Debate resumed on motion:
That this Assembly notes that correspondence sent to the Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure by the NI Human Rights Commission on 17 August 2010 stated that the Minister’s failure to introduce Irish language legislation is not human rights-compliant; and calls on the Minister to bring forward his proposals for a strategy to enhance and protect the development of the Irish language in accordance with obligations agreed in the St Andrews Agreement 2006. — [Mr McElduff.]
I beg to move the amendment: Leave out all after “compliant” and insert
“; acknowledges the legislative requirement of the Northern Ireland (St Andrews Agreement) Act 2006 for an Irish language strategy; further notes the commitment in the agreement at Saint Andrews that ‘The Government will introduce an Irish Language Act’; and calls on the Minister to bring forward proposals for an Irish Language Bill.”
Éirím leis an leasú ar an rún a mholadh. Gabhaim buíochas leis na Comhaltaí ar thaobh mo láimhe deise a thug an rún faoi bhráid an Tionóil. Tá áthas orm gur glacadh leis an leasú uainne. Is rún tábhachtach é seo, agus tá gá le díospóireacht chiallmhar a dhéanamh air agus beart a dhéanamh ó thaobh reachtaíocht teangan a thabhairt isteach anseo sa Tuaisceart a luaithe agus is féidir.
I thank the colleagues to my right who tabled the motion before the Assembly, and I am grateful that they have accepted my amendment.
(Mr Speaker in the Chair)
The report of the committee of experts on the application of the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages was published in Strasbourg in April 2010. It records the restoration of devolution since the previous monitoring round following the St Andrews Agreement in 2006. The committee noted that the Northern Ireland Executive had failed to deliver a report to it on matters that were devolved to Northern Ireland. The reason given for that non-compliance was the failure of the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister (OFMDFM) to agree on the text to be included in the report. A promise was given that the missing supplementary report would be provided at a later stage, but apparently, to date, that supplement has not been received.
The committee of experts also notes the failure of the Assembly to legislate since the restoration of devolution. The committee makes the point that it is its belief that legislation is needed in Northern Ireland similar to that for Welsh in Wales and Scottish Gaelic in Scotland. The experts also expressed their agreement with the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission that a legislative basis is even more important in the environment of political conflict as a means of achieving reconciliation. That view is also supported by the United Nations Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, and the Advisory Committee on the Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities. If legislation is not forthcoming from the Northern Ireland Assembly, the committee of experts proposes that the UK Parliament could bring it forward under its parallel legislative competence. It would be a sign of the maturity of this House if it could legislate for the Irish language, but it seems to me that, at the moment, that maturity is some way off, and that is to be regretted.
The committee of experts observed that the progress of the measures to support the Irish language and Ulster Scots are being held up because of inappropriate claims for parity of treatment for both languages. The European charter is based on treating each regional or minority language in accordance with its specific situation. It notes that the situation of the two languages is quite different here in Northern Ireland and that language measures directed towards each language individually are needed. It says that that is the only way that both languages can be protected and promoted according to their specific needs. I agree with that view.
The Northern Ireland (St Andrews Agreement) Act 2006 places a statutory duty on the Northern Ireland Executive to adopt a strategy to enhance and protect the Irish language. As noted in the motion and the amendment, that work has not yet been done. The Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure has not yet brought forward a strategy, and the committee of experts says that any strategy that attempts to strive towards parity between Irish and Ulster Scots will not serve the speakers of either language but will hold back the development of both languages. It is abundantly clear from the report of the committee of experts that the obligations and commitments under the St Andrews Agreement and the 2006 Act have not been met. Not only do we not have an Irish language Act, we do not have a strategy. Those matters need to be addressed without further delay. The Minister should abide by the views of the committee of experts, which is an independent panel that reports on the situation as it is.
Language legislation would uphold the rights of Irish speakers and help to make the issue free from contention. Mr McElduff outlined many of the developments that have taken place in the Irish language in Northern Ireland. Many of those developments are products of the enthusiasm of the Irish-speaking community. One such development is Irish-medium education, which has blossomed here in recent years, with some support from the Department of Education of late. Initially, it was largely as a result of the voluntary work of many individuals throughout Northern Ireland. That sector of education is producing Irish-speakers who are growing up from an early age using the language every day. When they mature into adults, they will want the same rights as their English-speaking counterparts. In my view, the only way to deliver those rights is to introduce comprehensive Irish language legislation.
The introduction of Irish language legislation is not, as some may view it, a hostile takeover by the Irish language community; it is merely a demand by Irish speakers for their rights to be recognised. I do not think that that is too much to ask. As I said, it would be an indication of the maturity of the House if we could look on the issue dispassionately and afford those who speak Irish in Northern Ireland and want to live their lives as Irish speakers the rights that are their due.
A Cheann Comhairle, críochnóidh mé leis an smaoineamh sin. Sílim féin go bhfuil gá le reachtaíocht teangan sa chuid seo den tír. Tá sí ann cheana sa Deisceart, sa Bhreatain Bheag agus in Albain; ní fheicim cad ina thaobh nach mbeadh na cearta céanna ag cainteoirí Gaeilge sa chuid seo den tír. Mura n-éiríonn leis an rún seo faoi mar atá sé leasaithe, ní dóigh liom go mbeidh deireadh leis an scéal ansin. Tá rún daingean ag Gaeilgeoirí i dTuaisceart Éireann leanúint ar aghaidh lena bhfeachtas go dtí go mbainfear amach na cearta a ba chóir a bheith acu.
Even though the motion and the amendment may not be successful, that will not be the end of the story. I know that Irish speakers throughout Northern Ireland and throughout the whole island are firm and resolute in their belief that one day they will achieve what they want, which is legislation that affords them the rights that are their due.
Go raibh míle maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. Molaim an rún don Tionól, faoi mar atá sé leasaithe.
