”

Many of us should take on board her approach to language and many other things.

I also acknowledge the work of people such as the much-missed Aodán Mac Poilín, who was the director of the Ultach Trust, a cross-community language promotion agency, and an inspiration to me as a late learner of Irish, which I picked up in adulthood. His posthumously published collection of essays, “Our Tangled Speech”, is one of the most nuanced and perceptive books that I have ever read on Northern Irish politics and culture. He argued that to get the sustainable transmission of language, it needs to be embedded in public bodies and have the support of Government and other interest groups. He was also clear about the need to shift our attitudes and learn from our past. He had theories about how nationalists and Unionists have believed each other’s propaganda over the years and found themselves reacting to both the position that they think is being ascribed to them and their opponent’s ideological position, which he believed was why our debate has often got so extreme. He always perceived the Irish language to have been a victim of that. I think the argument put forward by Gavin Robinson would probably concur with a lot of that analysis

I also want to mention the work of the recently deceased Dr Roger Blaney, whose work “Presbyterians and the Irish Language” was a revelation to many people about the work done by so many of that denomination in Belfast to preserve and protect the language because it was at its most vulnerable. It is a matter of fact and the politics that the rights component of language has been a product of the withholding of support. Many Gaeilgeoirs I know over the years were not as bought into the concept of an Irish language Act as they were into that of promotion and the living language. It is a fact that what are seen as small-minded approaches to language and the cancellation of programmes has made people believe that it needs promotion. Organically, the community of Irish speakers is growing in number and in breadth and that is a win for all of us.

We believe that this Bill will help to grow that wider embracing of language. Ar scáth a chéile a mhaireann na daoine—it is in each other’s shadows that we grow. We are better when we all work together, and I hope that that is something that Members will keep in mind when we vote on the Bill.

Photo of Stephen Farry Stephen Farry Alliance, North Down 3:46, 12 October 2022

Go raibh maith agat, a Leas-Cheann Comhairle. Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker. At the outset, I want to join others in passing on my condolences and sympathies to the families of those who sadly lost their lives in Creeslough and to the wider community. The tragedy they are currently dealing with is unthinkable.

On this occasion, I think it is appropriate to say a few words in Irish followed by the English translation. Tacaím leis an reachtaíocht seo. Tá sé an-tábhachtach Tá oidhreacht roinnte ag an nGaeilge agus Ultais i dTuaisceart Éireann. Déanfaidh muid ceiliúradh ar an oidhreacht sin. That is, I support this Bill. The Irish language and Ulster Scots are part of the shared heritage of Northern Ireland. We celebrate that heritage. Indeed, as Claire Hanna has just said, that heritage can be seen in the place names and surnames that are evident right across the community in Northern Ireland. That very much cuts across the traditional divide.

The Bill delivers on a key commitment of the New Decade, New Approach agreement. That agreement broke the deadlock that had seen the institutions of the Good Friday agreement cease operation for almost three years. As is the case with the current impasse, my party did not believe that there was any justification for that impasse. However, it is a matter of record that frustrations around the non-delivery of legislation and other measures related to the Irish language and other language issues was a key factor in that stand-off. The achievement of a package of measures on language and culture was a key element in the breakthrough. Commitments to legislate for the Irish language and Ulster Scots go back much further, to the St. Andrew’s agreement of 2006, and reflect the more general commitments made in the Good Friday agreement of 1998.

Indeed, we want to see all aspects of the New Decade, New Approach agreement being delivered and a key element of that deal was the rightful expectation that the culture and language package would be a priority for the restored Executive and Assembly. It is a major disappointment and concern that that did not happen. Whenever I asked Gavin Robinson to explain why, he rather flippantly discussed the issue of covid. Of course, I am aware that covid was a major issue for the world, but government did not grind to a halt in other places. A lot of other legislation happened in this place and, indeed, other legislation happened in the Northern Ireland Assembly, including Bills taken forward by his own ministerial colleagues. Frankly, there is and was no excuse for this measure not being done in the Assembly in a timely manner and that would have provided an opportunity for a much more rounded discussion. That said, we will listen to and take on board the DUP’s comments and reflect on them in Committee. We want to get this as right as we can in this place.

It is a matter of regret that it falls to the Government to take the Bill through Parliament. Generally, it would be far better if matters of equality and human rights were addressed in the devolved space. That would be a characteristic of a mature and responsible democracy. As has been said, that delivery has generally not been the case over the past 20 years. We have to ask why there is a constant blockage. Tension is already emerging over the powers that the Secretary of State may take in relation to the Bill. That reflects a lack of confidence in that, even if the Bill were passed without the powers, the implementation would be stymied back in the devolved space. That is a source of frustration and the pretext for why we are where we are.

Accusations are made generally about interference in the devolved space. I want to see the Northern Ireland Assembly addressing the full spectrum of issues under its remit, including equality and human rights. However, I think this legislation can be justified as a matter of political necessity to ensure that we have a more solid foundation for what will hopefully soon be restored political institutions. Moreover, this is also a matter of the Government ensuring compliance, in respect of Northern Ireland, with the UK’s international human rights commitments, particularly on language.

I was disappointed by some of the comments made by Carla Lockhart about the weaponisation of the Irish language. We appreciate that some people have made uncalled-for comments, but I think that does a huge injustice to the vast majority of people who have been campaigning for Irish language rights over many years. In Belfast recently, we saw close to 20,000 people on the streets calling for those protections. People from all backgrounds and all walks of life want to see language protections in Northern Ireland extending both to Irish and Ulster Scots.

Photo of Stephen Farry Stephen Farry Alliance, North Down

I will give way to the hon. Member for Belfast East first.

Photo of Gavin Robinson Gavin Robinson Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Home Affairs), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Defence)

I understand that my hon. Friend Carla Lockhart might like to intervene. She was not demeaning or dismissing anybody who has campaigned for Irish. In fact, many of the campaigners who have campaigned for Irish language provision will equally acknowledge that their aspirations have been dampened and harmed by the irresponsible and politically naive approach of those who have indeed weaponised the Irish language.

