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Orange Order chief Mervyn Gibson: Repackaged Irish language act unacceptable

Mervyn Gibson
Mervyn Gibson
Suzanne Breen

By Suzanne Breen

One of Northern Ireland's most senior Orangemen has warned that "hybrid language legislation containing the same powers as a standalone Irish language act" would be unacceptable to his organisation's members.

Orange Order grand secretary Mervyn Gibson told this newspaper that "disguising sweeping powers that elevate one culture above another" in a piece of hybrid legislation would fool nobody.

"Any attempt to repackage a standalone Irish language act in this way won't work," he said.

"A hybrid act which treated, say, Irish, Polish and Ulster-Scots in exactly the same way is one thing.

"But if Irish was promoted above other minority languages in Northern Ireland, that would be unacceptable."

Mr Gibson was speaking as talks continued at Stormont to restore power-sharing.

Sources said the two governments will table the text of a draft deal later this week.

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An Irish language act remains one of the main obstacles to progress as Stormont approaches three years without a functioning Executive.

DUP leader Arlene Foster said she believed that the main parties were in the space to reach a deal, but the Ulster Unionists said the talks process lacked urgency.

Mr Gibson said that unionism was united in opposing sweeping Irish language legislation.

"The Orange Order didn't weaponise the Irish language, Sinn Fein did," he said.

"A party spokesman once said that every world spoken in Irish was a shot for a united Ireland.

"This is not a purely linguistic issue and it shouldn't be presented as such."

Mr Gibson said he had "no problem" with the language.

He added: "As an RUC officer, I went on an Irish language course, so I have a cupla focal myself, probably as much as many in the nationalist community.

"We have had Orange banners in Irish. A past Grand Master in Belfast, Rev Dr Rutledge Kane, helped preserve the Gaelic tongue in this city at the turn of the 20th century.

"I fully respect those who have a genuine love and passion for the language, but when Irish is used as a blunt instrument to elevate one identity above another, it becomes problematic."

Mr Gibson said there would have to be a "watertight guarantee" that any legislation proposed could not be used "to promote the republican cause and promote one culture more than the other in future".

He said: "A piece of Irish language legislation may initially appear reasonable, but you have to look ahead and think of future judicial reviews and how it would end up being interpreted."

Mr Gibson also claimed the British tradition in Northern Ireland was facing discrimination.

"We have a Parades Commission which polices and limits our culture, so Irish language legislation promoting, facilitating and protecting Irish culture would be unfair," he said.

"I would welcome an audit of resources on what funds go to British culture and to Irish culture in Northern Ireland."

Mr Gibson said that the 40,000 Orangemen in Northern Ireland "just like all other citizens want our health and education crises tackled", but that any deal must not "discriminate against their community".

Secretary of State Julian Smith returned to Northern Ireland on Tuesday after updating the Prime Minister on the talks.

Boris Johnson said that everything possible must be done to restore power-sharing by the January 13 deadline, according to a government spokesman.

If a deal is not reached by then, Mr Smith could call an Assembly election.

The DUP repeated that any agreement must be "fair and balanced". Arlene Foster also played down reports of a bad-tempered meeting between the party leaders on Monday.

"Things are blown out of proportion sometimes," she said.

"I think everybody is in the space where they want to do a deal. Let's get down and focus and make sure we achieve that deal."

Ulster Unionist MLA Robbie Butler said the talks process lacked urgency.

"There really does need to be a refocusing of minds and a more concerted effort to get these talks to a conclusion," he said.

Mr Butler urged the two governments to table working papers to the parties so they could start to hammer out a deal.

"The problems and difficulties are well rehearsed," he said.

"There have been three years of intensive and non-intensive talks and, as we can see today, there is no real intensity.

"We would like to see that stepped up within the next 24 hours."

Mr Butler said parties needed to get into power-sharing to address a range of urgent social problems, including what he described as a "mental health epidemic", citing a recent spate of suicides in Northern Ireland.

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