I oppose the motion and the amendment. I fully support the Minister in his decision not to introduce Irish language legislation. To do so would be a grave error. It could both damage community relations and impose significant economic costs at a time of severe financial difficulties. It has been estimated that legislation in that area could cost around £290 million. I believe that the public would rather that that money was employed to address much more serious issues, such as unemployment, funding of schools and hospitals and financial support for the regeneration of businesses.
There is no mention of introducing Irish language legislation in the Northern Ireland (St Andrews Agreement) Act 2006. One must, therefore, ask where the term “Minister’s failure”, which is in the motion, has come from. However, section 15 introduces a commitment, through insertion of section 28D into the Northern Ireland Act 1998, which requires the Executive to adopt a strategy to protect and develop the Irish language and, indeed, Ulster-Scots language, heritage and culture. The Minister has already proposed the introduction of a strategy for regional minority languages. That approach has my full support. I know that he is fully engaged in bringing that strategy forward. Again, I must say that none of the Act’s provisions stipulates that the Executive should bring forward an Irish language Act. I can see no compelling reason for doing so.
There can be no doubt that it is a devolved matter. Some Members have suggested that there may be an obligation on the British Government to bring forward such legislation. If Sinn Féin members take that view and seriously believe that an Irish language Act would be beneficial, perhaps they should take up their seats at Westminster and argue their case there.
The case for the legislation appears to rest on an assumption that, at present, Irish speakers suffer some form of discrimination. In fact, the reverse is true. The Northern Ireland census returns in 2001 revealed that 10·4% of the population claim to speak Irish. The proportion of fluent speakers is, undoubtedly, considerably less. Despite that, the local media provide a substantial number of Irish language programmes. In addition, similar programming that originates from the Irish Republic is readily accessible. We are all aware that state funding is provided for the establishment of Irish language schools for people who wish their children to be educated in that language. Therefore, I ask where evidence of that discrimination is to be found. In fact, what supporters of the legislation really seek is a privileged position for the Irish language that is impossible to justify.
Moreover, I am firmly convinced that an Irish language Act would have damaging social consequences. Although we live in a divided society that comprises two contested national identities, the Irish language has never been the sole preserve of one of those identities. It should be remembered that Presbyterians helped to keep the language alive in earlier centuries. Enactment of that legislation would politicise the language and further add to the perception in the unionist community that the Irish language is a political symbol. That should not be allowed to happen. Politics should not be allowed to subvert cultural diversity.
Turning to the human rights question, I find it amusing and, indeed, ironic that the Human Rights Commission chooses to cite the prevention of freedom of worship in Russia to support the case for the introduction of an Irish language Act to protect minority language interests here. In recent years, freedom of expression has been severely curtailed in that country. In particular, demonstrations of support for separatist minorities, such as the Chechens, have been suppressed. Article 14 of the European Convention on Human Rights states that enjoyment of rights and freedoms set forth in the convention shall be secured without discrimination on any grounds, including language.
I oppose the motion and the amendment. Certain subjects are extremely sensitive in our divided society, and, unfortunately, the Irish language is one of them. That is why it is important that we address Irish language issues in the least divisive way and why inclusivity rather than exclusivity should be our watchword. Given the sensitivities involved, today’s motion betrays a legalistic mindset among its supporters. That is totally inappropriate and will serve only to divide the Assembly in an unhelpful and, ultimately, unproductive way.
The Minister has outlined his intention to introduce a strategy for regional and minority languages, which include Irish and Ulster Scots. The Minister needs to step up to the plate on that matter and go ahead and bring forward that more inclusive and less politically divisive strategy as soon as possible. In his efforts, he needs to be aided by some of his ministerial colleagues who, up to now, apparently, have not responded to his request for information to let the process proceed.
“All participants recognise the importance of respect, understanding and tolerance in relation to linguistic diversity, including in Northern Ireland, the Irish language, Ulster-Scots and the languages of the various ethnic communities”.
Those are all part of our cultural wealth. In the case of the supporters of the motion, I wonder how much time and effort has gone into protecting, enhancing and valuing the ethnic languages, which are live languages that are used every day.
The agreement went on to list eight further specific UK Government commitments in relation to the Irish language. They included commitments, where appropriate and desired, to take resolute action to promote the Irish language; to facilitate and encourage the use of Irish in speech and writing in public and private life where there is appropriate demand; and to seek to remove, where possible, any restrictions that would discourage or work against the maintenance or development of Irish.
“The Government will introduce an Irish Language Act reflecting on the experience of Wales and Ireland and work with the incoming Executive to enhance and protect the development of the Irish language.”
“The Government firmly believes in the need to enhance and develop the Ulster Scots language, heritage and culture and will support the incoming Executive in taking this forward.”
The Northern Ireland (St Andrews Agreement) Act 2006 listed three strategies to develop the Irish language. Section 15 lists them as:
“(1) The Executive Committee shall adopt a strategy setting out how it proposes to enhance and protect the development of the Irish language.
(2) The Executive Committee shall adopt a strategy setting out how it proposes to enhance and develop Ulster Scots language, heritage and culture.
(3) The Executive Committee — must keep under review each of the strategies and may from time to time adopt a new strategy or revise the strategy.”
Mr Speaker, note the use of the phrase “shall adopt a strategy”. It does not say that the Executive will introduce an Act. A strategy and an Act might or might not be the same thing. Not every strategy involves an Act. It seems to me that there is an agreed need to develop strategies and that we need to keep those under review.
I oppose the motion for all of the reasons that I have outlined. It is poor, divisive, exclusive and, ultimately, unhelpful. Furthermore, as other Members have said, given the serious economic restrictions on the public purse, it is a matter that, I believe, is well down the public’s list of priorities. They wish the Assembly to address other issues.
