How the Irish language was ‘RHI’ed – By Daniel Holder

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Whilst the Renewable Heating Initiative report is still awaited, we have a fair idea from Sam McBride’s Burnedand the public hearings of some of the alarming patterns and practices that it is likely to describe. Such governance issues in the last administration were hardly confined to the RHI scheme. Failures to apply safeguards, standards and proper process were abundantly apparent in relation to Irish language policy. Such practices were also ultimately instrumental in bringing down the Stormont institutions.

“The safeguards and standards that were meant to be applied to Irish language policy as an outcome of the peace process are found in the Good Friday Agreement (GFA) and other treaties that were signed up to by the British government around the same time.

This includes Irish language measures in the Good Friday Agreement (GFA) itself and a Council of Europe treaty signed up to as an outworking of the GFA, (the Council of Europe European Charter on Regional or Minority Languages). As a result, public authorities in NI are obliged to take ‘resolute action’ to promote and safeguard the Irish language, for which official bilingual branding and signage are particularly recommended as an effective measure.

This represented a significant shift for NI. Whilst the UK had long ditched its colonial ‘unilingual’ (English-only) policy stance towards indigenous languages (the first Welsh Language Act was in 1967 and Wales is now on its third) the old Stormont government had not. Whilst pre-partition leading unionist and Orange figures had been keen advocates of the Irish language the Stormont Parliament departed from this and relentlessly pressed an ‘English only’ policy model.

In the early part of the peace process the UK Government repealed Stormont’s blanket ban on the Irish language in street signage. But it was the GFA and the other treaty-based commitments that were finally to put an end to the ‘English only’ model and instituted an approach of pluralism. However, whilst ‘resolute action’ and other duties are now part of the NI legal framework, they can rarely be enforced in the local courts. That will only come with an Irish language act.

The detail of some of the Irish language decisions that damaged power sharing are in the public domain. The ins and outs of the Líofa bursaries decision (widely denounced as both sectarian and instrumental in bringing down the institutions) and the decision by then Tourism Minister Arlene Foster with her SPAD Andrew Crawford to ‘instruct’ an English-only policy in funding for visitor interpretation panels, can be read on the here.

There are further examples of DUP Ministers arbitrarily adopting ‘English-only’ policies in their Departments in the short lived 2016-17 Executive. To justify renaming a boat in English DEARA Minister Michelle McIlveen MLA managed to proclaim to the Assembly in September 2016 that her department ‘adopts a single language policy’ before any such policy had in fact even been drafted. This only became apparent when the Information Commissioner ordered the release of withheld documents. A submission to the Minister on the policy was not made until two months after her policy announcement to the Assembly. DEARA had no records as to whether any draft pre-dated that time. However, officials in that submission did set out the treaty-based legal framework and broader advice as to why the Department could not actually lawfully adopt a single (i.e. ‘English-only’) policy. Instead, they set out a proposed policy that would meet minimum requirements for duties on the Irish language. This was not signed off on by the Minister before Stormont collapsed.

Detailed examination of what happened in Education, a key Department for indigenous language promotion, shines a painful light on how the duties towards Irish were treated.

After the GFA the Department of Education adopted trilingual branding inclusive of English, Irish and Ulster Scots. There was also an Irish Language policy, most recently revised in 2009, that had extensive Irish language promotion and bilingualism measures that were in line with the post-GFA treaty based international standards. Then, in 2016 Peter Weir MLA became the first DUP Education Minister.

Whilst the DUP’s opposition to Irish language provision is well known, there were supposed to be safeguards in the legal framework to prevent regression to the monolingual polices of the past. Whilst the two main commitments of the peace settlement (Bill of Rights and Irish language act) that would be readily enforceable in the local courts remain unimplemented, there are other safeguards. That includes adherence to the UK’s treaty-based obligations to the Irish language themselves, which commit not just to ‘resolute action’ but to consulting with Irish speakers and their advisory bodies regarding language policy. There is also the GFA’s statutory Equality Duty in ‘Section 75 of the NI Act – this obliges equality testing of policies (screening and impact assessment), public consultation (usually for 12 weeks) on policy changes, and, in its case law, the keeping of records on decisions taking (which would be a key safeguard against sectarianism influencing decisions).

What actually happened was very different. The new Minister, Peter Weir, took up office on the 25 May. In June, the Irish language policy was reviewed and a new draft ‘language policy’ produced. No records were kept as to why. No public consultation at all took place, nor did any equality testing, nor was there any apparent engagement with Irish speakers.

The purpose of the new policy was set out as to change the language for the Department’s functions “from English and Irish, to English only.” The trilingual logo was ditched for an English-only one. The new policy was drafted with unusual haste by the beginning of July. On the 25 July, just two months in office, the Minister approved the Policy, though in the process removing a provision in it that had committed the Department to ‘considering’ translations of executive summaries of key documents. The policy was then published for the new school term in September, but not before, in August (and after the policy had been approved), a further commitment in it to provide certain official documents in Irish to Irish medium schools had also been culled at the instigation of the Minister’s SPAD. As a result, some material that had already been translated into Irish for such schools had to go “in English only now” due to the new policy.

There was also a ripple effect. The Education Authority got rid of Irish in its multilingual logo and moved to an English only branding policy. Initially the EA told CAJ this was on the basis of a ‘ministerial instruction’ (presumed to be verbal, no records are available), although later the EA stated that it was their own decision, but one clearly in line with the Minister’s wishes rather than the legal framework the agency was supposed to abide by.

The whole episode shows how even the incomplete safeguards put in place to realise the GFA commitments to linguistic pluralism were just swept aside.

Moving forward it is obvious that any commitments on rights that can be subject to subsequent political veto just are not going to happen. The remedy is already there – it is the UK government’s job to ensure its own treaty-based commitments, including the Irish language act, are implemented, not to pass the buck to the local parties.

Daniel Holder is deputy director of the human rights NGO CAJ.


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

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