People are hugely frustrated at the lack of a functioning Northern Ireland Executive almost seven full months after the Assembly election and rightly so.
The core issue is for an Executive to function it must, under our system of devolved government, include and be led by the two largest parties, namely the DUP and Sinn Fein. At the heart of their disagreement appears to be the issue of mutual respect for identity and culture, represented by the opposing positions they have taken over, an Irish Language Act.
Although we are not required or even qualified to form part of the next Executive as of right, we share people’s frustration over the deadlock, which is costing the economy millions of pounds every week and delaying essential decisions over issues such as health reform, education places and job creation, among others. We want to get on with the job.
Therefore, we have engaged in discussions since the last election to try to find a way forward towards building the basis for a deal which would allow both the DUP and Sinn Fein to restore the Executive, and thus have MLAs getting on with other issues – delivering health reforms, protecting education budgets, mitigating welfare and so on.
To help achieve this – and to attempt to detoxify the issue and remove any misinformation around it – we have now finalised proposals to ensure a clear route to legislation is put in place before the restoration of the Executive, and the legislation is passed by the Assembly within a reasonable timescale after that.
Recent coverage in some quarters of the media has included a range of people discussing an Irish Language Act. It has been notable some of the most vocal opposition comes in advance of even seeing the content of any such proposed legislation.
There are a number of strands those making the case against an Irish Language Act have been using, which I will address in good faith.
There is the notion of cost – that money spent on Irish would be better spent, for example, on health. Although this could be said of public spending on any aspect of culture, if done well then cultural expression can deliver financial benefits from tourism, social cohesion and subsequent boosts to health and wellbeing. In any case, significant cost is not necessary to deliver significant benefit.
This does raise an interesting question – if an Irish Language Act could be delivered on a cost-neutral basis, would those people currently opposed to it be willing to countenance it?
Secondly, there is the notion Irish is already well enough protected, along with a hint no-one really speaks it. This is debatable (and can be challenged easily) but let us run with the suggestion upon which, in terms of policy and funding, Irish has indeed broadly made progress in recent years.
This raises a further question: if an Irish Language Act were to serve predominantly to guarantee existing rights and levels of protection by codifying policies into law and providing a framework for a direction of travel already established, would those people currently opposed to it in fact be willing to countenance it?
Thirdly, there is the notion legislation would serve to force Irish on to people against their will. Let us be clear – forcing a language on anyone does the language itself no good. The right of people to use Irish is balanced by the right of other people to take no interest in it whatsoever.
This raises a final question: if an Irish Language Act were accompanied by legislation clarifying the absolute right of people to take no interest in it whatsoever and to use English at all times, would those people currently opposed to it in fact be willing to countenance it?
These proposals combine both the requirement arising from past agreements for specifically Irish language legislation, alongside the understandable desire for broader language and culture legislation to ensure promotion and development is carried out on a cross-community and complementary basis.
We further propose language and culture legislation designed to ensure respect for all minority languages and dialects in Northern Ireland.
The preference would be for three separate Bills going through the Assembly with the same commencement date which would copper fasten free standing Language Acts for Irish, minority languages and culture and heritage in general, espousing Polish, and other languages.
It is our judgement these proposals form the basis of a deal which would fulfil obligations around the Irish language over the past two decades, while enhancing our cultural and tourism offerings.
Regarding the Irish language specifically, we must be clear any attempt at inflicting compulsion or vast expense on those who take no interest in the language is not only unnecessary, but demonstrably does not work. Instead, we have chosen to focus on what does work – on codifying and clarifying existing policy, enhancing rights and opportunities in education, and delivering legal recognition.
This focus will provide a firm legislative framework for everyone who cherishes the language, while ensuring respect for it is enshrined in law – thus delivering significant gain without significant cost.
We have met representatives of the DUP and Sinn Fein and all the other party groups in the Assembly numerous times on this matter, as well as many language and culture organisations, to discuss these proposals. We are now at the stage where the deal is done and we should be moving to appoint Ministers and allow MLAs to get on with the job on health, education, jobs, welfare and the many other vital issues before us.
Given the importance of the task at hand, we are asking civic society and the public at large to join us in making the case that the two largest parties should take these proposals forward, work with others to restore the Executive, and get on with the key issues.
There is no excuse for further delay.