Acht na Gaeilge: What are the rights of people who don’t speak Irish? – By Daniel Holder

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In calling time on the negotiations former First Minister Arlene Foster reasoned that “We value the fact that there are Irish language speakers living in Northern Ireland who want to speak in Irish and that’s fine but they cannot impinge on the rights of those of us who do not speak the Irish language.”

In this context she cited ruling out Irish being compulsory in schools, bilingual signs or job quotas in the civil service.

But to what extent do these or other provisions actually interfere with the ‘rights’ of non-Irish speakers? What are the ‘rights’ in question and could they not be accommodated by safeguards in an Act?

As someone who has spent many years working in human rights an early lesson I learned is that you cannot just make rights up.

Human rights standards are set out in treaties and other instruments produced by the United Nations and the Council of Europe (which for the avoidance of doubt is not the EU).

Among such international standards you will not find a ‘right’ not to have to look at Irish on a road sign or a ‘right’ not to have Irish on a school curriculum.

Imagine the reaction if it was suggested that having French or maths on the school curriculum was a human rights violation.

Equally non-discrimination provisions would ensure that requirements to speak a minority language for a particular job should be proportionate and objectively justified.

That said it would be possible for language legislation to interfere in the rights of non-speakers, but rights standards are already carefully crafted to ensure this does not happen.

The most detailed locally binding framework accommodating minority language speakers rights alongside the rights of speakers of more dominant languages is the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages. The UK ratified this on the back of the GFA.

This Council of Europe Charter ensures that the rights of speakers of English as the dominant language are not impinged on by the provisions signed up for minority languages by the UK. (The British Government registered Irish – and Welsh and Scots Gaelic- under Part II and Part III of the Charter, and Scots – including the Ulster variant of Scots – under the general provisions in Part II of the Charter). For example, the provisions of Article 10 of the Charter (which apply to Irish in NI) oblige the Assembly and Councils to ‘allow and/or encourage’ the use of Irish in debates in their chambers but state that this must be taken forward ‘without excluding’ the use of English. The duty to allow and/or encourage the use of the traditional and correct forms of place-names in Irish (usually on road and other signage) similarly must be undertaken ‘if necessary’ in conjunction with the name in English.

Put simply the rights of non-speakers of Irish are not interfered with by also continuing to provide for English. It would interfere with the rights of non-speakers if only Irish was permitted in Assembly debates. However, having to listen to other people speak Irish, with translation, or look at a bilingual logo or Irish alongside English on a road sign does not impinge on the rights of people who only speak English. The proposals in the draft Agreement obtained by this website already contain the express provision that “nothing in the [Irish language] legislation will affect the status of the English language” (a provision included without the now infamous square brackets). Nobody’s actual rights are being interfered with by an Irish Language Act that ensures it incorporates the above principles.

A second part of the former First Ministers expressed concerns was to ensure there was an accommodation “where one language or culture wasn’t given primacy over the other language or culture.” This appears to be a variation on the position of former DUP culture Ministers that Irish and Ulster Scots should be treated on the basis of parity, with a sudden interest in also co-opting the languages of ethnic minorities.

Whilst there are rights issues for both indigenous and migrant languages (and there is some overlap) the issues are usually very different. The rights of non-speakers of English relate to matters ensuring access to justice and essential public services. Provision for indigenous minority languages is designed to safeguard the language itself and revive its visibility and heritage. Place name signage is an obvious example with many NI place names coming from Irish and some from Scots. Nobody can surely be seriously suggesting that every language spoken in NI should go on road signs in the name of not granting one ‘primacy’ over the other.

Treating Irish and Ulster Scots the same when they are objectively very different has long been held to be damaging to the promotion and development of both. When DUP ministers sought to merge the Irish and Ulster Scots strategies required under the St Andrews Agreement legislation (to ensure both were treated the same) the Council of Europe Committee of Experts (who oversee the duties under the Charter) raised concerns that such a strategy would “strive towards parity between the two languages and therefore not serve the needs of either the Irish-Speakers or the Ulster-Scots speakers and will hold back the development of both.”

The situation of Ulster Scots and Irish is very different, not just in relation to demand and needs of speakers but also what would actually be successful in its promotion. For example, written translations may be effective in promoting Irish but not Scots which is largely a spoken tradition without a standardised written format. Scots in the context of it (in all but its most maximally differentiated forms) being mutually comprehensible with English, has promotional opportunities not available to Irish. This is a strength that can and should be harnessed rather than belittled. What works for one may not be practical for another.

In this context the Committee of Experts have also observed that “inappropriate claims for parity of treatment between Irish and Ulster Scots in a number of instances led to the result that no measures were taken for either language, since it was not practically possible to apply the same measures to Ulster Scots” and reiterated that “The Charter is based on treating each regional or minority language in accordance with its specific situation. The situation of the two languages is quite different, and language measures specifically directed towards each language are needed. That is the only way that both languages can be protected and promoted according to their specific needs.”

Practices have nevertheless continued that damage the safeguarding of Ulster Scots by pitching it against Irish rather than taking steps tailored to its preservation. A year into the new ‘super councils’ research I was involved in found that not a single new NI Council in areas such as the Antrim/Down coastlines where Scots was traditionally spoken had adopted an Ulster Scots policy. The only Councils with Ulster Scots policies were those in areas where Scots was never traditionally spoken, adopted at times in the explicit context of being a counterweight to Irish language policies rather than emerging in their own right from initiatives to safeguard Scots.

Notwithstanding English remaining the dominant language it is not a question of ‘primacy’ of one minority language over another. Rather it is a question of treating each one differently in accordance with its own situation and the needs of its speakers.

The draft Agreement (again outside its square brackets) already contains a framework where the provisions for Irish and Ulster Scots are differentiated.