Photo of Stephen Farry Stephen Farry Alliance, North Down

The comments that were made are on the record and people can see them. However, we are in danger of getting ourselves into difficulty if we over-focus on the particular points that have been made by some republican activists about the Irish language. That is not where the vast majority of people are. I note that the hon. Lady did not give way during her comments, but nevertheless, I am happy to.

Photo of Carla Lockhart Carla Lockhart DUP, Upper Bann

The hon. Gentleman did not ask me to give way and I have taken many interventions from him in the past. No one can deny in this House that the issue has been weaponised. That has been done by a small number of individuals, but it has been weaponised, and I think we can all accept that fact. He talks about equality. Will he go further and support the amendments that we will introduce on the fact that the Ulster Scots commissioner will not have the same powers as the Irish language commissioner? Our amendments will aim to bring that in line.

Photo of Stephen Farry Stephen Farry Alliance, North Down

I will say two things. If we can all agree a self-denying ordinance, let us move past the comments about weaponising language and relegate those to the small minority of people who have said that. Let us focus on those who are generally asking for protections in Northern Ireland for the right reasons.

On the hon. Lady’s second point, yes, I am happy to look at the DUP amendments. I am not prepared to give a commitment until we see them, but we will approach this issue with a genuine open mind in that regard. It is worth stressing that there is a different context relating to how Irish and Ulster Scots are recognised by the UK in terms of reference to the various international treaty bodies. It is not entirely a like-for-like comparison. None the less, we are happy to look at the points that she made about the powers.

That point leads me on to another point that is important to stress. There are those who would wish the Bill to go much further in its level of protection; the hon. Member for Belfast East referred to some issues that have been mentioned previously but have not been taken forward. Equally, there are some who may wish to dilute it. I think it is important that we reflect and respect the spirit and indeed the letter of what was agreed in New Decade, New Approach as far as practically possible, because we are conscious that that is the political agreement. Anything else, in terms of major amendments, would primarily be something for the Northern Ireland Assembly to take forward.

There are a number of issues that I think need to be teased out in Committee, in addition to some of the issues that have been mentioned. I note that Ulster Scots has been designated as an ethnicity by the Government. I think there needs to be some scrutiny of that, because there is some debate as to whether demand or the wider rationale warrants it. I am not sure that there is complete consensus among Ulster Scots activists on that line.

There is also concern about moving from having a single director of the Office of Identity and Cultural Expression towards having more of a multi-member commission approach. Sadly, that brings up fears about a bit of a carve-up happening in relation to that office, given the history of other public appointments in Northern Ireland.

I agree with the shadow Secretary of State, Peter Kyle, that we need more transparency around what is happening with the Castlereagh Foundation. He also made a point about the use of the word “sensitivities” as a potential qualifier in relation to the exercise of language rights. I would perhaps suggest that we need to look instead at a more rights-based balance in taking that forward.

There are potential amendments to be considered in relation to the extension of what is meant by “public authorities”, moving from what at the moment refers entirely to those that fall within the devolved space. Reference was made to what happens with some applications within Northern Ireland, but with non-devolved functions, for example, Swansea offers bilingual driving licences in English and Welsh. There is a desire among some people in Northern Ireland to see them offered in Irish or Ulster Scots as well, so perhaps that could be addressed in an amendment.

I think that there needs to be some degree of sensitivity around the safeguards issue and that we should look at the issues around timescales for interventions. I do not relish the concept of Ministers intervening—I am sure that the Minister of State will confirm that the intention is not to be intervening all the time—but the contrary fear is that, if there is an impasse, it could become prolonged. It would be useful to have some timeline for when interventions should happen.

Finally, I want to respond to some comments about the background to where we are and the debate about culture and language in Northern Ireland. There has been a lot of misinformation, shall we say, and there are a lot of tropes out there about what this would mean for the fundamental reorganisation of society, from road signs through to employment quotas. None of those things has happened, because this was a negotiated package through the New Decade, New Approach system. That is where the value of negotiations came to the fore: in ensuring that there was a balanced package in that regard.

This is about public bodies responding to the needs of their client base in a proportionate way. It is not about a radical transformation of Northern Ireland society. To go back to what I said at the start, we have to accept that both Irish and Ulster Scots are part of the mixed overlapping fabric of what is our shared society in Northern Ireland, so whenever we talk about protecting what we have in Northern Ireland, protecting the language heritage and ensuring that we continue to promote those languages have to be very much a part of our shared and integrated future.

Photo of Hywel Williams Hywel Williams Shadow PC Spokesperson (International Development), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Work and Pensions), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Defence), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Cabinet Office), Shadow PC Spokesperson (International Trade), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Foreign Affairs), Shadow PC Chief Whip 3:58, 12 October 2022

First, may I acknowledge the trepidation that I feel in standing up to talk about this matter? I hope that I can make a positive contribution about some of the lessons that we have learned in Wales over many, many years from addressing these issues.

I approach this matter today with a proper sense of humility. I have never been involved in Northern Ireland politics.

Photo of Hywel Williams Hywel Williams Shadow PC Spokesperson (International Development), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Work and Pensions), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Defence), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Cabinet Office), Shadow PC Spokesperson (International Trade), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Foreign Affairs), Shadow PC Chief Whip

There is enough at home, actually! I do not really want to address the political aspects in any way, really; as I said, I want to share some of the fruits of our experience.

Obviously, no two situations are the same, and the situation with Welsh is very different from the situation with Irish, Ulster Scots or any other language used in these isles. What I think we can give, however, is a certain sense of reassurance that the language issue can be depoliticised to a degree, which, in fact, is liberating for all the parties involved. I am very much a glass-half-full person. At the last election in Wales, even the United Kingdom Independence party managed to include some Welsh in its pamphlets, which says something about the degree of depoliticisation of the language there. We have developed a provision for all traditions, including the tradition of speaking Welsh.

