by Ciarán Mac Giolla Bhéin
History teaches us many things, or so we are told. One of the most important lessons that we all have long experience in Ireland and that the whole of Europe is painfully discovering is that the UK government can never be trusted to implement international agreements, even those it helped negotiate. The latest developments regarding the Irish Language Act serve as a timely reminder of this fact; the British government pledged to introduce the law in 2006 and it took three public consultations, a failed assembly, political support from the majority, enormous international pressure and a lively five-year community campaign to finally allow them, in delay, to keep this promise.
There is, however, a fair degree of skepticism as to whether or not this will happen even if Brandon Lewis was out of Stormont and stated that “If the executive did not advance the legislation by the end of September, the government of the UK will pass legislation by parliament in westminster. If necessary, we will introduce legislation in October 2021 “. October has now passed and although various statements and information documents distributed to the parties by the NIO have been released, we do not have precise indications as to when exactly the legislation will be introduced in Westminster.
Some commentators have suggested that the ongoing unrest within unionism over the protocol has made progress on the Irish language law a little more difficult. This, however, does not stand up to any kind of control. The reality is that since 2006, when it comes to rights for the Irish, there has always been a reason or another why “now” is not the best time, why it needs to be delayed and why Irish speakers should show patience. in the face of intransigence and hostility, euphemistically described by some as “legitimate trade union concerns” regarding the implementation of human rights. For some, there will never be a right time for rights.
We have, like too many others here, waited too long for the parity of esteem and equality promised to all of us as part of the “peace-dividend” after Good Friday. The passage of time, however, has not diminished political syndicalism’s opposition to the rights of Irish speakers, if anything it could be said that such opposition has intensified as turmoil within the DUP has encouraged other unionist parties to up the ante on this issue, keen to emphasize former DUP leader Edwin Poots, agreed to fulfill NDNA commitments under this mandate in June this year. The UUP, described as progressive by their new leader and many commentators, accused the DUP of “talking tough about the Irish language Act” as it prepared for a “descent”. Doug Beattie’s interpretation of “progressive politics” obviously does not extend to respecting international agreements and human rights standards when it comes to the Irish language and our thriving community.
The inescapable truth is that if we are waiting for unionist consensus before implementing linguistic rights, then it will never happen. Our community cannot be held hostage by the crisis of unionism and its reluctance to accept us as their equal. To be fair to the major unionist parties, however, they have been quite frank and consistent about their opposition to the Irish language law, and more often than not it has been others who have tried to make excuses on their behalf for the lack of progress. Recent moves by the British government, however, could render their opposition meaningless and nothing more than an anachronistic legacy of the language’s colonial subjugation over many centuries which ultimately defines the attitude of political syndicalism towards language. until today.
Let us not forget that the Irish language community has no basis for trusting the word of the British government, which has a terrible past when it comes to discriminatory legislation that has always suppressed and hindered the language. If the British government introduces legislation to protect the Irish language, it will be the first time that it will present legislation to protect the language in its long history of unpleasant involvement in this country’s affairs. From the Kilkenny Statutes of 1336 onwards, all previous legislative measures aimed at hastening the destruction of Irish as a viable community language. This context is important in understanding why Irish is a minority language and why we need this protective legislation.
As things stand, however, no laws have been passed or a timetable for the transition has been made public. Not for the first time, the British government missed its deadline, which was unconditional and unambiguous. They retain sovereign government status and have the power to act now and they must do so. Whatever credibility gained as a result of the NDNA agreement and Brandon Lewis’ speech in June will be lost if there are further delays on this issue. Likewise, Sinn Féin must speak clearly and unambiguously on this issue as they did over the summer, when they ensured that the provision of language rights was key to the brokered deal with the UK government that saw them nominate. Michelle O’Neill as Deputy Prime Minister yet. The same goes for the other parties supporting the Act and indeed the Irish Government, as they are co-guarantors of both St Andrews and NDNA. For some, there will never be a right time, but for many, there has never been a better time. Our community can’t wait any longer.
This is a guest slot to offer a platform for new writers both as a one-off, and as a prelude to joining the regular Slugger team.