UK Government wants to follow Welsh example and ‘depoliticise’ Irish says minister
The UK Government wants to achieve “what’s been achieved in Wales” in terms of “depoliticising language” in Northern Ireland, a minister has said.
The Identity and Language (Northern Ireland) Bill passed its second reading in the Commons today with 380 MPs voting for it, and four against.
Legislative protections for the Irish language in Northern Ireland were a key plank of the New Decade, New Approach agreement that restored powersharing in January 2020 after a three-year stalemate.
However, an impasse over forming a new executive in Belfast continues after May’s elections.
Northern Ireland Office minister Steve Baker said he would meet with DUP MPs to try to address concerns that there will be disparities in the powers between the language commissioners for Irish and Ulster Scots.
He said: “What the Government has tried to do in recognising that really should have been taken through in the (NI) Assembly, we’ve tried to stay absolutely faithful to the draft legislation.”
He added: “I hear what (the DUP) says about the need for parity in powers and absolutely will look forward to meeting (DUP MPs) and going through in detail how they think there’s been some shortcoming.
“Because it is vitally important that we carry people with us, because I think this could be a great moment for moving on and achieving what’s been achieved in Wales of depoliticising language.”
He added: “On step-in powers… the Government would not wish to intervene routinely in devolved matters. The use of the powers here and elsewhere in the Bill would require the most careful consideration.
“The Government included these powers in a decision that was not taken lightly but progress must be made to ensure that political stasis in Northern Ireland does not further frustrate this legislation.”
DUP MPs questioned why a proposed Ulster Scots language commissioner would not have the same powers as one for the Irish language, as outlined in the bill.
Upper Bann MP Carla Lockhart claimed the legislation is “a reward for those who have weaponised the Irish language for decades”.
Ms Lockhart told the Commons the DUP would vote against the Bill at second reading, and would table amendments, “and should those changes not be made, we will continue to oppose the Bill”.
“This legislation, rather than addressing the facilitation and respect for language and identity, is in fact a reward for those who have weaponised the Irish language for decades,” she said, adding that the Bill would result in language and identity being a “more potent weapon that causes greater damage”.
Ms Lockhart said consensus and cross-community support are normally deemed the cornerstone of the political process in Northern Ireland, but warned the Bill “removes that cornerstone”.
East Antrim MP Sammy Wilson claimed the Northern Ireland Secretary Chris Heaton-Harris had “quickly glossed over the role of the two commissioners”, telling MPs: “This is one of the ways in which this does not faithfully reflect what was agreed in the New Decade, New Approach.
“The commissioner for Irish language will have the power to direct other public bodies, and that will have significant impact, especially on some unionist-controlled councils, depending on the decisions he makes. The Ulster Scots commissioner will have no such power to direct.”
Alliance MP Stephen Farry (North Down) responded to the DUP, telling MPs it was time to “move past the comments about weaponising language and relegate those to a small minority of people who have said that”.
“Let’s focus on those who are genuinely asking for protections for the right reasons in Northern Ireland,” he added.
‘Us and them’
SDLP MP Claire Hanna (Belfast South) told MPs she regretted that the language debate had “become zero sum”, adding: “We have an opportunity through pieces of legislation like this and more to fly by those nets, particularly to a generation for whom ‘us and them’ just doesn’t mean as much as all of us.
“We can make language about the richness of communication and about heritage and not about an identity marker.”
Shadow Northern Ireland secretary Peter Kyle highlighted some areas for improvement but noted that Labour hopes the Bill receives “swift passage” through the Commons.
Mr Heaton-Harris said: “The provisions of this Bill are based on enshrining respect and tolerance for all Northern Ireland’s diverse identities, cultures and traditions and indeed celebrating their contribution to Northern Ireland.
“We introduce these provisions in the firm belief that Northern Ireland’s rich diversity contributes immeasurably to the Union, to which this Government holds a proud and fundamental commitment.
“It is our sincere and genuine hope that the parties in Northern Ireland will form an executive in the not too distant future to make the necessary appointments, oversee the implementation of this important package and maybe deal with some of the issues that have been raised by honourable members in this debate today.”
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