Outcome of the Proposed Irish-Language Legislation Consultation Process

Ministerial Statement – in the Northern Ireland Assembly on 16th October 2007.

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Photo of William Hay William Hay Speaker

I have received notice from the Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure that he wishes to make a statement regarding the outcome of the consultation process for the proposed Irish language legislation.

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

I have placed in the Assembly Library copies of a report summarising the responses received during the consultation of March to June 2007 on the proposed Irish language legislation. The main focus of that second consultation was to ascertain public opinion on a possible legislative framework for Irish language legislation.

The draft framework proposed the creation of a duty on public authorities to prepare a language scheme specifying the measures that they would take on the use of the Irish language in the provision of their services. The establishment of a new oversight body — an Irish language commissioner — was also proposed. The commissioner would have the function of approving and overseeing language schemes.

In addition, it was proposed that a person would be able to use Irish in legal proceedings in courts and tribunals sitting in Northern Ireland, subject to the provision of notice and the interests of justice. Finally, a draft provision was also included enabling certain statutory forms to be made available in Irish.

A total of 11,000 written responses were received, as well as petitions containing 629 names. Of the total number of respondents, 7,500 — 65% — indicated support for some form of legislation.

Over 4,000 — 35% — of all respondents were against any form of legislation. Approximately 80% of responses were submitted in the form of a pro forma, drafted by individuals or organisations to assist themselves and others.

I thank all the individuals and the 168 organisations who responded to the consultation. The sheer number of responses confirms the strong and divergent views on this issue in the community. It is my intention to publish all the responses on the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure website by the end of the calendar year, in line with departmental accessibility guidelines.

Among those in favour of the legislation, there was a divergence of views as to the form that it should take, with the majority advocating a rights-based approach. Those who opposed the legislation raised several concerns, including the significant resource consequences of implementing legislation, its potentially divisive repercussions and concerns that the proposed legislation was a political concession in the context of the discussions at St Andrews.

With regard to costs, in 2006-07, Northern Ireland Civil Service (NICS) Departments and the Northern Ireland Office (NIO) incurred expenditure of £20·62 million on a range of Irish-language projects and translations. That figure includes £10·3 million from the Department of Education for Irish-medium education. It does not include expenditure incurred by the Northern Ireland Court Service or by local councils on Irish translations and linguistic-diversity projects, nor does it include resources — that is, salaries and running costs — deployed by the various Departments in arranging the commitments associated with the £20·62 million annual expenditure.

Members will appreciate that it is difficult to estimate the cost and resource issues that could arise from Irish language legislation. For example, a rights-based framework would likely have greater costs than a language-scheme framework. Equally, it is difficult to estimate the cost and resource requirements of a language-scheme framework without clarity on the content and extent of a typical language scheme.

Officials in my Department undertook a high-level exercise to estimate the cost of implementing a language-scheme framework, which was the indicative legislative framework set out in the consultation document of 13 March 2007. For the purposes of that exercise, the estimates were based on the assumption that the legislation would be applied across all Departments and the NIO in the financial year 2008-09, and drew, where possible, upon estimates based on experiences in Wales and in the Republic of Ireland.

For example, if Northern Ireland were to have an Irish-language commissioner’s office similar to that in the Republic of Ireland, the annual running costs would be approximately £500,000. The translation service for the Houses of the Oireachtas costs approximately £600,000 per annum, compared to £1·28 million in the National Assembly for Wales. It is estimated that almost £200,000 per annum would be required to provide simultaneous translation in Irish for the Court Service, and a similar amount for tribunals.

In respect of the 11 Departments and the NIO, it is estimated that, in 2008-09, if each were to deploy two dedicated staff members, each fluent in Irish, to develop Irish-language schemes, monitor their implementation, give advice and arrange translations, the annual cost would be approximately £927,000. The printing and design of forms to facilitate Irish-language schemes in the 11 Departments could cost approximately £309,000, and advertising costs could be in the region of £931,000, based on a 20% uplift to take account of the increased advertising costs for Irish.

It is important to stress that those broad estimates concern mainly the 11 Departments. Those Departments employ 22,973 civil servants, as opposed to the wider public sector, which employs 111,128 in local govern­ment, health trusts, education and library boards, and various NDPBs.

If estimates of the cost of implementing a language-scheme approach in the 11 Departments were to be extrapolated across the wider public sector, and if, for example, the agreed language schemes required public bodies to provide bilingual services, the costs would clearly be significant.