The Alliance Party supports the thrust of the motion and the amendment but with some major caveats. I am disappointed that the Alliance Party’s amendment was not selected. I was hoping to widen the debate beyond tribal discussions around Irish and Ulster Scots to discuss a language strategy that is inclusive of all ethnic minorities and sign languages.
No. I have already given way to one of your colleagues.
I was certainly hoping to widen the debate beyond such discussions around Irish and Ulster Scots to discuss a language strategy that is inclusive of all ethnic minority languages and sign languages and to address real needs, rather than parity of esteem.
The Alliance Party respects the position of Irish and Ulster Scots in the cultural heritage of this region. I understand that the Irish and Ulster-Scots languages are regarded as regional minority languages, which receive protection under the European Convention on Human Rights. That said, the context in which minority languages exist in Northern Ireland is considerably different from most other situations in Europe, where there may be geographical areas in which the official language of the state is not the first language locally, and there is a real need to ensure equity in access to services.
Furthermore, the position of Irish and Ulster Scots in Northern Ireland is not the same, and there are differences in the level of interest and demand for use. The Alliance Party is happy to facilitate and support the participation and enjoyment of languages through an inclusive language scheme. We are, however, wary of any legislation that imposes an onerous rights-based approach to language issues. That could create costly and disproportionate burdens on public bodies, especially when few people use Irish or Ulster Scots as first languages and virtually everyone can use and understand English.
Much of the European human rights protections regarding languages apply only to minority languages that are indigenous to the area. That is a somewhat narrow view that neglects the much wider diversity and language need in our midst. Since the EU expansion in 2004, we have seen a huge increase in the number of migrants coming to Northern Ireland whose first language is not English. It is estimated that there are up to 80,000 migrants from across the world in Northern Ireland. It is likely that there are more people speaking Polish or Chinese than speaking Irish on a daily basis in our towns and cities.
Ethnic minority communities — both long-established and more recent arrivals — would like to see a wide-ranging minority language strategy to address two issues. First, they require more information on services to be available in their language to make it easier for them to understand governmental structures and access essential services in order to better integrate into society. Since 2004, for example, Northern Ireland Health and Social Care’s interpreting service has received over 150,000 requests for its services in more than 40 different languages. Services such as those are vital for the day-to-day lives of residents of Northern Ireland. It is a matter of need, rather than ideology. A minority language strategy could mainstream translation and interpreting into all government Departments and statutory bodies that have contact with ethnic minorities to ensure that services are easily available to everyone.
Secondly, they would like some recognition of mother-tongue teaching for the children, as those communities are entitled to keep their language alive by passing it from generation to generation. That is no different to learning Irish or Ulster Scots. Currently, community organisations such as the Polish Association, the Chinese Welfare Association and the Belfast Islamic Centre provide mother-tongue teaching to children without any public funding at all, compared to the £6 million given by DEL in 2009 to the Ulster Scots and Irish language bodies.
There is one other aspect that I want to emphasise that falls into a discussion of language: the need of those who rely on the various sign languages.
As I begin my maiden contribution to the House, I am mindful of the gentleman I replaced. I pay tribute to Nigel Dodds, my predecessor, for the contribution he made to the Assembly, not just as a Member but as Minister for Social Development, Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment and Minister of Finance and Personnel. He is a politician of hard work, commitment, honesty and decency, and I am honoured to succeed Nigel, a man for whom popularity was never above principle. I wish him well as he continues to lead our party in Her Majesty’s Parliament at Westminster.
I oppose the motion and the amendment. As we move forward, we continue to build a normal society and a tolerant community in Northern Ireland. Culture, history and tradition have long divided our community — and we do have one community in Northern Ireland. To facilitate the development and maturation of our society, we must all learn to appreciate, accept and tolerate our respective cultures, history, tradition and politics. If we, the parties elected to the House, are serious about a shared future, we must embrace those concepts.
There are those who seek to use an Irish language Act to be divisive. The question must be asked: why? Is an Irish language Act intended to genuinely improve community relations? Is it intended to improve recognition and understanding of the Irish language, or, as I suspect of some, is it to be used as a tool and a means of division or as a political football? I genuinely believe that an Irish language Act will further polarise our divided community at this time. Some have used the Irish language as a tool. Sadly, they are not about promoting the Irish language but, instead and unfortunately, they seek to use the language for political reasons, often to the huge annoyance of those who truly love and cherish it. On occasion, many of those who speak loudest about an Irish language Act and their Irish culture are those who have peddled intolerance towards my culture and my tradition. What they need to appreciate is that Northern Ireland can move forward only with toleration and accommodation, not domination.
Yesterday, I listened to the new SDLP leader and Member for South Down, Ms Ritchie, speak at her party conference. She said that she and her colleagues needed to persuade unionists of the validity of a united Ireland. As a confident and convinced unionist, I will remain unconvinced of that and not least of the economic argument for it. However, I commend Ms Ritchie for her responsible attitude. I also listened to the deputy leader of that party talk of building trust and reconciliation. He, too, adopted a very responsible attitude. The same principle must apply to an Irish language Act. I do not believe that community consensus exists in Northern Ireland at present for such an Act. Members must realise that such an Act at this time would have the potential to polarise our community, increase division, heighten distrust and damage community relations.
We must build a society at peace with itself, encourage tolerance, embrace diversity, avoid cultural apartheid, unite our community and all act responsibly. The Assembly has an enormous responsibility to move society forward and give leadership to our community, because it is a community in transition. We must build a united Northern Ireland, and nothing that the Assembly does should harm that process or fail us in reaching that goal.
Our community deserves better. We must all act responsibly and focus on removing division and embracing diversity, because diversity, not least in the city of Belfast, threatens no one. I fear that some seek to use an Irish language Act or legislation to perpetuate division, and I regret that.
Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. Beidh mé ag labhairt i dtacaíocht an rúin. Tá mé an-sásta go bhfuil muid ag díospóireacht an ábhair thábhachtaigh seo tráthnóna inniu.
I support the motion and welcome the amendment, and I hope that both reassure the Irish language community that our work will continue in the promotion of its rights, in line with agreements made at St Andrews.
Anna Lo stated that the issue is tribal: indeed it is not. The promotion of the rights of any person is not a denial of another person’s rights, nor should it be reduced to that type of tribal issue. Ken Robinson said that now is the time for the Minister to “step up to the plate” in line with the strategy. That is very much part of our motion and the amendment. It surprises me that his party is not supporting either. Ken Robinson has been a member of the Committee for Culture, Arts and Leisure for longer than I have been, and he knows that the issue has a long history of prevarication. An attempt has been made to pretend that something is being done when, in essence, nothing is being done. That is borne out by examination. The motion is not a legalistic attempt but is our pointing out that the Department has failed and continues to fail.
Departmental officials appeared before the Committee on numerous occasions. Several times, they told us that the proposed strategy was nearly ready to go to the Executive. We heard those words for the first time when Gregory Campbell was the Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure. Officials returned to the Committee when Edwin Poots was the Minister and said that the proposals had to be tweaked but that they were nearly, nearly ready to bring the strategy to the Executive. Edwin Poots moved on, and officials appeared for a third time, making the —
I apologise for that. However, my point is that the Member’s officials and Edwin Poots’s officials told the Committee that the strategy was nearly, and then nearly, nearly, ready to go before the Executive. I note that the Member did not contradict my point.
Then we had the incumbent Minister. I do not want to convict people by their demeanour, but it was obvious on the day that his officials came before the Committee that they would tell us, for a third time, that they were nearly, nearly, nearly ready to present the strategy. That is why I told the Minister that I was not prepared to ask him a question because, as Barry McElduff said, it was like a scene from ‘The Wizard of Oz’, when the curtains were pulled back, and there was nothing behind them. That is where the Minister finds himself today.
In the interim, the Minister tried to introduce smokescreens in an attempt to pretend that the strategy had been delayed suddenly. The Minister is using the excuse that the Education Department or the BBC is to blame. Edwin Poots did not use that excuse and nor did Gregory Campbell. However, the Committee has not been provided with any evidence of that from the Minister. Indeed, the evidence is to the contrary.
That is what we are trying to state through the motion: we are here to promote the rights of the Irish language community and to highlight the fact that this Minister has not shown proper intent. In my opinion, he has almost done the opposite. Each time he appeared before the Committee, he gave excuse after excuse as to why he is not pursuing a strategy to the point that we have come to a standstill. Today’s motion was moved to highlight that standstill.
There have been two consultations. The first consultation showed overwhelming support for an Irish language Act and a strategy. That result was rejected, excuses were given, and a second consultation took place, perhaps because the first did not provide the expected answer. The second consultation resulted in the same answer. In fairness, this Minister has not sought a third consultation — yet.
That is why we make the pledge today in the Assembly that our work to deliver an Irish language Act and ensuring that there will be an Irish language strategy will continue. We say that despite the fact that the Minister has had a dead hand in ensuring that that has not happened. Our work will continue.
The issue of an Irish language strategy has appeared from time to time in the Assembly, in the Committee for Culture, Arts and Leisure and elsewhere. Mr McCartney talked about the rights of the Irish language community. We need to look at the rights of that community, and the non-Irish speaking community, which just —
Thank you for that, Mr Speaker. I am up for that. It is about the first time that I have had anything out of Sinn Féin, but that is good. We are talking about the rights of the Irish language community and those of the non-Irish speaking community, which just happens to comprise 99·8% of the population. Since devolution, a number of us have examined whether anything that happens in the Assembly or Departments infringes on those rights. Frankly, I do not see anything that infringes, inhibits, restricts or prevents the Irish language from being spoken, pursued or followed as a concept, idea or language.
Flowing from that is a financial consequence. If people demand certain rights and express those rights in demands for funding, that has an implication. Just as there are Irish language enthusiasts in Northern Ireland, there are Ulster-Scots enthusiasts. During direct rule — thankfully less so under devolution — the money that was allocated to the enthusiasts of the Irish language far outweighed the money that was allocated to Ulster Scots. Not only is the Irish language not restricted —
Yes. When I became Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure, I stated that that would need to change. Thankfully, that is in the process of changing. Some Irish language enthusiasts may feel that they will lose out if there has to be some form of parity, but that is not necessarily true. One thing is for sure, however: Irish language enthusiasts will not get the barrel load of money that they used to get while Ulster Scots was deprived. That will not happen.
If there are no restrictions, inhibitions or deprivation for those who pursue the Irish language, what is the motion about? This is when I come to the nub of my comments. When I became Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure, I received a request from the honourable Member for West Belfast Mr Gerry Adams, who says he was never in the IRA. He asked to see me to discuss the Irish language Act. That meeting was held in this Building. He opened the meeting by saying that he wanted to discuss the Irish language Act. My response was very direct: I said that it would be a very short meeting.
From there, it went downhill. However, the relevance of my point is not the content of the meeting but what happened after it, when Mr Adams and others went to the Great Hall to give their version of what happened. I can stand over what I said and what was said in response in the meeting. It was very direct and very robust, and Mr Adams left under no illusion about the outcome. However, despite the very clear, precise and unambiguous wording of what he was told — that there would be no Irish language Act — he went to the Great Hall and said that he thought that the Minister realised there was going to be such an Act. That is what he said.
Therefore, that is the nature of some, although not all, of those who advocate the Irish language, and it demonstrates what they are after. We need to move on the basis of a languages strategy that gives recognition to people, whether they be Ulster Scots — if there is an ethnic origin and a language there — Irish, or people who wish to pursue any other language.