Yet the complaint by the former First Minister about ensuring one does not have ‘primacy’ over the other appears indicative of a regression back to the long discredited assertion that both must be treated on the ‘basis of parity’. There is little prospect of progress on the safeguarding or promotion of either linguistic tradition if we moved forward on that basis.

In the fallout there appears to be much clutching at straws to come up with legitimate reasons for not implementing the decade old UK-Ireland St Andrews Agreement commitment for an Irish language act. The suggestion that such legislation would interfere with the rights of English speakers is however seriously misplaced.


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About Author

Daniel Holder is the Deputy Director of the Committee on the Administration of Justice (CAJ)


  1. Arlene seems to think that it is ‘bad’ for Irish to have some imaginary primacy over English, but perfectly fine for English to have actual and real primacy over Irish.

  2. Jake Mac Siacais on

    A well reasoned and argued piece, however, the notion that unionist opposition to Irish is rational is a fatal mistake. The opposition to Irish stems from a tribal fear that the native and indigenous will, despite centuries of supremacy and marginalisation, emerge as a validated and equal cultural expression.

  3. Ciaran Mac Giolla Bhéin on

    Excellent piece Daniel and nails argument that somehow rights for Irish speakers would impinge on rights of others. No basis whatsoever to this and means that, as Jake alluded to above, there is no ‘rational’ basis to that opposition.

  4. thomas girvan on

    I take it that you are Daniel Holder, the Deputy Director of the Committee on the Administration of Justice.
    I think that it would have been reasonable to expect that an individual so involved in such a well known and in unionist eyes,politically aligned organisation, would have declared an interest.
    It does seem rather strange that there isn’t any identificaton of the position heldd and the organisation the author is involved in.
    I note he makes no mention of the £171 million spent on the Irish language in five years.
    Is there no right for finite public resourses to be spent fairly across society?
    Maybe those on hospital waiting lists don’t have rights,unless,of course, they speal Irish.

    • I agree that Holder’s position is extremely relevant and should have been included in the piece, but I would put the blame for the ommission with the editor, Eamaonn Mallie, not with Holder himself.

      But you’ve immediately launched into an ad hominem attack followed by a non sequitur (the NHS) and have at no point addresses the points raised.

      The Acht na Gaelige is a requirement under two international treaties — the EU and the GFA agreement. This has nothing to do with the NHS.

      The Ulster-Scots language is often used for political leverage by people with no interest in it — this harms both Irish and Ulster Scots.

      [I am a Scots speaker from Scotland who has also learned Scottish Gaelic. I don’t speak Irish.]

      • thomas girvan on

        An Irish Language act is not mentioned in the G.F.A. and in fact, it has been
        stated by the eminent legal expert Austen Morgan Q.C. that it could well
        contravine the priciples contained therein.

        I quote from the Belfast Telegraph 12/07/17
        ” The QC, the author of “The Belfast Agreement: a Practical Legal Analysis”,
        claimed an Act that protected only the rights of Irish speakers would violate a
        key clause in the Good Friday deal promoting parity of esteem between all
        cultures in Northern Ireland.
        Specifically, he said an ILA could be said to breach paragraph three of article
        one of the agreement on equality.
        This refers to “the importance of respect, understanding and tolerance in
        relation to linguistic diversity, including in Northern Ireland, the Irish
        language, Ulster-Scots and the languages of the various ethnic communities”.

  5. Yeah Thomas. £7.4m was the annual spend for policing contentious Orange Marches with a further £8.4m given to OO on rates relief. Maybe those on hospital waiting lists don’t have rights, unless, of course they wear the ‘Sash my father wore’.

    • thomas girvan on

      I have never wore a sash and neither had my father.
      Should the matter of Orange parades arise on this forum I might consider making a response, but given that the matter seems to have been largely resolved, I would deem that unlikely.

      • Marcus Mac Iomaire on

        Like all unionists you live in an absurd and false reality. Ireland and its indiginous people are the victims of centuries of colonisation and repression by successive british regimes. Colonisation can only succeed when the indiginous culture which includes the language is marginalised. The british in their conquest of other nations prohibited the use of the indiginous language from the government, the policing and judicial systems, and the education system. And in case it might have slipped your mind, colonisation is a violent and illegal act carried out by an oppressor, which is why today it is illegal under international law. Thus the britishness you and other unionists hold so dear has resulted in the diminution of human civilsation not just in Ireland but in every other country that was so brutally colonised.

  6. Daniel, mostly I have very little issue with your article except in one very important regard.
    Firstly, I am in favour of continued support for the Gaelic language.
    I think dual language road signs enrich our countryside and any form of inclusion and protection of diversity is not only correct in principle, but also marks the road to prosperity.
    I enjoy Gaelic culture and would defend the people who thus identify with all peaceful means at my command.
    Neither English nor Gaelic were the original language of Ireland but let’s not get into English, Gaelic, Viking or any other imperialism :).
    The issue for me is the discrimination that is inherent in the equalising of English and Gaelic.
    Gaelic is really only taught at Catholic schools and the (population) ‘proportionate’ aspect of your argument lays the foundation for the introduction of a Gaelic language requirement for jobs in the Civil Service, Councils, Courts and Legal Sector etc. That means that at the very minimum, 50% of jobs would exclude Protestant applicants. If other jobs in those areas are shared equally then you have at least 75% of jobs guaranteed to Catholic applicants.
    If the response from readers here is ‘go and learn Gaelic’ then their discriminatory credentials are clear.
    My understanding of the position of the Gaelic language in the Republic of Ireland is that it is not the extreme form proposed by Northern Republicans.
    Please let’s safeguard Gaelic from arrogant DUP whims, but let’s not ‘weaponise’ it either.

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