Members will be aware of current pressures on public expenditure in Northern Ireland. In light of that, it is highly debatable whether our community is prepared to contemplate the level of expenditure that would be required to introduce even a modest form of Irish-language legislation at this time. There will always be competing priorities for public expenditure; however, can the additional potential cost be justified in comparison with the investment that is needed for infrastructure, health, and other vital public services?

Furthermore, bearing in mind that approximately £20·62 million per annum is currently spent on Irish-language projects and translations, I doubt whether the legislative route will be necessarily the most cost-effective way of achieving the aims of enhancing and protecting the development of the Irish language.

My purpose in publishing the summary of responses to the 13 March consultation paper by way of this statement is to afford Members an opportunity to offer some initial views on the matter. I intend to fully engage with the Committee for Culture, Arts and Leisure before bringing the matter to the Executive.

Having reviewed the responses to both consultation processes, and having reflected carefully on all the relevant issues, I remain unpersuaded that there is a compelling case for introducing Irish-language legislation at this time.

My first reason for making that decision is that, in view of the political sensitivities on linguistic and cultural policy issues, it is clear that the proposal to introduce an Irish language Bill is divisive in our community. The proposal has given rise to highly politicised claims and counterclaims. As a community, we are faced with the challenge of finding new ways of managing our rich cultural diversity. Indeed, that challenge is enshrined in the duty that was placed on the Executive by the Northern Ireland (St Andrews Agreement) Act 2006 to:

“adopt a strategy setting out how it proposes to enhance and protect the development of the Irish language” and to:

“adopt a strategy setting out how it proposes to enhance and develop the Ulster Scots language, heritage and culture”.

The UK Government signed the European Treaty for Regional or Minority Languages on 2 March 2000. The resulting charter was ratified on 27 March 2001 and came into force on 1 July 2001. That is an international convention that was designed to protect and promote regional and minority languages. In Northern Ireland, it applies to Irish and to Ulster Scots. The committee of experts that is examining the imple­mentation of the charter in the UK has recommended the development of a comprehensive policy for the Irish language.

It is my assessment that the proposal to introduce Irish-language legislation at this time is unlikely to command the necessary support in the Assembly on the grounds of being incapable of securing sufficient consensus.

If we reflect on the introduction of language legislation in Wales, the Republic of Ireland and Scotland, experience there clearly shows that giving legislative effect to linguistic policies needs to occur in a depoliticised manner that is capable of commanding broadly based community support. The two consultation processes that have taken place on the proposal to introduce Irish-language legislation, and the ensuing public commentary, clearly demonstrate the lack of community consensus on the issue.

Furthermore, given the sensitivities involved, if the development of the Irish language is to be enhanced and protected, it would be counterproductive to go down the legislative route. The proposed legislation is unlikely to command sufficient consensus in the community at this time, so, if it were to be advanced, it could damage good relations, increase polarisation and entrench suspicions and patterns of antipathy. That could seriously undermine the efforts of those in the Irish-speaking community who genuinely want to see the language developed in a depoliticised and wholly inclusive manner.

Based on a high-level cost estimate, the introduction of even a modest language-scheme legislative model would have significant resource implications. Mindful of the constraints on public expenditure, and, in particular, the pressures in my Department alone, I cannot reconcile the likely opportunity costs of introducing legislation and other spending priorities.

If our aim is to achieve the tangible outcomes of enhancing and protecting the development of the Irish language and facilitating those who wish to use Irish in their dealings with the public sector, I consider the legislative route to be a disproportionately costly method of achieving positive outcomes. The legislative requirement placed on the Executive to adopt a strategy to enhance and protect the development of the Irish language offers a more cost-effective and proportionate alternative.

I have carefully considered the proposal in annex B to the St Andrews Agreement to “introduce an Irish Language Act” and the consultation processes on which the previous Administration embarked. I fully acknowledge that there are those in the Northern Ireland community who have a close affinity with the Irish language and have legitimate aspirations to secure its official recognition and protection.

The enhancement and protection of the development of the Irish language is an important matter for Northern Ireland, as is the enhancement and protection of the Ulster-Scots language, heritage and culture. However, I remain unpersuaded that a compelling case for progressing legislation exists at this time. There is insufficient community consensus, and there are potentially significant costs. Moreover, there is a real possibility that legislation could undermine good relations. In so doing, it could prove counterproductive to those who wish to see the language developed in a non-politicised and inclusive manner.

In publishing the report that summarises the responses received to the consultation exercise that ran from March until June 2007, and in outlining in my statement my current assessment of the proposal to introduce an Irish language Bill, I trust that I can assist the Assembly’s deliberations. I will be most interested to hear Members’ views. I am scheduled to discuss the matter with the Committee for Culture, Arts and Leisure later this month, after which I will prepare a paper for discussion by the Executive.