I will bring my remarks to a conclusion, Mr Speaker. Thank you.
We need to do that in a way that reconciles people and does not give offence, which, unfortunately, some advocates of the Irish language have done in the past.
I will say a few brief words on the subject. This is a very important debate. I do not wish to repeat every point that party colleagues and other Members made. I am not an expert on human rights, so I will state simply and straightforwardly how I see things.
The Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure has acted in bad faith towards the Irish language for a long time. I am certain that I am not the only person who thinks that. On the one hand, the Minister says that he is committed to the development of a single strategy for regional languages, in this case Irish and Ulster Scots. That is a fine statement. On the other hand, he delays and stalls on legislating. More than once, his party has belittled the Irish language and questioned its cultural value. It is no wonder that supporters of the Irish language, people in the nationalist community and now the Human Rights Commission do not trust him to handle the situation correctly.
As we all know, the St Andrews Agreement gave a firm commitment to enhance and protect the development of the Irish language, as well as a commitment to promote Ulster Scots. The DUP’s behaviour towards the Irish language since the signing of the St Andrews Agreement flies totally in the face of the agreement and is contrary to its spirit. Therefore, it is of no surprise to me that the Human Rights Commission is taking the Minister to task on the matter.
I do not want to be negative, because there is no doubt that, when we look at the bigger picture since St Andrews, we have made a lot of progress on some key issues, such as policing and justice, which was a much more difficult subject to resolve than minority languages. However, the language issue remains a huge sticking point. All parties in the House are publicly committed, in good faith, to the spirit of genuine partnership. If we are to have a shared future in which the culture, rights and aspirations of all are respected and valued, we must have an Irish language Act. Whether he likes it or not, the Minister has a duty to the Irish language, and he should introduce a Bill as quickly as possible, not only to meet his obligations to recognise, respect, protect and fulfil human rights but because it is the right thing to do. I support the motion and the amendment.
Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. Tá mé ag labhairt i bhfabhar an rúin agus an leasaithe.
I speak in favour of the motion, and I accept the amendment. I listened to Members from the Benches opposite. For over three years, successive Ministers have refused to bring forward an Irish language strategy or an Irish language Act, putting forward very feeble excuses on both matters. I have spoken to many members of the DUP on the issue, and I have had one-to-one conversations with others, but none of them brought forward a rational reason for their opposition to the Irish language, which is a living language that is the legacy of all the people of this island. In fact, their position is totally contrary to the very proud protestant, particularly Presbyterian, patronage of the language.
I am a united Irelander, and they are United Kingdomers. Interestingly, there is a Welsh language Act in Wales and a Scots language Act in Scotland. This is the only part of the so-called United Kingdom in which native language speakers do not have the same rights as others. No matter how much I scratch at this, I have to conclude that their position is based on ignorance and good, old-fashioned bigotry. I say that with regret and some sense of disappointment. [Interruption.]
— that I said that he knows that there will be an Irish language Act, because he does. The strength of the Irish language, its connections and the vibrancy of its resurgence for some time are evidence and proof of that. On this side of the Chamber, we are optimists, so we are looking for somebody to take a — [Interruption.]
— leap of imagination; a leap forward into space so that they look on language as non-threatening. The fact that they cannot even listen to me speaking in English is proof of the silliness that goes on. [Interruption.]
Those of us who support the Irish language and who come from Irish language communities need to keep doing what we are doing, and so long as those on the Benches opposite have a say in that Department, of course they will, in a futile way, continue to string things out.
I remember when the first Sinn Féin councillors went to Belfast City Council. They were not allowed to take their seats, park their cars or speak. Indeed, the entire council was stood down by those on the Benches opposite to prevent Sinn Féin councillors being on committees. Look at the situation now. Therefore, it is only a matter of time before we have an Irish language strategy and an Irish language Act, and if the chaps opposite would wake up to that reality, we would all be in a better place. Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle.
I welcome the opportunity to clarify my position on minority languages in Northern Ireland, and, for that reason, I welcome the opportunity afforded to me by this afternoon’s debate. There is no requirement in the Northern Ireland (St Andrews Agreement) Act 2006 to bring forward an Irish language Act. I repeat: there is no requirement in that Act. However, that does not seem to register with some people, who have difficulty in reading the Act and, therefore, cannot quite grasp the fact that I am putting forward.
Section 15(1) states:
“The Executive Committee shall adopt a strategy setting out how it proposes to enhance and protect the development of the Irish language.”
Secondly, section 15(2) states:
I am not in favour of and there is no legislative requirement for an Irish language Act. I believe that there is insufficient community consensus for such an Act. There are significant potential costs and there is a real possibility that legislation could undermine good relations and, in so doing, prove counterproductive to those who wish to see the language developed in a non-politicised and inclusive manner in accordance with the vision of a shared and better future.
As Members are aware, I have recently been engaged in correspondence with the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission on the issue of legislation for the Irish language. In the commission’s most recent letter, dated 17 August 2010, it is suggested that the position that I have adopted in relation to community consensus is “not human rights compliant”. I have sought legal advice on that issue and have been advised that the judgement underlying the opinion put forward by the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission has no direct relevance to the introduction of an Irish language Act in Northern Ireland.
As I understand it, the Barankevich case quoted by the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission is about freedom of religious assembly and so is not directly relevant to language rights. Furthermore, it must be remembered that article 14 of the European Convention on Human Rights does not give a right to a language Act or even to the use of a language. It merely says:
“The enjoyment of the rights and freedoms…in this Convention shall be secured without discrimination” on the grounds of language.
I want to make it clear that not a single individual has been denied the right to speak their language of choice in Northern Ireland. I would also like to add that legislation for the Irish language is by no means a panacea, as the example of the Official Languages Act 2003 in Éire clearly demonstrates. Legislation does not necessarily lead to a language revival. A language revival is brought about by many individuals making the decision to use the language on a daily basis, not by legislation. In fact, the decline in the Gaeltacht areas in Éire makes it pretty obvious that legislation is not the way forward.