By now, we have also avoided some of the pitfalls. I will say a little about language law, because I think there are pitfalls there which should be avoided—particularly in relation to the Welsh Language Act 1967—but let me first acknowledge some of the contributions made by Members sitting behind me, and the gut-wrenching emotional elements of language change. Writing in the 1960s, the Welsh philosopher J.R. Jones said something very interesting. He said that some people had experienced leaving their countries, turning their backs on their countries and perhaps not coming back, but he knew of an experience that was even more gut-wrenching: the feeling that you are not even leaving your country, but your country is leaving you—that change is somehow a threat. He was referring at the time to the decline in the number of Welsh speakers to about one in five. We are in a somewhat different situation now as we look forward to the census: it seems likely that the proportion will be one in three. Given our target of 1 million Welsh speakers, there is a long way to go and a great deal of work to do to take people with us.

One of the differences relating to Welsh is that it has always been a language for official business. Traditional Welsh law was codified as long ago as 950 by my namesake Hywel Dda—or Hywel the Good: that is something that has been thrown in my face for many years! However, in 1284 the Statute of Rhuddlan took away the Welsh criminal code and replaced it with the Norman criminal code. The civil code was replaced in 1535 and 1542 by the “Acts of Union”— the Laws in Wales Acts—including the penal clauses, one of which states that

“no Person or Persons that use the Welsh Speech or Language, shall… enjoy any manner Office or Fees” in the King’s realm. That is the sort of exclusion to which the Welsh language was subject at the time. There was also a reference to “sinister Usages and Customs”. That illustrates some of the emotional elements surrounding a language that was seen as strange, dangerous and difficult. As a younger person, I used to glory in the fact that I had a “sinister usage and custom” in that I spoke Welsh, but those laws were finally repealed in 1993. That is the extent of their history.

The Welsh Language Act 1967, to which I said I would refer, introduced the concept of equal validity. One of the pitfalls that I mentioned is the provision that, in the case of divergence,

“the English text shall prevail”.

That sounds quite reasonable until we think about how it might be applied. If the Welsh law says “Mae dau a dau yn bedwar” and the English law says “Two and two are five”, it will be five, not four. That is the situation that pertained until the 1993 Act, which established the Welsh Language Board.

We have now reached a position in which all matters involving the Welsh language have been devolved. I do not think I should really be standing here talking about Northern Irish affairs—I think that this should have been decided in Northern Ireland—and I certainly do not wish to extend my contribution beyond this Second Reading debate.

In 2009, I was part of a Committee here that looked at devolving the Welsh language entirely by a legislative competence order. That Committee was made up of Members from Wales and we learned a great deal about co-operation across parties and the depoliticisation of the issue. The Committee was chaired by Professor Hywel Francis from the Labour party. I was a member, and I worked closely with him, with Mark Williams from the Liberal Democrat party and also with Mr Jones, who, although I disagree with him entirely on most things, is also my right hon. Friend. We were able to meet across the table and decide, after a great deal of careful consideration, that the language issue should be devolved entirely to the Assembly in Wales, as it then was. It is now the Senedd. That led to the current state of play in terms of language in Wales. The Welsh Language (Wales) Measure 2011 gave official status to the Welsh language and set up the commission, along with various other things that hon. Members will be familiar with. That is the process that I would want to see in respect of matters in Northern Ireland. It should be decided in Belfast.

I want to say a bit about the practical outcome of having language—knowledge emancipates all languages and traditions—and to look at how things are in Wales now. I know that the use of language in courts of law is not part of this Bill, but in Wales—in the Crown court in Caernarfon, for example, which I am familiar with, and elsewhere—Welsh can be used in court without any special preparation. It is just a normal part of life; it has been normalised, which is a word I think Stephen Farry used. It is becoming unremarkable. In that respect, it allows people to address other issues that are of equal importance. We also have all-Welsh hearings with simultaneous translation, which has become normalised. It has a cost, certainly, but it enables people to use the language of their choice. I am in favour, as Conservative Members are, of people being afforded the greatest choice possible. That includes cases of the most serious kind. Murder cases are heard in Welsh in Caernarfon and elsewhere.

Turning to one entirely practical consequence, my interest is in social policy, social work and work with children, and the courts can now acknowledge that the language of the home might not be English and that children can be heard in the language that they speak at home. Again, that is not in the Bill, but I think enabling children to give their evidence in the most acute cases in the language of their choice is just a matter of good law and good practice.

In Wales, there has been a long process, not an event. There is always a temptation to see any piece of law or social development as the last barricade that must be defended at all costs. As I have outlined briefly in my speech, the process is best looked at by the people directly involved; but it is a process none the less. I hope that my speech will go some way towards reassuring the sceptical and giving hope to the optimistic.

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Human Rights), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health) 4:08, 12 October 2022

It is a real pleasure to speak in this debate. I am proud to be an Ulster Scots speaker. Richard Thomson is no longer present, but he referred to instances of children in Scotland speaking Scots Gaelic—this probably happened in Northern Ireland with Ulster Scots as well—and how it would be beaten out of them. I went to Ballywalter Primary School—that was not yesterday, by the way; it was a long time ago, back in the ’60s—and certain things stick in the memory when we look back over the history and the years. This is one of those things. Mr Whisker was the principal of the school, and he asked us some questions and we had to fill in the answers. I went home and spoke to my granny Hamilton, who came from Clady, outside Strabane in County Tyrone. I asked her, as you do when you are six or seven years old, “Granny, what are the answers to these things?” She filled them in, in Ulster Scots, because that is how we spoke at that time, and I took them into school the next day. Mr Whisker is now dead and gone, and I never speak ill of anyone, but he marked it and said, “This isn’t English.” I said, “This is Ulster Scots, Mr Whisker”, and he said, “That is not how we do it in this school.” It is the way things were in those days, and this is not a criticism, but I got a clip around the ear, which I took home to my granny or my mum and reappraised the situation. As the hon. Member for Gordon said, the Ulster Scots that I had as a child in Ballywalter in the 1960s was beaten out of me in every way.