Photo of William Hay William Hay Speaker 10:45 am, 16th October 2007

Before the Minister takes questions, I remind Members that they are to ask questions, not make further statements. I shall allow Chairpersons of Committees some latitude.

Photo of Barry McElduff Barry McElduff Sinn Féin

Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. Ar maidin tá faill déanta sa Ghaeilge sa tionól seo. Drochscéal ar fad atá i gceist agus drochshíniú ón Aire. Agus is mór an trua sin, is mór an trua sin.

The Minister will know, a Chathaoirligh, that, both on Friday afternoon and yesterday, in my capacity as Chairperson — Cathaoirligh — of the Committee for Culture, Arts and Leisure, I attempted, through my Committee staff, to contact the Minister by telephone and email on more than 10 occasions. I wanted to secure a meeting with him so that he might respond to developing speculation in the media about the content of this morning’s statement.

I will not go on at length, but, suffice it to say, the Minister demonstrated neither confidence nor courtesy, effectively giving the Cathaoirligh of the Committee the runaround. I was told he might be available to meet me in the afternoon but, of course, that meeting never came to be. [Interruption.]

Photo of William Hay William Hay Speaker

Order, Members.

Photo of Barry McElduff Barry McElduff Sinn Féin

Speaking in a personal capacity, I wish to say that this morning’s announcement constitutes a mistake. It is a retrograde step that sends out a negative signal to the growing Irish-language community in the North of Ireland.

The Minister is missing a major opportunity to prove that he is capable of being, and willing to be, a Minister for all the people. I am suspicious of the Minister’s view that:

“it is highly debatable whether our community is prepared to contemplate the level of expenditure that would be required to introduce even a modest form of Irish-language legislation at this time.”

Is the Minister placing the Irish-language community in the North of Ireland outside of his community? Is his definition of “community” exclusive of the Irish-speaking community in the North of Ireland? If it is, it strikes me that the term “Minister of Culture” is an oxymoron when it is applied to the post’s incumbent.

One consultation was not enough. When the Minister did not like the outcome of the first one, he decided to carry out a second. Is it the case that the total percentage of responses, over the two consultations, in favour of Acht na Gaeilge — an Irish language Act — was 75%?

Does the Minister agree that, as with the Welsh example, the best way in which to depoliticise the Irish language is to place such rights at the heart of legislation? Is iad sin mo cheisteanna, a Cheann Comhairle.

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

The Member spoke of placing the Irish language at the heart of people’s rights. Individuals have rights in this country. The first such right is the right to life, and, thereafter, there are a series of other rights. I am not denying anyone the right to speak in the Irish language. We do not necessarily need Irish-language legislation to enable the Irish language to flourish. For example, there is Irish-language legislation in the Republic of Ireland, yet use of the Irish language is diminishing there. In Northern Ireland, we do not currently have an Irish language Bill, yet it has been told to me by a number of sources that use of the Irish language is growing here.

Introducing a Bill will not, of itself, necessarily encourage or increase the use of the Irish language. Members must reflect on that and take a considered view of the situation when deciding how they want to take the issue forward genuinely.

When I refer to the community, I refer to the entire community. I am referring not to Irish-language speakers, Ulster-Scots speakers, unionists or nationalists, but to the whole community. Irish-language speakers are part of that community. There are those in the Irish-speaking community who are very keen to see the issue progressed in a way that is not politicised.

I have had the privilege of meeting people who are involved in the Scottish Gaelic-speaking community. The difference between the situation in Scotland and that in Northern Ireland is that, in Scotland, language is not a political matter. Language does not necessarily represent a barrier there. Members opposite, in particular, but also people outside of the Chamber, must reflect on that fact and determine how they can take the matter forward in a non-political way.

Photo of Nelson McCausland Nelson McCausland DUP

I thank the Minister for his statement, which clearly demonstrates that an Irish language Act would be divisive and extremely expensive. Does the Minister agree that the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages, to which the United Kingdom Government are committed, provides a good framework for advancing both minority languages in Northern Ireland?

Will the Minister, in considering the matter further, take account of the situation in Wales, where there is growing concern, particularly in the business community, at the cost of implementing the provisions that some activists are demanding?

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

The European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages is a European directive, so we must abide by it, even if we do not wish to. Indeed, through our actions, we are more than abiding by it. We do not need to introduce legislation to work within its framework.

Therefore, the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages is the context in which we must work and the means through which we can identify how to make progress.

Mr McCausland talked about the costs of language schemes in Wales, where such legislation has been enacted. The costs that I identified were at the lower end of the scale and were for a language-based rather than a rights-based scheme, which would be considerably more expensive than a language-based scheme.

Photo of David McNarry David McNarry UUP

It is regrettable that the Chairperson of the Committee for Culture, Arts and Leisure did not consult with the Deputy Chairperson about his concerns, either last Friday or yesterday.

I welcome the Minister’s statement. [Interruption.]

Photo of William Hay William Hay Speaker

Order. The Member has the Floor.

Photo of David McNarry David McNarry UUP

Clearly, the fact that last week’s Ulster Unionist’s motion on the Irish language was defeated has demonstrated that the House was both deeply divided and reflective of public opinion. Will the Minister confirm the Assembly’s authority on the matter by asserting that the powers to introduce an Irish language Act will not be transferred to Westminster, allowing it to be imposed on us? That would be counter­productive to local democracy and would further undermine the good relations that he and I know must be made in this matter.

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

This is a devolved matter. If Westminster wishes to take back devolved matters, under the Sewel guidelines, this House would have to vote in favour of Westminster’s making such a decision.

Members may wish to look to other places, but I say that they should look to this House to ascertain how we can make progress on this and other contentious issues. It will be a test of the Assembly — and of the willingness of Members — as to how we can work with one another for the benefit of the wider community in the months ahead.

Photo of Dominic Bradley Dominic Bradley Social Democratic and Labour Party

Go raibh míle maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. Leis an fhírinne a dhéanamh, a Cheann Comhairle, níl mórán iontas orm ins an mhéid a chuala mé anseo ar maidin mar bhí an fógra déanta cheana féin an tseachtain seo chaite ag an tUas McNarry anseo ar leathanach tosaigh den Newsletter, só ceapaim go bhfuil poll áit éigin i long an Chultúir, an Roinn Chultúir, Ealaíon agus Fóillíochta, agus b’fhéidir gur chóir don Aire paiste a chur ar an pholl sin.

Photo of William Hay William Hay Speaker

Order. Let us have the question.

Photo of Dominic Bradley Dominic Bradley Social Democratic and Labour Party

To translate, I was just saying that I was not really surprised by what I have heard in the Chamber this morning, given that Mr McNarry made the announcement last week on the front page of the ‘News Letter’. It looks very much as though there is a hole — [Interruption.]

Photo of David McNarry David McNarry UUP

I will give you a copy, and that will keep you abreast of things.

A Member:

What is the question?

Photo of Dominic Bradley Dominic Bradley Social Democratic and Labour Party

There is a hole in the good ship CAL, and perhaps the Minister should seek to fix the leak in the future. The Minister seems to understand the cost of everything and the value of nothing. He uses the financial issue to cover up the fact that he has given in to pressures — [Interruption.]

Photo of William Hay William Hay Speaker

Order. I ask the Member to take his seat. I have continually tried to give Members some latitude. I said repeatedly at the start of the debate that statements should not be made to the Minister; we should have questions.

Photo of Dominic Bradley Dominic Bradley Social Democratic and Labour Party

My question is that, given that the Minister has abdicated his duty to implement the promises made by the two Governments in the St Andrews Agreement:

“to introduce an Irish Language Act reflecting on the experience of Wales and Ireland”, will he now advise the British Government of that abdication and ask that the matter be dealt with at Westminster? Go raibh míle maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle.

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

I have no responsibility over decisions that the Governments of the Republic of Ireland and the UK make. I make that completely clear.

This House is its own master, and this House will make the decision. For years, some Members on the opposite Benches were shouting “Brits out”, but now they want the Brits in to make this decision. I can assure the House — [Interruption.]

Photo of William Hay William Hay Speaker

Order. The Minister has the Floor.

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP 11:00 am, 16th October 2007

I can assure the House that at no time during any talks was the DUP consulted on an Irish language Bill or legislation. If the Member cares to read the Northern Ireland (St Andrews Agreement) Act 2006, he will find that there is no reference to proposals for Irish language legislation.

Photo of Stephen Farry Stephen Farry Alliance

The Alliance Party saw some potential in an Irish-language scheme as a means of trying to find common ground, albeit with a very light touch. What efforts did the Minister make to try to find common ground in the polarised debate between those, on the one hand, who want a rights-based approach and those, on the other hand, who want no legislation whatsoever?

With respect to costs, what consideration was given to pooling resources in a central Government unit, rather than duplicating translation services across all 11 Departments and the rest of the Northern Ireland Civil Service? Given that the Minister is now with­drawing proposals for an Irish language Act, is he prepared to come back to the Assembly with plans for a comprehensive language Act that will address not only the cultural demands of speakers of Irish and Ulster Scots but also the real needs of those people who speak non-indigenous languages in Northern Ireland and who find it difficult to access services?

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

Consultation has not finished on this issue. If the Member had listened to what I said, he would know that I am going back to the Committee for Culture, Arts and Leisure and the Executive Committee. The Committee for Culture, Arts and Leisure is a microcosm of the House, and I can think of no better place to find common ground. If that Committee can identify an agreed way to proceed, I, as Minister, will be happy to work with it. I look forward to the Committee’s proposals and discussions, under Mr McElduff’s chairmanship, after which we can consider how to progress the issue in the way that the Member outlined.

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon DUP

I welcome the Minister’s report on the Irish language Act. It is good that we are discussing the matter, which is one of the biggest issues in my constituency of Strangford, from where the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure received 600 responses to its consultation. The issue gets people’s hackles up, and the costs are horrendous.

The Minister mentioned costs. Can he confirm that the Northern Ireland Office costs are £20 million? He also mentioned £500,000 for the language commissioner’s office, and that it would be £1·2 million if compared to the National Assembly for Wales. For the 11 Departments, he mentioned:

“annual costs … £927,000 … printing and design … £309,000, and advertising costs … of £931,000”.

It sounds a lot like that Abba song:

“Money, money, money …

It’s a rich man’s world.”

In this case, it is Sinn Féin’s world, but it is not in the mind, or in the world, of ordinary people. How much, per annum, will it cost the Civil Service and other public bodies if an Irish language Act is imposed?

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

In 2006-07, all Departments and the NIO incurred costs of some £117,000 on Irish translations; the overall costs for translations were over £1 million. All Departments and the NIO spent £3,484,000 on linguistic diversity projects. The Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure spent over £3 million on the Irish-language broadcasting fund and £3,556,000 on Foras na Gaeilge. The Department of Education spent £10,303,000 on Irish-medium education, and the Department for Employment and Learning spent £100,000. If Members suggest that the Government are not committed to Irish-language funding, those figures show that that is not the case.

As regards additional commitments for Irish-language translation, we would be looking for an anticipated £1 million over the next 10 years. For Foras na Gaeilge, we would be looking for almost £12 million over the next 10 years. For the Irish-language commissioner’s office, we would be looking for £7,600,000 over the next 10 years. For the translation service, based on what is happening in Wales, we would be looking for a further £16,916,000. For the Court Service, we would be looking for £2,117,000. For tribunals, we would be looking for £2,117,000. For printing and design, we would be looking for £3,385,000. For advertising and publicity, we would be looking for £10,193,000, and for an Irish language branch, we would be looking for £10,150,000.

Totting all that up — and this is for the language scheme route, rather than the rights-based route — we would be looking at costs over the next 10 years of £291,538,000 for the Northern Ireland Civil Service and Northern Ireland Office alone. They account for 22,000-odd civil servants. If it were extrapolated out to local government, NDPBs and other functions of government, there would be 111,000 people, so the figures could be increased fivefold if we were to go down that route. That is the extent of what is being asked of me. When Members ask me to consider doing this, I have to look at the costs and the value of it. At the same time, there are other pressing and vital issues being raised by Members on a weekly basis on the Floor of this House.

Photo of Gerry Adams Gerry Adams Sinn Féin

Go raibh míle maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle, agus tá mé buíoch duitse agus tá mé buíoch don Aire, ach caithfidh mé a rá fosta níl iontas ar bith ormsa. Tá cúpla ceisteanna agamsa. An bhfuil eagla ar an Aire roimh an teanga? Is leis an Aire an teanga. Is le achan duine an teanga seo agus bealach amháin nó bealach eile beidh Acht an Gaeilge ann.

I have just a few questions for the Minister, a Cheann Comhairle. Does he agree that it costs the same to provide English-language services as it does to provide Irish-language services? Does he agree — and perhaps he will reflect on this — that he did a disservice to two languages this morning? He did a disservice to the English language, in the perverted way in which he tried to put forward spurious reasons for his judgement this morning, and to the Irish language. [Interruption.]

Photo of William Hay William Hay Speaker

Order, Members. Order.

