The consultation on the indicative draft clauses of the Irish language legislation closed on 5 June 2007. Over 70% of the 11,000 responses have been processed to date, and I intend to make a statement to the House in the early autumn.
I do not accept that the rights of Irish speakers should be subject to consultation. A right is a right. Does the Minister believe that recognising in law the rights of Irish speakers is a positive demonstration of respect for the rights of others? Does he agree that the Irish language and the right to speak Irish threaten no one and that it is not compulsory? Does the Minister agree that the Irish language is not the property of any one section of our people but belongs to everyone?
Detailed, agreed provision for the development of the Irish language was contained in the Belfast Agreement and subsequently implemented by the former Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure, my colleague Michael McGimpsey. Therefore, does the Minister agree that the discussion on timetabling would be irrelevant had he and his party not agreed to an unnecessary Irish language Act at St Andrews?
The campaign for an Irish language Act has been framed and fronted by Sinn Féin. That has turned the Irish language into a cultural weapon. As Sinn Féin states in one of its publications, it is:
“another bullet in the freedom struggle”.
Does the Minister agree that a divisive Irish language Act should be avoided and that the Assembly should instead seek to develop language through a coherent strategy for the Irish language in keeping with the Council of Europe’s Charter for Regional or Minority Languages?
I have had the privilege of meeting people from a Gaelic background, including some from a Scots Gaelic background, who happened to be mostly Scottish Presbyterians. Indeed, over 100 years ago, the Irish language was more commonly spoken by those of Presbyterian origin. In recent years, efforts to promote the Irish language that were associated with political movements have not helped it to move forward on a cross-community basis.
Significant steps have already been taken as part of the strategy to enhance, develop and protect the Irish language through the Council of Europe’s Charter for Regional or Minority Languages. The Irish language is recognised under part III of the charter, which details the 36 provisions that the UK Government have applied solely to Irish in Northern Ireland. Much of the work on those provisions was done as a consequence of the work of the previous Administration, particularly the Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure, Mr McGimpsey. Therefore, the process of enhancing, developing and protecting the Irish language has been going on for a long time in Northern Ireland.