I gave my oath in Ulster Scots a few weeks ago, and there is nothing quite like expressing yourself in that beautiful language. I am pleased that Mark Logan also gave his oath in Ulster Scots. I have given mine in Ulster Scots on four occasions—2015, 2017, 2019 and four weeks ago. I am very pleased to do that, because it is who I am. I am an Ulster Scot, and I am proud to be an Ulster Scot. That is not a political statement; it is who I am. That is how I see language, and it is contained in every proposal I make on Ulster Scots.

Julian Smith is not present, but he said he was scunnered—that is the word he used. Well, scunnered means fed up. I hope he is not fed up, but the word in Ulster Scots is glaidsome or blithe. I am glaidsome or blithe, but I am certainly not scunnered when it comes to speaking Ulster Scots. Claire Hanna is also not scunnered in speaking the Irish language, as she did very well. She made an excellent speech, as did others.

I researched the census online, and the number of Ulster Scots speakers has gone up by 50,000 in 10 years—from 140,000 to 190,000. That is 10.4% of the population. I am not saying anything else, but it is a fact that the number of Irish language speakers was up by 1.7%, whereas we were up by a significant number.

I am an advocate for Ulster Scots, and I encourage schools such as Portavogie Primary School and Derryboy Primary School outside Saintfield to teach it. I love to delve into the poetry and history of the language, and the hon. Member for Gordon referred to the arts. It is the poetry, the stories and the flow of the language that I love.

I am for Ulster Scots, but I am not for this Bill unless changes are made. The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office, Mr Baker knows that I have the highest respect for him. We came into this place together, and we hung about together on our first day. We got our photograph taken on the steps in Westminster Hall, and we had a good chance to talk and engage. I understand that he does what his heart tells him to do. That is the sort of person he is. I hope he will take on board our constructive points as we try to move forward.

The Ulster Scots language and culture is alive in my constituency of Ards and Strangford. I sat on Ards Borough Council a long time ago, having first been elected in 1985. I am not saying I am better than anyone else, because I am not, but along with others I was instrumental in bringing Ulster Scots names to many villages, with the agreement of the people. Greyabbey is Greba, Ballywalter is Whitkirk, Ballyhalbert is Talbotstoun, and Portavogie is St Andrews. Those names were added because people wanted it to happen. It is about moving forward in a constructive, positive way that brings people with us. I would love that to be our central focus.

When I was at Ards Borough Council, which is now Ards and North Down Borough Council, we had a sign saying “Fair fae ye to the Ards”, which means “Welcome to the Ards”. Those names and welcome signs, introduced way back in the 1990s and 2000s, are a simple expression of our language. Philip Robinson—or Robeinson, as we call him in Ulster Scots—lives on Hard Breid Raa in Greba. He speaks Ulster Scots with a fluency and flow, from a love of the language. He has written a number of books, which we are pleased to see. I make this point because it is important to do so. I have talked about what we did in the villages of Ballywalter and others along the Ards peninsula. I say gently to Newry, Mourne and Down District Council that political signs were put up in Irish in streets in Saintfield in my constituency when the people of those streets did not want them. The point I am making is: you have to bring people along with you. You don’t try to put this down their throats in a way that has the adverse and reverse effect. We have to engage with local communities and do this right.

It was always understood that the Irish language commissioner and the commissioner for Ulster Scots and Ulster British tradition would not have the same functions. That was in order to meet the different priorities and needs of the Unionist and nationalist communities, so that each would be provided with a commissioner that was equally meaningful for the respective purposes. It is self-evident that in order for the functions of the Ulster Scots and the Ulster British commissioner, although different, to be of equal value to those of the Irish language commissioner, the functions must be equally robust and enforceable as those pertaining to the Irish language commissioner in order to provide something of equal value to the Unionist community. I want to make it clear that I want to see a language Bill that comes through here that respects other traditions and other languages. Hywel Williams spoke just before me—I hope I pronounced his constituency correctly—and we have seen the success he has had there; what they have done in Wales is incredible, and it has come about with the co-operation of the people. We need to do this with the co-operation of the people. It is really important that that happens in order to provide something of equal value to the Unionist community.

We are therefore deeply concerned that although the Bill requires a public authority to have regard to the Irish language commissioner no such obligation exists in relation to the Ulster Scots and Ulster British commissioner. I hope that the Minister will take that point on board, and try to understand where we are coming from, what we are trying to say and why it is important to get this right—I say that to him gently. That is what all my colleagues on our Benches are trying to say, including my hon. Friends the Members for Belfast East (Gavin Robinson), for Upper Bann (Carla Lockhart) and for South Antrim (Paul Girvan), whom we are to hear from soon. They will all say this over and again.

This arrangement transparently violates the parity of esteem principle by giving the Unionist community something of less value. What sort of Bill brings in something that is of less value for the community that I represent? It is Ulster Scots, but some have different cultures as well and feel that this must be equal. In what other country would this blatant bias be not only accepted, but enforced? This is what happened through the House of Lords and it is where we are with this Bill today. I could mention certain countries, but Members would certainly not like the parallels. I also would not do that because I know that these are not the Government’s intentions. Little wonder we were shocked when in the Lords the Government sought to defend this violation of the principle of parity of esteem on the basis of three things. I will cite them and explain why, with respect, the Government need to get this sorted.

