ECMI Minorities Blog. Resolving Minority Language Disputes: A New Approach to Language Rights in Northern Ireland?


Author: Akofa Boglo

* Akofa Boglo is an M.A. Peace and Security Studies student at the IFSH, Hamburg, Germany. As a Philosophy and Literature graduate with a diploma in Illustration who has lived in the Netherlands, Ireland, Belgium and Germany, her key areas of interest are questions surrounding culture, identity and conflict.

Exactly three years following the resignation of then Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness, which triggered the fall of the Northern Irish Executive, an agreement tabled by the British and Irish Governments was accepted by Northern Ireland’s five main political parties. It restored power-sharing at Stormont following a three-year absence, during which the Executive lay dormant while parties were locked in a drawn-out dispute which centred around language rights.

A significant section of the new agreement; New Decade New Approach (NDNA), concerns rights, language and identity, a topic described by Tánaiste Simon Coveney as the most contentious area of negotiations. Published alongside was Draft legislation, subject to Assembly approval, for the establishment of an Office of Identity and Cultural Expression; an Irish Language Commissioner; and a Commissioner on Ulster-Scots / Ulster British language, arts, and literature. Furthermore, the legislation officially recognizes the status of the Irish Language for the first time in Northern Ireland’s history; legally obliges the Department of Education to promote the use of Ulster-Scots in education; includes measures for a simultaneous translation system in the Assembly and a central translation hub for government bodies and departments; and repeals the Administration of Justice (Language) Act (Ireland) 1737. The legislation is an ‘integrated package’ which, once enacted, will form separate amendments to the Northern Ireland Act 1998. This blog piece explores the complex role of language in the collapse of power-sharing, and considers how the legislation proposed under NDNA, together with growing social and political pressures, changed the manner in which the language debate is framed, enabled political agreement, and created conditions in which real progress for minority language rights in Northern Ireland is possible.

Northern Ireland is predominantly monolingual and anglophone. The 2011 Northern Ireland Census, showed just 10.65 percent of people had some Irish language skills, while 8.08 percent had some knowledge of Ulster-Scots. Despite this, Ulster-Scots and Irish retained symbolic significance, and views on language legislation remain polarised. A 2012 NISRA survey on public attitudes towards the Irish language in Northern Ireland showed that 75 percent of Catholics considered Irish ‘important to Northern Irish Culture overall’, whereas 29 percent of Protestants agreed. In 2017, general election exit polls indicated support for an Irish Language Act was significantly higher among Sinn Féin voters (84%) than DUP voters (10%). And a 2017/2018 Survey from the Department of Communities showed engagement with Ulster-Scots and Irish largely fell within community boundaries. This mapping of language onto national and religious identity limits space for cultural and linguistic expression, and risks reducing Ulster-Scots and Irish to attributes of Unionism and Republicanism respectively—representative of collective identities shaped by violent conflict. In this environment, language rights for one signify a loss for the other, and minority and language rights frameworks are characterised and politicised as tools used to gain ground in a struggle between two communities whose interests are cast in terms of mutual incompatibility and fundamental disagreement about the identity and culture, past and future of Northern Ireland.

The Good Friday Agreement, which established Stormont as a power-sharing Executive and marked the end of the Troubles—a conflict which lasted three decades and took over 3,500 lives—was signed on April 10, 1998. In it, language contributed to conflict management; Irish, Ulster-Scots and languages of ‘the various ethnic communities’ were portrayed as collective ‘cultural wealth’ to be treated with respect, tolerance and understanding. Instead, numerous language-related incidents deepened divides in Stormont and society in the years that followed, ranging from seemingly absurd disputes over manhole covers, to a row over Irish summer school funding, and mockery of the Irish language in the Assembly. Calls for a stand-alone Irish language Act similar to the Welsh Language Act increased amid growing frustration among Irish language supporters, speakers and activists with lack of progress on language commitments made by the British Government in 2006 at St. Andrews. And while ultimately, a dispute between the two main coalition partners—the DUP and Sinn Féin—over the handling of a renewable heating incentive scandal prompted Martin McGuinness’ resignation, his resignation letter indicates that identity, culture and language played a role in this decision. And so, language, rather than helping to establish the ‘parity of esteem’ so crucial for peace and reconciliation in the Good Friday Agreement, became one of the main stumbling blocks for power-sharing. 

Three years following the Good Friday Agreement, the UK government ratified the European Charter for Regional And Minority Languages. While this should have supported language rights in Northern Ireland, Stormont, and by proxy the UK, persistently failed to pass concrete Irish or Ulster-Scots language legislation. By 2014, lack of cross-party consensus regarding language was so entrenched within Stormont that agreement was not reached on the content to be included in the 4th UK Report submitted to the Secretary General of the Council of Europe (CoE), and the Committee of Experts was forced to rely on an on-the-spot visit and interviews with civil servants and language organisations. Throughout its monitoring cycles, the CoE repeatedly highlighted the situation of Irish and Ulster-Scots in Northern Ireland, and in 2014, the Report of the Committee of Experts found Ulster-Scots ‘absent from public life’ and expressed alarm at the ‘hostile’ treatment of the Irish language in Assembly debates. In the same monitoring cycle, the Committee of Ministers made a number of recommendations, including implementing measures for teaching Ulster-Scots, and a ‘comprehensive Irish language policy’ with statutory rights for Irish speakers, a call echoed in a 2018 CoE resolution on the application of the  Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities in the UK. The CoE showed clearly that both Irish and Ulster-Scots were negatively affected by persistent political paralysis, and while the CoE’s recommendations and resolutions may initially have hardened demands for a stand-alone Irish Language Act and galvanized opponents in the political stalemate, incorporation of measures recommended by the CoE into NDNA indicate that it also provided a reference point for its resolution.

Pressure to resolve the dispute was further compounded by increasing and widely-shared public frustration within Northern Irish society. The shutdown at Stormont occurred while fears over the social and economic impact of Brexit were running high, and the power vacuum exacerbated existing challenges to security and wellbeing in Northern Ireland, a point underscored by the murder of a young journalist in April 2019, and an unprecedented nurses strike later that year. In December 2019, steep losses in the UK general elections sent a strong signal to Sinn Féin and the DUP—If negotiations did not succeed before the expiration of the Executive Formation and Exercise of Functions Act on January 13th 2020; a bill which had permitted the civil service to function without an Executive, Assembly elections were inevitable and would almost certainly be costly to politicians and parties involved in the dispute. It was clear that no-one had won and everyone stood to lose a great deal more.

Presenting NDNA, Tánaiste Simon Coveney stated ