Standards and Privilege

Part of Assembly Standing Orders – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 8:15 pm on 9th March 1999.

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Photo of Ian Paisley Jnr Ian Paisley Jnr DUP 8:15 pm, 9th March 1999

I wish to address my remarks to amendment No 87, standing in the name of Mr C Wilson, to Standing Order 7. Whenever we address the issue of language, we consider whether or not the language is intelligible, comprehensive and comprehensible. That is always important, and at times we see glimmers of hope in the Assembly that it is all of those things.

At times language is used defensively, and sometimes it is used to perpetuate untruths — often outside the Chamber. Sometimes people allege that untruthful language has been used in the Chamber, and most Members are deeply offended by such accusations. Of course, there can be punishments and penalties for people who make such accusations.

Mr Wilson’s amendment draws attention not to where language is used offensively, but to where it is used as an offensive and political weapon. Some Members undoubtedly have a mother tongue other than English. Three Members at most could genuinely claim that position. It would be grossly unfair to the rest of Members to create an imbalance so that a significant minority were advantaged or privileged in relation to the vast majority of Members of all shades of political opinion whose mother tongue is English. It is their working tongue, and they use it in every aspect of their lives.

The Assembly should understand why Members felt it necessary to table this amendment. Irish has been used in Northern Ireland as an offensive political weapon. Not long ago, when I was at university, the Irish language was deliberately used to offend the majority population in Northern Ireland. At times it was frivolous and time-wasting. At one time it was suggested that the menu in the Students’ Union should be changed to Irish. When that failed, there was an attempt to subvert the menu by calling the Ulster fry the occupied Six-Counties fry and, of course, that led to a frivolous debate in the union.

Irish has clearly been used as a political weapon. Irish language street names have been imposed in Belfast and in other parts of the Province, and that is an example of its use as an offensive political language. I think that Members will agree that the Assembly is possibly at its most divided when it deals with the issue of language. There is division not only here but when Members go to other countries and raise the issue of the Irish language. That has embarrassed not only individuals, the people who were involved, but the entire electoral process. People take cognisance of that reality.

It would be a frivolous waste of time and money for the Assembly to plough resources, time and energy into special privileges for a small minority of Members who wish to use different languages.

It is important that those who wish to speak in a language other than English are not given those special privileges. Standing Order 70 states

"Members may speak in a language of their choice."

That does not seem to offer special privileges, but there is an opportunity for some Members to turn the Standing Order on its head by trying to create for themselves special privileges that they ought not to have.