First, in the other place the Government suggested that this approach is required by New Decade, New Approach, but its text does not address the detail of enforcement with respect to either the Irish language commissioner or the Ulster Scots Ulster British commissioner. This does not make it wrong to provide an enforcement mechanism for the Irish language commissioner’s functions through a statutory duty to “have regard”. Indeed, one could argue that the requirement for this is implicit as it would be absurd—DUP Members believe this—to create commissioners and not to require the public authorities they engage with to have regard to them. However, in order to maintain parity of esteem, this provision must plainly also be applied equally to the Ulster Scots and Ulster British commissioner’s functions. It is very clear where we are.

Secondly, the Government Front Bencher in another place defended this arrangement by suggesting that, in addition to having different functions, it was appropriate for commissioners to have completely different powers in relation to these functions and that, for example, the bodies addressed by both commissioners should have a duty to have regard to only one of the commissioners, but not the other. I mean, really? Why has that not been understood by the Government? Specifically, as bodies that the commissioners address—to be clear, these are the only bodies that the commissioners address, as the Government confirmed on Report—public authorities are required to have regard to the Irish language commissioner but are not required to have regard to the Ulster Scots and Ulster British commissioner.

Secretary of State, that is a key issue, and that is where we are coming from. Such an arrangement is self-evidently indefensible and insulting to the community that I represent—the people of Ards and Strangford, and indeed those across the Ulster Scots-speaking community in all of Northern Ireland—as is the suggestion that the Unionist community could be bought off with just the image of a commissioner, while the nationalist community is afforded the reality of a commissioner. We have the image, but they have the reality. How can that be?

Thirdly, the Government suggested that we agreed to have two commissioners engaging public authorities, which would be required to have regard only to the Irish language commissioner and not the Ulster Scots and Ulster British commissioner, on the basis of the draft legislation produced around the time of the NDNA. That is, however, incorrect. We agreed to the text of the NDNA, but not the draft legislation before us today. They are two different things. I do not know how this could happen. How can we have these talks and agree something, and then something else comes forward? It is completely wrong for the Government to try to deploy a constitutional sleight of hand against us all by trying to spin something that was not in the agreement as if it was. Even if the Bill were as much a part of the agreement as the agreement itself, simply asserting the text of the Bill would only serve to highlight the difficulty, in the sense that the agreement text and the draft text of the Bill at present are different.

In the absence of any statutory obligation on public authorities to have regard to the Ulster Scots commissioner, and while such an obligation does exist in relation to the Irish language commissioner, although we may have the form of two similarly important commissioners, in reality we have one, and one only. As though that were not enough, while the Government have recognised that the two commissioners’ functions must be different in order to provide something that is supposedly of equal value to each community, the Bill treats Unionists as second-class citizens by giving them the right to complain to their commissioner about failures by public bodies relating to only part of their commissioner’s function, while giving nationalists the opportunity to complain to their commissioner across the full spectrum of his or her functions.

Equal treatment does not start with this kind of Bill. Again, the Minister in another place suggested that we agreed to this bizarre arrangement on the basis that, in addition to agreeing to NDNA, we had also agreed to draft legislation that gives the Ulster Scots commissioner less authority in their functions than that accorded the Irish language commissioner, when we had done no such thing. The Bill before the House today is unequal and certainly does not treat us fairly.

The Unionist community is not stupid. Let us be quite clear: we understand what we see before us, and we have expressed that in this Chamber. I cannot stress enough the critical importance of Government amendments to restore parity of esteem on both these points. If the Bill is not amended to address that—something that we, our party and I, and the Ulster-Scots Agency have called for consistently over the years—it will entrench discrimination, shouting the message loud and clear that, while the nationalist community should be afforded the reality of a commissioner to address their priorities, the Unionist community, to which those of us on the DUP Benches belong, must make do with just the image of a commissioner. We will be tabling amendments to correct these problems and will ask for an urgent meeting with the Minister between now and Committee to discuss the matter.

Photo of Steven Baker Steven Baker The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office

I would certainly be glad to meet the hon. Gentleman, and I am confident that he knows that I did write to offer meetings shortly after I took up my post.

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Human Rights), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health)

I am not surprised that the Minister of State has replied so positively. Yes, I look forward to those meetings, and, obviously, my party will be more than happy to engage with them as well. All I say is just do these things before we get to the point that we are at right now. The Unionist people are tired of being treated as second-class citizens by a Government whom they respect and whom I respect as well. Can that respect not flow both ways? Apologies fly to the nationalists, and yet there is no apology for the massive mistake the Government made in the withdrawal agreement. People in my constituency of Strangford come back from work to a cold home, worried about how they will pay their rent or their mortgage as well as for the petrol to get them to work.

I have read the explanatory notes and estimated that the annual cost of the three new authorities will be some £9 million. In order to prevent these offices from being exploited for political purposes by one community—[Interruption.] I am coming to the end of my speech, Mr Speaker. Do you know what my constituents in Strangford want, Mr Speaker? They want the NHS sorted out. They want the waiting lists for cancer organised. They want to know when they are getting their cataract operations and when they are getting their dental treatment. They also want to know why, when they want to go to the dentist in Newtownards, they find that there are no dentists that will take on new customers. One of my constituents had to travel to Dundalk to get their teeth done. My constituents want to know why new builds in the education sector are not taking place. They want to know why the new building for Glastry College in my constituency will not be built when the £9 million would near enough build it. They want to know about the Ballynahinch bypass, which could be built for a lot less than that. I make these points because it is important to put down a marker. When it comes to spending money, my constituents want the money to be spent in a positive fashion.

Photo of Scott Benton Scott Benton Conservative, Blackpool South

The hon. Gentleman makes a good argument, advocating the fact that his constituents want investment in public services rather than in costly translation services for a second language. He will have heard the Government talking over the past few weeks about a bonfire of the quangos. Have we not heard about that before? Does he not find it curious and quite surprising therefore that this Bill would create yet another quango in the case of the office of identity and cultural expression? Does he think that that is good use of public money at the present time?

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Human Rights), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health)

I greatly respect the hon. Gentleman’s point of view and understand the reasons for it, but we hope to have a language Bill that respects our point of view. That is what we are about, but I thank him for his intervention.