I disagree with the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission’s interpretation in this case. The commission is certainly not infallible. It can get things wrong, and this is an example of an occasion when it has got things wrong. Furthermore, I believe that the lack of consensus on the issue of legislation for the Irish language would be detrimental to the protection and promotion of the language in the context of a shared future. I believe that the best way forward for both minority languages in Northern Ireland is through a strategy for regional or minority languages.
I intend to bring to the Executive a strategy to enhance and develop the Ulster-Scots language, heritage and culture and also to enhance and protect the development of the Irish language. That regional or minority languages strategy will meet the commitments contained in section 28D of the Northern Ireland Act 1998. The strategy will recognise Ulster Scots and Irish as valuable parts of our shared cultural heritage. It will seek to promote wider understanding of the background to the languages through increasing understanding and awareness between sections of the community who feel a sense of belonging to the Ulster-Scots heritage and culture and those who identify with Irish heritage and culture.
I am keen that the language strategy will be grounded in the Northern Ireland Executive’s Programme for Government 2008-2011, which gives effect to the cross-cutting theme of:
“A shared and better future for all: equality, fairness, inclusion and the promotion of good relations”
It will include proposals and projects that are designed to promote that aspiration in the context of culture and language. The draft strategy is underpinned by the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages. That charter is an international convention that is designed to protect and promote regional and minority languages and contains detailed undertakings to support those languages. In addition to the charter, the strategy will take account of the Council of Europe’s framework for the protection of national minorities and the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. The strategy will set out a series of shared strategic objectives for Ulster Scots and Irish and a set of detailed actions for each.
That structure simultaneously demonstrates that Ulster Scots and Irish are linked as a facet of our shared cultural heritage while also recognising that those languages and cultures must be protected and promoted according to their specific needs. However, although Ulster Scots and Irish may have their specific needs, the key issues for the protection of minority languages are the same for all such languages, not just in Northern Ireland but across Europe.
People who are familiar with the development of minority languages across Europe will know that education and broadcasting are at the centre of any language development programme. One of the difficulties in Northern Ireland for many years has been that the BBC, as our public service broadcaster, has had a substantial, well-resourced and well-funded Irish language unit in-house. Unfortunately, over the years, its treatment of Ulster Scots has been derisory. That is starting to change. We had a reasonably constructive meeting with the BBC the other day, and the BBC Trust has made a number of commitments. I hope that all those are honoured, and I look forward to them being honoured.
As well as broadcasting, the other key area is education. I made reference to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, which makes it absolutely clear that, in the education system, each child has the right to access to education about and the opportunity to enjoy and explore the culture of the community and the home from which that child comes. That is afforded through Irish-medium schools for the Irish language community. It is also afforded through the Roman Catholic maintained sector. In light of a very constructive speech by Mr Peter Robinson, the First Minister, I noticed several interesting newspaper articles in recent days about the significance of the Roman Catholic maintained sector as a sector with not only a religious ethos but an Irish cultural ethos. In other words, there is provision for those from an Irish background, culturally and linguistically, in the Roman Catholic maintained sector and in the Irish-medium sector.
However, children from other cultural backgrounds may not always have access to an education that bears the same focus on the culture of the home and community from which they come. Too often in the past, the culture has had to be left outside the school door and outside the playground. Again, I am glad that that is starting to change. There has been some excellent work in a number of schools. In fact, I will visit a school later this week where music from an Ulster-Scots tradition is being introduced in the school. That has already happened in Belfast Boys’ Model School in my constituency, and it is happening in some schools in Newtownards and Rathfriland. However, that is very much being driven by the local school and the local community. I want a strategy to take forward both languages and cultures, and I want commitment from the Department of Education. People ask me what is holding it up. The fact is that I cannot get that commitment. Therefore, if members of Sinn Féin want to know what is holding that up, it is the party’s own Education Minister. [Interruption.]
Then I will not give way, sorry.
In considering the overall strategy, the Executive will also need to consider resource issues and whether additional funding can be made available. However, if additional resource is not forthcoming, Departments may have to consider the reallocation of current funding to resource work on minority languages in line with the priority that they give to the language agenda among and against other pressures.
Since taking up the post of Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure, I have reviewed the existing draft strategy paper and undertaken some investigation and research into language issues. That included a visit to our nearest UK neighbour, Scotland, to discuss the position there on the Scots language and Gàidhlig, which are the sister languages to Ulster Scots and Irish. I also had further discussions with the Welsh and Scottish Ministers about language issues, and those meetings were positive and constructive. I believe that the Ulster Scots and Irish languages are valuable parts of our shared cultural heritage and that Northern Ireland can learn important lessons from the Scottish experience, such as how to depoliticise language issues and develop the community’s perception of the languages.
I noticed that two Members from the other side of the Chamber commented on depoliticising language. Therefore, the other day, I was interested to notice on the Ógra Shinn Féin — if that is how it is pronounced — blogspot a report on the Tí Chulainn cultural centre. As I understand it, that is an Irish language centre in south Armagh, and perhaps Members opposite can confirm that. Sinn Féin says that it wants to depoliticise the language, so what does it do? There is a report on the blogspot on the unveiling of a memorial for members of the Provisional IRA at the Tí Chulainn centre. My advice to Members on the other side of the Chamber is that if they want to depoliticise the language, do not go down that road.
If I were looking for advice on speaking and pronouncing the Irish language, the Member for West Belfast would be about the last person to whom I would go. He is probably just slightly behind Sammy Wilson in that regard.
To know about the funding programme for the Tí Chulainn cultural activities centre, I have only to look at a number of sources’ funding for Irish language programmes. I have information on the centre’s funding, so I can confirm that it runs Irish language programmes.
