Opinion: while the proposals undoubtedly represent progress, questions remain around implementation and commitment

The Stormont proposals for legal protection for the Irish language in Northern Ireland are significant because they amount to the first piece of domestic legislation recognising the language north of the border. Irish is mentioned in general terms in the Good Friday Agreement and is also protected under the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages, but campaigners have long fought for more specific and robust legal provisions at local level.

While recognising the historic advance represented by the agreement, campaign groups such as An Dream Dearg and Conradh na Gaeilge are nonetheless disappointed that the deal covers broader linguistic and identity issues and does not amount to a standalone Irish language act. This stands in contrast with legislation for Irish in the Republic, as well as acts covering Welsh and Scottish Gaelic. However, the legacy of conflict in Northern Ireland meant a similar approach was unlikely to work. 

That said, key demands of the campaigners have been met, at least in part. The proposals mention the granting of official status to Irish in Northern Ireland, the establishment of the post of Language Commissioner, the introduction of "language standards", the ending of the prohibition on Irish in the courts and the establishment of a central translation unit in government.

Ó RTÉ Raidió na Gaeltachta's Adhmhaidin, an sásaíonn socrú nua Stormont na héilimh atá ag an Dream Dearg agus ag lucht tacaíochta na Gaeilge?

Almost a century of experience in the Republic shows that official status often rings hollow and may be more symbolic than practical. But symbols matter, particularly in Northern Ireland, and even the existence of official status for Irish is a powerful statement after decades in the wilderness. At a meeting of Belfast City Council in 1987, former Northern Finance Minister and Sinn Féin MLA Máirtín Ó Muilleoir was attacked by Sammy Wilson of the DUP for speaking a "leprechaun language" and thrown out of the chamber. Last week, Ó Muilleoir told Tuairisc that the Stormont proposals, while flawed, meant that Irish would no longer be a "leprechaun" or "non-language" in the North. 

The decision to appoint an Irish Language Commissioner seems significant and was no doubt sold as such by Sinn Féin to its supporters, but there are plenty of pitfalls ahead. The powers of the Commissioners in the Republic of Ireland and Wales are circumscribed by the legislation under which they were established so it follows that the powers of the new Commissioner will be weaker still.

One example of this is in the references to the development of "language standards". The system of standards has been borrowed from Wales where a sliding scale approach to public bodies is adopted based on their level of contact with Welsh speakers. Standards allow flexibility in the approaches of public bodies to serving the minority language community. Given the sensitivities over language in Northern Ireland, it is obvious why this system was chosen. The types of service that could be provided under this system include information and forms, websites and replying in Irish to correspondence in Irish. However while the Commissioner is to prepare the standards, they are to be approved by the Office of the First and Deputy-First Ministers, raising concerns that they could end up seriously watered down.  

From RTÉ Radio 1's Morning Ireland, RTÉ Northern Editor Tommie Gorman discusses the deal offered to end the three year long Stormont stalemate

Unlike language legislation in the other jurisdictions, there are no direct obligations in relation to Irish anywhere in the Stormont agreement. For instance, although the Commissioner’s functions will include monitoring implementation of standards and investigating complaints if they are not complied with, there is no obvious mechanism for these to be achieved. The agreement is silent on the power of the Commissioner to ensure that language standards are implemented at all or even accepted by public bodies. Even in the case of the weak Gaelic Language (Scotland) Act 2005, public bodies are obliged to prepare a Gaelic Language Plan if requested to do so by the Gaelic language agency set up under the act.

There is no doubting that Wales is the leader when it comes to minority language legislation in Ireland and Britain as a whole. The system of standards there is very complex and detailed and backed by robust legislation and a Commissioner with significant powers of enforcement. There is also legislative protection for Welsh in the courts since the 1940s and more comprehensive acts since the 1960s.

While the blueprint is undeniably a sign of progress for Irish in the North, it remains to be seen how it is to be implemented

Political commitment is critical. While each law to an extent reflects the situation on the ground, the promotion of minority languages should involve setting ambitious, but achievable targets backed by political, administrative and legal support. The Official Languages (Amendment) Bill 2019, which has fallen with the dissolution of the 32nd Dáil, was itself weak without the excuse of DUP opposition, so the political ideology of government is a crucial factor.  

The Northern Executive has returned on the back of political compromises, including the Irish language. The price of re-convening the Assembly has been a watered down list of provisions on Irish rather than a standalone, rights-based act. While the blueprint is undeniably a sign of progress for Irish in the North, it remains to be seen how it is to be implemented and if it can make a real difference for the Irish-speaking community there.


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