Photo of Sammy Wilson Sammy Wilson Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Treasury), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Work and Pensions), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Brexit)

Does my hon. Friend accept that the hon. Gentleman has actually got it wrong? It is not one quango, but three quangos. There will be a commissioner for Irish language, a commissioner for Ulster Scots, and the office of identity and cultural expression. This will be a costly exercise.

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Human Rights), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health)

I thank my right hon. Friend and colleague for his intervention. Yes, there is no doubt that there could be a number of bonfires, not just on 11 July, but at other times as well.

In conclusion, how do I look my constituents in the eye and say that all of this money is spent not to make a difference to the quality of their lives, not to make a brighter future for their children, but as a clear, blatant and horrifyingly expensive sop to a political agenda. I want to look them in the eye and know that I have done all that I can to bring the right legislation through this Bill at the right time and for the right reason. The promotion of culture and heritage is not a bad thing, but the politicisation of language and the use of it as a weapon must be prevented. In its current state, this Bill simply enables that politicisation and therefore requires urgent changes. I look forward to the Minister of State giving us that meeting so that we can make the changes that we all want to see for the people of Northern Ireland, and especially for the people that I represent.

Photo of Lindsay Hoyle Lindsay Hoyle Speaker of the House of Commons, Chair, Speaker's Committee for the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority, Chair, Speaker's Committee for the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority, Chair, House of Commons Commission, Chair, Speaker's Committee on the Electoral Commission, Chair, Speaker's Committee on the Electoral Commission

I will now announce the result of the ballot held today for the election of the new Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee. A total of 459 votes were cast, one of which was invalid. The counting went to three rounds. There were 441 active votes in the final round, excluding those ballot papers whose preferences had been exhausted. The quota to be reached therefore was 221 votes. The winner is Alicia Kearns elected with 241 votes. She will take up her post immediately and I congratulate her on her election. The results of the count under the alternative vote system will be made available as soon as possible in the Vote Office and published on the internet.

Photo of Alicia Kearns Alicia Kearns Chair, Foreign Affairs Committee, Chair, Foreign Affairs Committee

On a point of order, Mr Speaker, I thank the Clerks of the House, who ran a very successful election. I also thank all those who stood for election. I hope they know how much I respect them and how I hope to continue working with them as Chair, because I hope we can work together more as a House. I also thank Tom Tugendhat, who is now elevated to far superior places, but was a fantastic Chairman of the Select Committee. Most of all, I say a heartfelt thank you to everyone who gave their support to me. It means everything to me. I hope to do them proud; I hope I can represent all their interests and I am here now to do as they bid. Thank you ever so much.

Photo of Paul Girvan Paul Girvan Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Education), Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Transport), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Transport) 4:30, 12 October 2022

It is with pleasure that I stand to speak on this Bill. I am glad to see that it is not a stand-alone Irish language Bill, as was being peddled by those who wanted to have it as such. However, the identities issue within this Bill causes concern, because there is an imbalance in how things are dealt with.

I understand that both commissioners have certain powers, but one seems to have more power than the other. By that, I am saying that the Ulster Scots commissioner will really be there as a tick-box exercise, as opposed to somebody who can effectively take complaints forward and recommend that they be addressed by the public authorities that are being used. I appreciate that there are a large number of public authorities in Northern Ireland to be consulted—I think it is somewhere around 70-plus—but all of them have different interpretations of what they have to do.

I use this as an example: local authorities in Northern Ireland have off their own bat started to go down the route of language signage for street names. In doing so, they have created a problem. Many people may not understand the nuances of this, but it is seen as territory marking. If someone goes into a certain area and sees Irish language signs, they will say, “Well, that’s an area I will not be buying a house in, because being from my community I will not be happy or safe there.” That is another area where division is being driven into our community, and Irish-language signs are being used as such by councils.

There was mention made by Members from my own party of those who have removed emblems and pictures of our monarchs from our council buildings. All those things have been stripped out to try to make a neutral environment, yet some are still putting what I call some of their republican agenda and driving it forward. Those measures and the powers that are supposedly within this Bill, such as the language aspect, need to be addressed.

I will say a wee bit about the language aspect and bilingualism with Ulster Scots. That is not necessarily their priority. They have areas they want to focus on, and one of those might be looking not just at the art and literature aspect, but the culture and heritage aspect. Our heritage needs to be respected. I feel very much that we are under attack not only from this Bill, but from those who put in place the protocol and made those people who live in Northern Ireland—whether you believe it or not—feel like second-class citizens. That is what is being portrayed here, because we see our Ulster Scots heritage and culture being treated as second class, as I think my hon. Friend Jim Shannon mentioned.

I also have concerns about the cost associated with the implementation of this legislation. There might well be money associated with setting up the office of the commissioners for both languages and the shared services in relation with that, but I have a problem with the cost impact on each Government Department of the implementation of aspects of what is put forward in this Bill. Some control needs to be put in to ensure that the Bill does not run away with itself.

I, for one, come from the Ulster Scots background, as many Members will know, but I know and am friendly with fluent Irish speakers who were brought up as Protestants in Donegal and had to learn Irish as part of the culture where they lived. Language was used not as a cultural identity issue in Northern Ireland but as a weapon, and it continues to be.

I appreciate that some people try to steer away from that, but as the leader of our party, my right hon. Friend Sir Jeffrey M. Donaldson, mentioned, Danny Morrison said way back in the 1980s that each word spoken in Irish is a shot fired in relation to Irish liberty and freedom, so I think we need to be very careful about how the law is interpreted by those within the Unionist and Protestant communities. They do not necessarily buy into Linda Ervine’s approach on this whole thing. I do not discount that she is there for the right reasons, but let us be honest: a large section of the Unionist community do not buy into that agenda because they believe that it has been used as such.