Photo of Gerry Adams Gerry Adams Sinn Féin

Does the Minister accept that the way to depoliticise Irish-language rights is to make them an administrative matter? Will he take the opportunity to spell out to us how he intends to deliver on the commit­ments that he and his party made in relation to the Irish language in the St Andrews Agreement? Will he accept, finally, that, one way or another, there will be an Irish language Act?

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

As regards equivalence of costs, translation comes at a price, and I have identified that price very clearly. I have identified the lower level of costs that would be accrued, as opposed to the higher level of costs.

In education, I understand that there are around 4,000 children in the Irish-medium sector. The costs there are clearly higher than those in the mainstream, and if the educationalists in the Chamber want to look at that matter, they will see that it costs more money to educate children in the Irish-medium sector than in the mainstream. That is a choice for another Minister to make, but she has to make that choice within the budget that is applied to her. That should be reflected upon when we come to making budgetary decisions. I under­stand that the Department of Education needs substantially more money than it currently has in order to deliver many of its key priorities.

Certain Members opposite could greatly assist in depoliticising the use of the Irish language. When they speak in broken Irish in the House, it does nothing to encourage the wider community. Rather, it persuades people to resist the Irish language. It does not benefit Irish-language activists who genuinely want to make progress in a depoliticised way. I have spoken to people in the Irish-speaking community who have made it clear that they wish that the language issue were not politicised, because it should be a purely cultural one.

Members across the Chamber must reflect on that point, because the more that they politicise the issue and try to ram it down people’s throats, the less likely it becomes that individuals will be encouraged to think that the Irish language should be developed and preserved on the basis that it is important culturally. The approach that has been taken by the leader of the party opposite has been most unhelpful, particularly in the House.

Photo of Lord Wallace Browne Lord Wallace Browne DUP

I congratulate the Minister on the way in which he has conducted business on the subject. Given the legislative restrictions contained in The Budget (Northern Ireland) Order 2007 that determine what can be taken from the Consolidated Fund, as well as our limited ability to raise further moneys, will the Minister clarify whether the introduction of an Irish language Bill would have a detrimental effect on spending on arts and sport?

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

Were an Irish language Bill to be introduced, my Department would have to bid for substantially greater funds. If we did not receive those extra funds, that would have a detrimental impact on the arts, sport, and everything else for which the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure has respons­ibility. If we were successful in bidding for that extra funding, it would have a detrimental impact on other Departments, as that money would have to come out of their budgets.

The European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages identifies terms of value for protecting and enhancing languages. The suggestion by some Members this morning has been that Irish-language legislation is the best way in which to achieve that. I am open to listening to a convincing argument, but one has yet to be made. However, I look forward to hearing the Committee make its case, and to agreeing a way forward.

Photo of Ken Robinson Ken Robinson UUP

I am sure that members of the public who are watching and listening to the debate will have been horrified to learn of the sums of money that are already being expended on the Irish language. It may have come as a surprise to Members, too.

Doubtless, patients who are lying on a hospital trolley would be mightily comforted to look up and see a sign in Irish that told them that they were lying in a hospital corridor. I am sure that the parent of a child with literacy problems, who attends a school in one of the working-class districts about which the Minister of Education tells the House that she is concerned, would want to see a reading-recovery teacher in that school rather than an Irish-language sign at the end of the school’s street.

At one stage, on hearing the sums of money that the Minister cited, I thought that we were to get two stadia.

Photo of William Hay William Hay Speaker

I ask the Member to come to his question.

Photo of Ken Robinson Ken Robinson UUP

I am coming to the question, Mr Speaker. Does the Minister agree that Sinn Féin has succeeded in scoring a spectacular own goal, and that its strident approach has scuppered what might have been accepted had it been genuinely presented as one form of cultural diversity in our community?

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

I will allow Members to make their own judgements on what Sinn Féin has done. I am prepared to continue to speak with people in the Irish-language community, and to others, to identify a way in which to ensure progress in Northern Ireland.

What members of other parties do is up to them. However, I did indicate in my response to Mr Adams that, very often, people do not help themselves.

Photo of Pat Ramsey Pat Ramsey Social Democratic and Labour Party 11:15 am, 16th October 2007

Will the Minister agree that deep anxiety, concern and frustration will be felt by Irish-language groups across Northern Ireland as a result of his statement?

Bearing in mind the Minister’s comment that the two consultation processes to date led him to believe that an Irish language Act would not command community consensus, does he agree that there is deep worry and suspicion that the second consultation process was contrived to enable troops to gather momentum in opposition to the first consultation process? Why was the second consultation process necessary, when the first one commanded 93% support for an Irish language Act?

