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Explainer: What is the Irish Language Act and why is it causing political deadlock in Northern Ireland?

Arlene Foster says that government formation talks have stalled because of the Irish language issue.

Irish language act campaign Irish Language Act campaigners take part in a protest outside Stormont. Source: PA Wire/PA Images

AFTER MORE THAN 13 months of political stalemate a deal to restore power sharing in Northern Ireland looks as far away as ever, after DUP leader Arlene Foster said today that the Irish language question is keeping Stormont shuttered.

But what exactly is the issue?

The background

When Martin McGuinness stepped down as Deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland in January 2017 after holding the post for nearly 10 years, the failure to introduce legislation on the Irish language was listed as one of the chief reasons he effectively pulled the plug on the Executive.

Since that collapse there have been numerous failed attempts to restore power, as well as an election, a new Northern Ireland secretary and, of course, a new leader of Sinn Féin in the North after the death of McGuinness.

Talks were restarted in recent weeks following the appointment of Karen Bradley as the new Secretary of State for Northern Ireland.

When the British and Irish leaders rolled into town on Monday there appeared to be a strong sense of optimism that the situation would finally getting resolved. However the day came and went without a deal, and today DUP leader Arlene Foster strongly reiterated that her party will not sign off on a standalone Irish language Act, which Sinn Féin has been pushing for for more than a decade.

File Photo Varadkar to meet Theresa May in Belfast today ahead of last-chance Stormont talks End. Source: Sam Boal

Language is routinely a flashpoint in Northern Ireland politics, such as when the word ‘Uisce’ appeared on Ballymena manhole covers or when the DUP’s Gregory Campbell was barred from addressing Stormont for a day for mocking Irish and refusing to apologise.

“Curry my yoghurt can coca coalyer,” Campbell famously quipped in an incident which McGuinness said “bordered on racism”.

Source: Broadsheet Ie/YouTube

So what is Sinn Féin looking for?

On the broader language issue, Sinn Féin supports the restoration of Irish as the spoken language of the majority of people in Ireland.

The specific stumbling block in Northern Ireland surrounds the introduction of an Irish language Act (Acht na Gaeilge) which would give Irish equal status with English.

The party is seeking legislation which would allow for:

  • The use of Irish in courts, in the Assembly and for use by state bodies including the police
  • The appointment of an Irish language commissioner
  • The establishment of designated Gaelteacht areas in the North
  • The right for education through Irish
  • Bilingual signage on public buildings and road signage

Source: Sinn Féin/YouTube

The party attempted to introduce an Irish language bill in the assembly in 2015 but it did not gain the necessary support to become law.

It’s not just Sinn Féin which backs legislation supporting Irish. The SDLP is also seeking the creation of an act, while the Alliance Party is in favour  of a comprehensive act which covers various languages used in Northern Ireland including sign languages.

Pobal, the umbrella organisation for the Irish language community, says the act was promised by the UK government in the St Andrews’ Agreement in 2006.

Irish language activists have been particularly active in the past year with demonstrations being held in Belfast and social media campaigns gaining considerable traction online.

The Unionist stance

The DUP has always opposed an Irish language act, with party leader Arlene Foster previously arguing that there should be a Polish language act instead because more people in Northern Ireland speak Polish than Irish.

In the run-up to last year’s election, speaking about Sinn Féin’s demands she famously told a party event: “If you feed a crocodile it will keep coming back for more.” The former First Minister later said she regretted the comments, which helped to galvanise supporters of Sinn Féin.

Some unionists see the demands for the new law as a tool to be used by Sinn Féin in their quest for a united Ireland, or the latest manoeuvre in the long-running atmosphere of distrust between the two sides.

Last September a poll found that two-thirds of DUP voters oppose an act and less than 50% would support one even if party headquarters agreed to it in a deal to restore devolution.

That same month Foster called for “a new cultural deal” which would address cultural issues such as the Irish language, in a bid to restore the Assembly.

Stormont powersharing talks Source: PA Wire/PA Images

She outlined that Ulster Scots culture, heritage and language needs to be researched and promoted if the Irish language legislation becomes a reality. The move was widely interpreted as the unionist price for supporting a deal regarding Irish.

The call was rejected by Sinn Féin.

In her statement signalling the collapse of talks today Foster said unionists “will not countenance a stand alone or free-standing Irish language act. Sinn Fein’s insistence on a stand alone Irish language act means that we have reached an impasse.”

I respect the Irish language and those who speak it but in a shared society this cannot be a one-way street.  Respect for the unionist and British identity has not been reciprocated.

Foster said it now appears that no deal is possible. The UUP also oppose an act with party leader Robin Swann saying it would be “divisive”.

What happens now?

Both the Irish and British governments have expressed strong the desire that power-sharing be reestablished as soon as possible. However the continued failure of the parties to find a solution to the impasse could lead to the reinstatement of direct rule from Westminster.

Foster evoked this prospect in her statement but Sinn Féin has ruled it out with Northern Ireland leader Michelle O’Neill telling RTE News that it is “not an option”.

In November the UK government imposed a budget on the region with then Northern Ireland secretary of state James Brokenshire saying the civil service would have run out of money had he not passed the law.

While Foster said restoring the devolved government remains the DUP’s goal, it is now “incumbent upon Her Majesty’s government to set a budget and start making policy decisions about our schools, hospitals and infrastructure.”

READ: Collapsed: Arlene Foster says Stormont deal ‘not possible’, calls for direct rule from London>

READ: Theresa May says there is ‘basis for agreement’ to get Stormont ‘up and running very soon’>

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About the author:

Ceimin Burke

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