I believe that we need to use the opportunity in Committee to table amendments that will make the Bill acceptable. I am not saying that it is not acceptable as it is, but our party’s amendments should be listened to, taken on board and respected, as we feel very much that we are being treated as second-class citizens because of the Bill’s imbalance. It does not necessarily take into account the so-called “parity of esteem” that is peddled by everybody. That term is used to suit an agenda on many occasions. On this occasion, we will use it because we do not believe that we have parity of esteem in how the legislation has been measured out. I want to ensure that that is taken on board.

I appreciate that the Minister of State has listened to us and agreed to have a meeting. We will have that meeting—we want to put our message across, and we will do so—and we will also table amendments to ensure that we get the redress that is required to make the Bill acceptable. It is wrong to say that we accepted this when NDNA was brought forward. This legislation is not what we agreed to, and we have fought it tooth and nail the whole way through the process. We will continue to do so until we get that redress.

Photo of Nigel Evans Nigel Evans Deputy Speaker (Second Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means)

Before I call the Front-Bench speakers, if there is to be a Division, I would welcome the names of the Tellers for the Noes. I call Tonia Antoniazzi.

Photo of Tonia Antoniazzi Tonia Antoniazzi Shadow Minister (Northern Ireland) 4:37, 12 October 2022

I thank colleagues from across the House for their contributions to this interesting and lively debate. It is perhaps unusual to say that discussing a matter in Parliament should serve to depoliticise it, but that is what the Bill rightly aims to do, by creating structures and legal protections for these languages—not simply preserving them but promoting them to and for everyone in Northern Ireland. Protections for national and cultural identity principles should be welcomed, ensuring that the Irish language and the language, art and literature of the Ulster Scots and the Ulster British tradition are recognised not as the property of one section of the community or one political outlook, but as an important part of Northern Ireland’s rich and diverse cultural heritage.

I note some of the conversations that have been had in the debate about language and growing up with a language. My father’s parents were first-language Italian speakers, but they never spoke Italian to him, and my mother did not speak Welsh because it was not the done thing. We have heard people talk about Polish, Chinese and sign language in Northern Ireland—those are all very important.

Before coming to this place, I spent 20 years of my life as a modern foreign languages teacher who grew up in Wales and did not learn Welsh. I am very proud of my Welsh culture and heritage and am very embarrassed to say that I did not embrace learning the language as a child because I had the opportunity to do other things. However, as a language teacher in Wales, I embraced Welsh because it brings communities together. As a teacher, you look at the language, your history and all the links of multilingualism and bring them together to create a positive community; that is what needs to be done here. Open your eyes to the opportunities and celebrate languages and your history together. I emphasise that because it is so important in these times.

As a Member for a Welsh constituency, I cannot help but compare the Bill to the radical changes that we have seen over the past decade with regard to the Welsh language. Within my lifetime, what was an issue of fierce political division has become a normal part of day-to-day life. The words used by Hywel Williams were, “It is now unremarkable.” Is not that how it should be?

Every child learns Welsh in school. It is my great regret that my son never went to a Welsh-medium school, because that opportunity to be bilingual is a genuine gift. The ability to access public services in Welsh is enshrined in law. Legislation is brought and debated bilingually in the Senedd. You will hear Welsh in the city centre of Swansea or the smallest village in north Wales. It is unremarkable. There is, of course, still debate around the language today.

Earlier we heard it said that finances could be used elsewhere. That argument should not be weaponised against language. We want to remove that aspect, because language is so very important. Will the Minister, with the Secretary of State, commit to a timescale for the Bill? I would be grateful if he also addressed the questions about resourcing for the sector that have been asked by the Ulster-Scots Agency.

As colleagues have said, the Bill was born from drafts that were due to be taken forward in the Northern Ireland Assembly. It is regrettable that this legislation is being debated here, rather than in Stormont, but the Government are to be commended for bringing it forward and ensuring that commitments made in the NDNA agreement are honoured.

The bringing forward of this long called-for legislation is, along with a marked change in attitude regarding renegotiation of the protocol, a welcome change in tone and action. I hope it represents an end to the culture of missed deadlines and broken promises that has characterised much of the Government’s approach to Northern Ireland —an approach that has only added to political instability and uncertainty.

Colleagues have spoken of the Bill’s foundations being rooted in the principles of the Belfast/Good Friday agreement but, as Lord Murphy of Torfaen astutely noted in his contribution to the discussion in the other place, the Belfast/Good Friday agreement is not something one can pick and choose from; it is a package. And the key part of that package is a functioning Assembly and Executive. Those are the institutions where this debate, and the scrutiny of this legislation, should be taking place, but as that is not possible, the Government are right to uphold commitments made to people in Northern Ireland, and the Labour party supports this legislation’s swift passage.

Photo of Steven Baker Steven Baker The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office 4:43, 12 October 2022

What a debate it has been. It has been really excellent—wide-ranging; at times hopeful and optimistic; at times reflective and reassuring; at times, it must be said, fearful and disappointed. But it is a great pleasure to have the opportunity to respond to such a debate on such a sensitive subject.

The Bill, as has been said, will implement the draft legislation associated with the New Decade, New Agreement deal, which all parties signed up to. I listened very carefully to the speeches and will return to them in a moment. I really share hon. Members’ hopes that these measures will be implemented in full by a future First Minister and Deputy First Minister, in a dynamic and timely manner, to help take Northern Ireland forward beyond these debates.

Yesterday I engaged with a range of language groups, which I found extremely helpful. I particularly want to thank Conradh na Gaeilge, Foras na Gaeilge, Linda Ervine of the Turas language programme—who has already been mentioned—Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann, and the Ulster-Scots Agency.

Before I get into individual contributions, there have been some points of general agreement among all Members: the necessity of carrying forward the agreement that had been reached through NDNA, a lament that this House must pass this legislation and, of course, agreement on the extreme sensitivity of it. It would be remiss of me not to acknowledge that I, like the Secretary of State and everyone else in the House, share the great sense of loss and sorrow about the explosion in Creeslough. It is an absolute tragedy, and I put on the record the Government’s thanks to the Northern Ireland Fire & Rescue Service for all they did to help out.