We need to address politicisation of language as a matter of significance. Depoliticisation of language has to be a priority. Let us get away from the days when language and culture were used as cultural weapons. We have seen too much of the past. It is not the way forward, and it is not the way to go.
I was confused by the fact that Anna Lo said that she wanted to support the motion yet questioned the need for a rights-based approach. The motion is to do with a rights-based approach, so the Member cannot be for it and, at the same time, against it.
I noticed Raymond McCartney’s reference to failures. The failures lie with the Minister of Education for not delivering and the BBC for not delivering. We are now getting somewhere with the BBC. Let us see whether, over the next few weeks, we can at last see some progress from the Minister of Education.
I have less than a minute left, so I will turn to the historical point, by which I am always fascinated. We are always told about the great affection that Presbyterians had for the Irish language and how they were its great saviours. The fact is that a handful of Presbyterians were involved in the Gaelic revival, and a number of them quickly dropped out when they saw that it was being used and abused by Irish republicans. The few that remained were people from that religious background who happened to be republicans, so people were welcomed whatever their religion so long as they were republican.
The other point was made that there seems to have been some great commitment to the Irish language prior to that. The main use of the Irish language was by Presbyterians who were interested in carrying out programmes of evangelism in presenting the gospel to members of the Roman Catholic faith.
I speak not as the Deputy Chairperson of the Committee for Culture, Arts and Leisure but as an SDLP Member in support of the amendment. I am pleased that the amendment has been accepted by the proposer of the motion, and I thus support the motion as amended. It has not been a good debate for usefully moving the situation onwards. The proposers of the motion and the amendment have made reasoned and valued points, but I have not been impressed by others’ responses, including the Minister’s.
The most recent phase of discussion on this matter arose from correspondence, as has been said, between the Minister and the Human Rights Commission. That was on foot of the third report from the Council of Europe on the UK’s compliance with the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages, which included recommendations from its committee of experts; a source and body that needs to be taken very seriously indeed. The Minister told the commission that he would not introduce an Irish language Act because there was insufficient community consensus. It is important that that point was challenged by the commission, which informed the Minister that that was not a human rights compliant reason for not taking forward the recommendation to legislate, as set out by the committee of experts.
There is a very important principle involved here. The commission quoted a particular case, Barankevich v Russia, which was taken to the European Court of Human Rights, and in later correspondence, the commission corrected the Minister, because it did not suggest that the case was directly relevant to language issues. Rather, the commission highlighted that case because it sets out the broad principle that the human rights of a minority are not subject to the agreement of the majority. Human rights are critically important, and the point of them is to protect minorities. That is what the Minister is rejecting.
That brings us on to the broader demand, in human rights, that an Irish language Act be put in place, as sought in the European Charter, and that the commitment given in the St Andrews Agreement to a strategy for Irish, which is very much in the hands of the Assembly and this Minister, be brought forward. Many Members from Sinn Féin and the SDLP have made the case for bringing that strategy forward. Dominic Bradley, in moving the amendment, made it extremely clear why the Minister needs to supply his part of what is sought in the European Charter. He said that that would be a sign of maturity from the Assembly, and we should take that point very seriously. This is an opportunity for the Assembly to show that it respects all sections of the community here.
More than one Member said that Irish language speakers are not losing anything by not having an Act. I wish to put two points to those Members. First, the Irish language is the ancient language of this island. Those who speak and write in Irish are the successors of people who have spoken Irish and have written and produced a rich literature in the language for centuries. The right and opportunity to use that language is vital. That puts a particular responsibility on the state to provide the circumstances for that. Secondly, as Dominic Bradley argued, Irish language education is blossoming. Many parents and children have a deep interest in the Irish language. Those children are growing up, and they expect to live in an environment in which their primary language is respected and given every opportunity in the public sphere.
Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. Any Member who makes a winding-up speech normally expects to have some substance on which to wind. However, I am afraid that the calibre of debate this afternoon means that this is going to be more like trying to put mercury on a fork. It is extremely disappointing that after the proposers of the motion and the amendment set the scene for the debate, various Members accused us of using language and culture as weapons. However, it was those very Members who then doled out the weapons point after point after point.
The standard of debate this afternoon by those fighting against the strategy and the Act was, frankly, appalling. The Assembly is — [Interruption.]
We will try to get through this without the children playing up.
The proposer set the scene and spoke about the different Ministers and all the inaction. It really was a list of obfuscations, delays and stalling tactics. Mr Bradley talked about the sign of maturity. My goodness, the sign of maturity went through and down the pipes this afternoon. We had the recalling of the position of the various efforts that have been made to try to get the Act in place.
We then had the start of the cultural and language weapons. Mr O’Loan spoke about not being impressed. How could anybody be impressed? Community relations would be damaged: no argument. There would be a privileged position: no argument. There would be a series of political symbols and subversion: no argument. All the usual epithets — [Interruption.]
May we continue and forget about the serial ignorance?
We then, very unfortunately, had the Alliance Party referring to the language of tribes. I know many people who are devoted to the Irish language, and they are not tribal. They are good people who want to uphold a culture and a language —
No, I have heard enough hot air. I am just going to say it as it is. I make the point about tribes because Anna Lo’s party made that point.
We then had talk about the need for tolerance for all. Yet, one of the hubs of the human rights argument is that it is about tolerance, and it is about pluralism. We had the negatives of the Irish language and a diminution — [Interruption.]
We then had the usual stuff about the minimisation of the Presbyterians, so we had yet another Member — I think that it was Lord Browne — referring to the good value of the Presbyterians saving everything.
