Belfast Telegraph

Irish language group hails ‘productive’ meeting with NI Secretary of State

Conradh na Gaeilge said it used the meeting to remind NI Secretary of State Julian Smith of his duty to implement an Irish language act

Ciaran Mac Giolla Bhein (centre) and other members of Irish language group Conradh na Gaeilge (PA)
Ciaran Mac Giolla Bhein (centre) and other members of Irish language group Conradh na Gaeilge (PA)

By Aine McMahon PA

Members of Irish language group Conradh na Gaeilge have met with Secretary of State for Northern Ireland Julian Smith at Hillsborough.

The meeting went ahead on Sunday afternoon, having previously been scheduled for last Friday when it was postponed with 10 just minutes’ notice.

Speaking after the meeting, Ciaran Mac Giolla Bhein of Conradh na Gaeilge said the group had “a productive” meeting with Mr Smith.

He said: “We impressed upon the Secretary of State the responsibility that his Government has in fulfilling the obligations that were made in 2006.

“We outlined what, in our view, were the main components of the Irish Language legislation and what it should include, which do involve things around visibility of the language, a language commissioner and official status.

“We presented him with the arguments around that and the benefits that such legislation would bring and also impressed on him just how important this is in terms of building the stable powersharing institutions which are his stated goal.

“He wants to reconvene Stormont in a way that will be sustainable in the future and to be able to navigate crises in the futures.”

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Ciaran Mac Giolla Bhein of Irish language group Conradh na Gaeilge (PA)

“If that is to happen, it is incumbent on him to ensure that language legislation and rights for Irish language speakers form a very central part of that,” he added.

“We got a decent hearing, we got a fair hearing. He also re-iterated his Government’s position that their priority is to reconvene Stormont and to put a deal together which makes that possible.

“For our part, we impressed on him the responsibility that his Government holds. After all, it was his Government that made that commitment around the Irish language Act in 2006 and 13 years have passed since then. It is now high time that the rights of Irish speakers have now been included and the rights of Irish speakers are no longer marginalised.”

Mr Mac Giolla Bhein said the issue of an Irish Language Act would “still be on the margins” if it was not for campaign groups keeping it on the political agenda.

He said: “Regardless of what emerges from these talks and whatever deal is put together as a result of these talks, people can be incredibly proud of that.

“In terms of the actual deal and what is there for the Irish speaking community – we will reserve judgment until we see the detail on that.”

He said in 2006 the Irish language community was promised an Irish language Act as part of the St Andrew’s Agreement and the co-guarantors of The Good Friday Agreement promised “resolute action” for the Irish language in 1998.

In a statement following the meeting, Conradh na Gaeilge said it will continue to remind Mr Smith of his duty to implement the Irish language Act.

It read: “This new legislation must be drafted, as the St Andrew’s Agreement compels, from the language legislation in Wales and in the south.

“Those Acts are independent from any other pieces of legislation. They facilitate rights and respect. They secure services and visibility. They recognise their indigenous language as an official language.

“They provide the security of a commissioner to protect and promote the language. That is what the two governments and the parties must deliver with an Irish Language Act.

“Speakers of Irish, be they speakers using the language in their home, in their schools or in the community, can no longer be treated as second class citizens.”

Sinn Fein’s deputy leader Michelle O’Neill said on Friday that “clearly” there would be an Irish Language Act in any deal to restore the Executive, one of the major sticking points in previous negotiations.

“Clearly there will be an Irish Language Act as part of a deal, but what we need to see is a package of measures that allows public confidence to be generated again in our ability to deliver good politics,” Ms O’Neill said.

Finding consensus on legislative protections for Irish language speakers is key to unlocking the deadline.

Parties are also at odds on proposals to reform a contentious cross-community voting mechanism in the Assembly – the petition of concern.

Three years on from the collapse of the devolved government, the Stormont parties have until a January 13 deadline to strike a deal to revive the institutions.

On that date, legislation to give civil servants additional powers to run Northern Ireland’s struggling public services expires and Mr Smith will assume a legal obligation to call a snap Assembly election.

DUP MP for East Londonderry Gregory Campbell said the deadline of January 13 means “there will be attempts to use it as leverage to get any type of deal over the line as opposed to detailed consideration in order that a good deal is achieved”.

He said: “Whether it is one party (Sinn Fein) making unacceptable demands or other parties standing side by side to accept that the unreasonable demand is met, will make no difference to us.

“Where the Irish language has a perfectly acceptable place in Northern Ireland society and is resourced appropriately, as it already is, there will not be a problem or opposition from the DUP or wider Unionism, where there is an unacceptable and unreasonable demand to elevate it above all other minority languages, whether it is SF, other parties or Her Majesty’s Government saying we will have to yield on this issue as it is preventing devolution returning, we will not do so.

“Let us all take this week to see what is doable, negotiate a balanced set of proposals and get it done instead of grandstanding in the hope of gaining a one sided victory.”

PA

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