As I hope to elaborate on, this is a conversation about the future, and the future that we are creating for ourselves. If the Front Benchers will allow me, I will begin by responding to what Hywel Williams said, because like him, I approach this subject with a degree of trepidation and humility. I originally come from Cornwall. The Cornish language has been resuscitated since I left; I do not know any Cornish, but of course I do not have to pursue my Cornish roots, because my parents come from Hampshire. Nevertheless, I can see the great merits of people wishing to pursue their roots, and I know that today will be a great day of celebration for many people—I saw that in particular with Conradh na Gaeilge—because they love the language, its roots and where it takes them. That is a point that I will come back to.

The hon. Member for Arfon made the point that this has been liberating in Wales. As Tonia Antoniazzi said, he used the word “unremarkable.” He talked about depoliticisation, and that is my ambition. Paul Girvan mentioned Linda Ervine. I hope that she will not mind me saying that I was really moved by the efforts that the Turas language programme is making to teach Unionists Irish—Unionists who recognise that they do not have to go back too many generations to find that their ancestors, too, were speaking Irish. The hon. Gentleman acknowledged that, and I am grateful to him; that means so much. Look at the conversation we have had in the House—so much hurt; layers upon layers of hurt over decades. People have been insulted on both sides. I have listened to Ulster Scots saying that they have been demeaned, and Irish speakers saying that their language has been demeaned. This just cannot go on. We are the authors of our future.

I do not need to repeat the points that have been made about the weaponisation of language; I will just say that someone said to me yesterday, “We are building bridges; politicians are burning them behind us.” That should be a challenge to us all. Of course, the sorts of politicians who weaponise language as advancing nationalism have let the public down. All of us face the challenge of working out what future we are going to write, so I am grateful for the opportunity to begin my return to the Dispatch Box by agreeing with the Opposition Front Bench.

Peter Kyle asked me some specific questions, including about human rights and the connected classrooms programme. That programme is an important commitment, and officials continue to explore avenues of progress to deliver that commitment and facilitate the establishment of the programme. I hope to be in a position to update the House on progress shortly.

On the Castlereagh Foundation, I thank the former First Minister Arlene Foster, who chaired the advisory committee, and the rest of the committee. The advice was requested by the former Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, my right hon. Friend Brandon Lewis, and the advisory committee was unable to support the progress of the UK Government commitment to Castlereagh at the time within the powers available to the Secretary of State. That led to the amendment of the legislation.

Turning to our general approach and human rights, the approach we are taking is consistent with the draft legislation published alongside NDNA; it really is for OICE to implement this in practice. Although the First Minister and Deputy First Minister may direct OICE, this matter would be transferred to it, and would be for it to take forward.

I thought my right hon. Friend Julian Smith made an extremely well-informed speech. He picked up on the point about the Ulster-Scots Agency. We have received a number of representations about amendments, including from the Ulster-Scots Agency, and if I may, I will on this point turn to the request for amendments from DUP Members.

I have to say that we have listened to people request amendments to go further on the Irish language side, and the DUP has made very strong representations today. What the Government have tried to do, recognising that this really should have been taken through in the Assembly, is to stay absolutely faithful to the draft legislation. I am just slightly conscious that, if we do open the Bill up to amendments, we will hear many calls for reciprocity and a whole series of amendments one way or another.

Photo of Steven Baker Steven Baker The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office

I will come to the hon. Gentleman, but I have to say that I hear what he says about the need for parity in powers. I absolutely look forward to meeting him and his colleagues, and going through in detail how they think there has been some shortcoming. It is vitally important that we carry people with us, because I think this could be a great moment for moving on and achieving what has been achieved in Wales—depoliticising language. I think that would be a very good thing, and I look forward to meeting him, but I will give way to him briefly if he wishes.

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Human Rights), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health)

I thank the Minister of State for giving way. The thrust of our request to him—in a very kindly but also very firm manner—is about the fact that the Irish language commissioner has clout, but the Ulster Scots commissioner does not have that clout. It is a visual issue. I made the point earlier that for those who love the Irish language, it is the language that is the main thrust of what they are about, but for Ulster Scots it is about all the other things. It has the history, the art, the stories, the poetry and the music—pipe bands have been mentioned, for instance—and they are just some of those things. When it comes to the discussions we are going to have about those things, I hope we can have equality. Let us have a state of equality. I want to be as equal as anybody else. I do not want to be in George Orwell’s “Animal Farm”, where some people are more equal than others. Well, I am not, and neither is anyone else on these Benches.

Photo of Steven Baker Steven Baker The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office

I am most grateful. On step-in powers, can I just say, as I said in an intervention, that the Government would not wish to intervene routinely in devolved matters? The use of the powers here and elsewhere in the Bill would require the most careful consideration. The Government’s decision to include these powers was not taken lightly, but progress must be made to ensure that political stasis in Northern Ireland does not further frustrate this legislation. As some of the people I met said to me, they have waited a very long time for this moment.

I do not wish to take up disproportionate time in this debate—I know Members have many matters to discuss with me in meetings subsequently, before we come to further stages—so I will conclude by saying that this has been an extremely good debate, and I am very grateful to all Members who have participated. If I could say one other thing it is this: let us please use this moment to have a new beginning for Northern Ireland on the issue of language—a new beginning that people from all parts of the communities can celebrate, and one that can help us all write a more positive future. I commend the Bill to the House.

Question put, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

Division number 56 Identity and Language (Northern Ireland) Bill [Lords]: Second Reading

Aye: 376 MPs

No: 4 MPs

Aye: A-Z by last name


No: A-Z by last name


The House divided: Ayes 380, Noes 4.

Question accordingly agreed to.

Bill read a Second time.