What would an Irish language act actually mean?

Posted By: February 08, 2017

Opponents of an Irish language Act argue it would result in an expensive upheaval of public services, but Political Correspondent John Manley finds its impact on the general population could be modest

John Manley. Irish News. Belfast. Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Now and then, usually around election time, proposals for an Irish language act become a political football – or rather peil pholaitiúil.

However, while it’s been on the agenda for a decade or more, we still have little real idea how such legislation might impact on everyday life.

The debate about how an act would work in practice is informed by experiences in Scotland and Wales, where similar laws are already in place.

Special provision for the native tongue is reflected in areas such as broadcasting, in the devolved parliaments and in street and road signs.

Campaigners in The North wish to see the Irish language afforded similar status, in keeping with long-standing European-wide protections for minority languages.

In 2015, then Sinn Féin Culture minister Carál Ní Chuilín launched a consultation on an Irish language Act which outlined measures it would support. This included the use of Irish by public bodies, in the courts, and in the Stormont assembly.

In addition to a commissioner being appointed to ensure the legislation was implemented effectively, there would be provisions for Gaeltacht areas like Belfast’s Shaws Road and the promotion of schemes similar to Líofa bursary, which sends children from deprived backgrounds to Donegal to learn Irish.

The SDLP’s Patsy McGlone planned to bring forward a private member’s bill which would have broadly mirrored both Ms. Ní Chuilín’s plans and existing legislation in Scotland and Wales.

The cost of an Acht na Gaeilge is one of the main objections raised by opponents, with the DUP’s Nelson McCausland claiming it could cost around £100m a year.

To date, neither Sinn Féin nor the SDLP has costed their proposals.

In Wales, where 11 percent of the population are said to speak Welsh fluently compared to nearly four per cent in The North, promoting the language is said to cost as much as £150m a year, with around half this figure spent on S4C, the Welsh language television channel based in Cardiff.

In Scotland, where just over one percent of the population speaks Gaelic, the estimated cost of administering the legislation is around £37m a year.

Notably, advocates of minority languages insist that in addition to enriching cultural life, promoting the indigenous tongue significantly boosts tourism revenues.

In areas where there is wholesale resistance to bilingual road signs, they are unlikely to be rolled out on a grand scale.

In the courts, similar to what happens in the Stormont assembly, an interpreter would translate on behalf of those who don’t speak Irish, potentially through an earpiece.

A similar free service already exists in the courts for those who don’t speak English.

Under the terms of 2006’s St Andrews Agreement the British government committed to introduce an Irish language act, but despite numerous consultations, it has yet to see the light of day.

Following Arlene Foster’s pledge this week to resist an act, the prospects of Northern Ireland ever following Scotland and Wales remain unclear.