The litany of cultural and language weapons was fired out as the debate — the excuse for a debate — continued. We had Members talking about community consensus. I think that Mr Humphrey and the Minister argued for community consensus. Again, the whole idea of the human rights argument is that it is not about majoritarianism giving permission to people on their rights. The biggest use of trying to destroy an argument is to go for the premise of the case that was quoted. That is not the way to look at it. It was about an argument against majoritarianism working against tolerance and pluralism; tolerance that some of the Members in the DUP were looking.
I cannot even give this summing up 10 minutes. We then had — [Interruption.] We still have some ignorance from a sedentary position.
Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. We then had the race to the bottom when Mr Campbell started his speech. He wants infringements before we have actions. Why not just give people rights? He complained about the giving of barrel loads of money. Now we are getting ready. That is grand. The main hub of Mr Campbell’s speech, no less, was a little anecdote about a meeting with a Sinn Féin Member. Wow: that was the main hub. Despite all the human rights arguments, all the actions and inactions of Ministers, and the inky winky and nod of doing nothing, down through three Ministers, the hub of Mr Campbell’s great argument is a little anecdote. If the Minister is looking to talk about the Gaeltacht, I advise him to get some information and learning on the socio-economic positions of the Gaeltacht areas instead of using it as yet another weapon to have a dig at the Irish language. He was way out of touch.
So, there we have all the weapons lined up by the very people who talk about language and culture being used as weapons.
What we had here today was a litany of mediocrity that failed to address the motion. In summing up — [Interruption.]
Mr Speaker, are you going to deal again with that ignorance?
That is fine. It is the rough and tumble of debate, if there was any debate.
It would be a shame to give this debate the credit of a 10-minute winding-up speech, given that there were not 10 minutes of value in it, because of the points that were not made and the points that were made across the Chamber. The debate was full of mediocrity; however, it will go on. The drive to get an Irish language Act and strategy in place will go on regardless of the hot air and mediocrity of this afternoon.
Question put, That the amendment be made.
Mr Adams, Mr Attwood, Mr Boylan, Mr D Bradley, Mrs M Bradley, Mr PJ Bradley, Mr Brady, Mr Burns, Mr Butler, Mr W Clarke, Mr Dallat, Mr Doherty, Mr Durkan, Mr Gallagher, Ms Gildernew, Mrs D Kelly, Mr G Kelly, Mr Leonard, Mr A Maginness, Mr A Maskey, Mr P Maskey, Mr F McCann, Ms J McCann, Mr McCartney, Mr McDevitt, Mr McElduff, Mrs McGill, Mr McHugh, Mr McKay, Mr McLaughlin, Ms Ní Chuilín, Mr O’Dowd, Mr O’Loan, Mr P Ramsey, Ms S Ramsey, Ms Ritchie, Ms Ruane.
Tellers for the Ayes: Mr Burns and Mr O’Loan.
Mr S Anderson , Mr Beggs, Mr Bell, Mr Bresland, Lord Browne, Mr Buchanan, Mr Campbell, Mr T Clarke, Rev Dr Robert Coulter, Mr Craig, Mr Cree, Mr Easton, Mr Elliott, Dr Farry, Mr Ford, Mrs Foster, Mr Frew, Mr Gardiner, Mr Gibson, Mr Girvan, Mr Givan , Mr Hamilton, Mr Humphrey, Mr Kennedy, Mr Kinahan, Ms Lo, Mr McCallister, Mr McCarthy, Mr McCausland, Mr I McCrea, Miss McIlveen, Mr McQuillan, Lord Morrow, Mr Moutray, Mr Neeson, Mr Newton, Mr Poots, Mr G Robinson, Mr K Robinson, Mr P Robinson, Mr Ross, Mr Savage, Mr Spratt, Mr Storey, Mr Weir, Mr Wells, Mr B Wilson, Mr S Wilson.
Tellers for the Noes: Mr Bresland and Mr G Robinson.
Question accordingly negatived.
Main Question put.
The Assembly divided: Ayes 43; Noes 42.
Mr Adams, Mr Attwood, Mr Boylan, Mr D Bradley, Mrs M Bradley, Mr PJ Bradley, Mr Brady, Mr Burns, Mr Butler, Mr W Clarke, Mr Dallat, Mr Doherty, Mr Durkan, Mr Gallagher, Ms Gildernew, MrsD Kelly, Mr G Kelly, Mr Leonard, Mr A Maginness, Mr A Maskey, Mr P Maskey, Mr F McCann, Ms J McCann, Mr McCartney, Mr McDevitt, Mr McElduff, Mrs McGill, Mr McHugh, Mr McKay, Mr McLaughlin, Ms Ní Chuilín, Mr O’Dowd, Mr O’Loan, Mr P Ramsey, Ms S Ramsey, Ms Ritchie, Ms Ruane.
Dr Farry, Mr Ford, Ms Lo, Mr McCarthy, Mr Neeson, Mr B Wilson.
Tellers for the Ayes: Mr McCartney and Ms S Ramsey.
Mr S Anderson, Mr Beggs, Mr Bell, Mr Bresland, Lord Browne, Mr Buchanan, Mr Campbell, Mr T Clarke, Rev Dr Robert Coulter, Mr Craig, Mr Cree, Mr Easton, Mr Elliott, Mrs Foster, Mr Frew, Mr Gardiner, Mr Gibson, Mr Girvan, Mr Givan, Mr Hamilton, Mr W Humphrey, Mr Kennedy, Mr Kinahan, Mr McCallister, Mr McCausland, Mr I McCrea, Miss McIlveen, Mr McQuillan, Lord Morrow, Mr Moutray, Mr Newton, Mr Poots, Mr G Robinson, Mr K Robinson, Mr P Robinson, Mr Ross, Mr Savage, Mr Spratt, Mr Storey, Mr Weir, Mr Wells, Mr S Wilson.
Tellers for the Noes: Mr Bresland and Mr G Robinson.
Main Question accordingly negatived (cross-community vote).
Adjourned at 5.08 pm.