The Minister gave a commitment that he would make himself available to the Committee for Culture, Arts and Leisure on any Thursday. Why, then, did he not feel that it was appropriate, good manners and respectful to bring his statement to the Committee for discussion? The Minister talked about securing consensus from the Committee — failing to discuss this issue with the Committee is not a good way of doing that.

Given that legislation exists to support the Welsh language in Wales and Scottish Gaelic in Scotland, and given Northern Ireland’s current constitutional status as part of the UK, why does the Minister not consider that an exception should be made in Northern Ireland for the Irish language?

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

The Irish-language community have lost nothing today. The money that was on the table is still on the table. I have not taken away the level of expenditure on the Irish language that currently exists. Let not the message go out that I have decided, in a sectarian or bigoted way, to move against the Irish-language community.

I have reflected on a consultation process that indicated that clear divisions on this issue exist in the community. A previous contributor indicated that I introduced the second consultation process because I did not like the results of the first one. That is absolute rubbish. I inherited a situation in which the second consultation process was under way. In fact, I was under pressure from people outside of this House, such as Jim Allister, to stop the second consultation process. He must have been satisfied by the outcome of the first consultation process because he did not want the second one to proceed.

It is clearly evident that the second consultation process, in conjunction with the first one, identified clear community division on this issue. When there is clear community division, it is unlikely that there will be consensus in this House.

As for working with the Committee for Culture, Arts and Leisure, I am scheduled to attend the Committee meeting on 25 October 2007 to discuss this matter in detail. The figures have been drawn together, and the analysis has been completed. The normal protocol for a Minister is to bring those matters to the House, which encapsulates everyone who was elected to the Northern Ireland Assembly. I am happy to go into this issue in much greater detail with the Committee, and to discuss it with the Committee to ascertain the best way forward. I look forward to illumination from that body.

Photo of Francie Brolly Francie Brolly Sinn Féin

Go raibh maith agat. The Minister must be aware of the message that he is sending out, not only specifically to Irish-language organisations, but to all organisations in the North who are involved in cultural matters. Most Gaelic cultural bodies and sporting bodies are committed by their constitutions to the promotion of the Irish language. That includes the GAA and Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Eireann — the Dublin-based organisation that looks after traditional Irish music and other cultural matters, and which will be appearing in the Long Gallery tomorrow night or the night after that.

So there is a huge community outside those specifically Irish-language organisations that will take great offence at the statement, and the Minister will certainly hear from them. If I could make another point before I ask the question —

Photo of William Hay William Hay Speaker

I ask the Member to put his question.

Photo of Francie Brolly Francie Brolly Sinn Féin

I will. The Minister is being a bit disin­genuous regarding costs, particularly with respect to Irish-medium education. As Mr Adams said, youngsters will be educated in any event. The Minister should have given figures for the difference in costs between Irish-medium and English-medium education. Is the Minister fully aware of the impact that his decision will have beyond Irish-language groups?

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

I am not sure that I am fully aware of the impact that my decision will have. However, I am fully aware that any decision I make will have a tremendous impact on the wider community. For example, while more than £20 million is being spent on the Irish language, when I took office, my Department was spending zero — no pounds — on sign language, which benefits people who cannot speak, who have only that language, and can choose to speak no other language.

On 6 October, I was in Dungiven, which is in the Member’s constituency, and I had a tremendous evening with the Hands That Talk group. My sympathies are clearly with those who have to communicate in a language that is exclusive to them and who are unable to communicate in any other language. Taking £20 million from the Budget and pouring it into Irish- language schemes would have an impact across the community. Whatever my decision, there will be an impact, and I must consider these issues in the round.

The matter is still open for discussion in Committee. I have identified the costs, the results of the consultation process and the difficulties. If Members can demonstrate to me that those difficulties are surmountable; I am open to hear what they say.

Photo of Lord Maurice Morrow Lord Maurice Morrow DUP

I congratulate the Minister on his positive statement, which will send out a clear message. No-one would understand why he should commit to expenditure of £291 million over the next 10 years on the Irish language. That language is its current position because of the attitude of the folk opposite who have sought at every turn to politicise it.

Will the Minister assure Members that he will not bend to political pressure such as that which comes from the other side of the House? The Members opposite may have got an assurance at St Andrews, but they must go and talk to those who gave them that assurance. They got no assurance from this side of the House, and they had better face up to the fact that their dream is falling apart at their feet.

Will the Minister assure the House that the money saved will be spent effectively and in a way in which the whole community can benefit? I am thinking of soccer, rugby and activities in which both sections of the community already participate.

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

I find pressure readily absorbable. People can apply pressure if they wish.

As regards spending, I cannot spend this money in any other way because I do not have it in the first place. I do not think that the Government has that money because during the comprehensive spending review, and at the Executive Committee meeting last Monday, every Minister was outlining how more money is needed for his or her Department.

Perhaps the Ministers of the parties opposite would identify which part of their Budgets they would like to see cut so that this scheme could be implemented. If they could demonstrate that, Members on this side of the House might be able to take some of their cries more seriously.

Photo of Jennifer McCann Jennifer McCann Sinn Féin

The Minister quoted many figures in his statement. Does he accept and acknowledge that the £10·3 million of Department of Education money that he mentioned is, in fact, ordinary education costs and not additional costs, and that that money would be spent on children’s education anyway, regardless of the language in which those children are taught?

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

I accept that an element of those costs represents ordinary education costs, but certainly not all of it. If I wanted to open a school for 12 children in my area, I would be told to go away. However, if someone wants to open an Irish-language school for 12 children, it seems that that can be achieved. The reason that that situation is most aggravating lies in examples such as the one in my constituency, where four schools that were to amalgamate, with more than 100 pupils among them, were all closed, yet a few weeks or months later, new schools are being opened with as few as 12 pupils on the enrolment list. Obviously, double standards are being applied.

If a child happens to be taught in the controlled sector, that child will be discriminated against. Children in that sector have less funding per child than children who are taught in the Irish-language sector or, indeed, in the integrated sector. It is clear that preferential treatment is being given to those who are taught in Irish-medium schools, over and above those who are taught in other education sectors.

Photo of Alex Easton Alex Easton DUP

I welcome the Minister’s statement. Does he agree that any Irish-language group or Irish-speaking person would not want cuts to front-line services, such as education and health, in order to pay for an Irish language Act? Does he further agree that the fact that only 75,000 people out of a population of 1·7 million can speak the Irish language means that that would have been a waste of taxpayers’ money?

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

I have laid down a challenge. I look forward to other Ministers stepping up to the table to indicate the reductions that they can make in their departmental spending in order to enable me to go ahead and produce the finance for that measure. I do not believe that people want a reduction in health services, infrastructure not being developed and promoted, or the economy taking second or third place. They want the country to progress. The Celtic tiger was not based on the Gaeltacht, but on the economy. Northern Ireland must identify with that by moving the economy forward and, therefore, by releasing more funding to develop education, health and the other areas that most require it.

Photo of Patsy McGlone Patsy McGlone Social Democratic and Labour Party

Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. De réir gach dealraimh is é an rud atá againne inniu ná leithscéal i ndiaidh leithscéil agus fathanna nár chóir rud ar bith a dhéanamh mar mhaithe leis an teanga Gaeilge. The Assembly has been given excuse after excuse as reasons not to advance the Irish language. However, I seek some clarity from the Minister. In his speech, he referred to the European Charter that applies to Irish and Ulster Scots, and to the report of the Council of Europe committee of experts. Can he confirm whether he has now rejected that report?

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

I can confirm that the answer is no.

Photo of Martina Anderson Martina Anderson Sinn Féin

Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. Bearing in mind that the Welsh language has been protected by the Welsh Language Act since 1967, Scottish Gaelic is now protected by legislation, and Irish is protected constitutionally in the rest of Ireland, does the Minister agree with Eamon Ó Cuív’s assessment that the North is the missing piece of the jigsaw? Does the Minister care about the reaction or feelings of the Irish-speaking community? Does he care about the effect of his statement on the wider community?

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP 11:30 am, 16th October 2007

I have taken the wider community into consideration in looking at this situation. It is important that we consider the views of the wider community. As I have said, the Irish-language community has not lost anything today. There are those who have suggested that legislation was the best way forward on the matter. I have outlined the issues that surround that — [Interruption.]

Photo of William Hay William Hay Speaker

Order. The Minister has the Floor.

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

I have outlined the financial issues that surround the proposal. I have also outlined issues relating to community support and the communities that are opposed to any legislation, and the difficulties therein. Looking at the issue for the wider community shows that there are very clear difficulties. If Members cannot see those difficulties, it is they who have a problem, not me.

As I said earlier, the Irish-speaking community appears to be growing in Northern Ireland, where we do not have an Irish language Act, and declining in the Republic of Ireland, where there is legislation. Therefore, there are people in the Irish-language community who will not be particularly dissatisfied if Irish-language legislation is not introduced. An Irish language Act would not necessarily help the language.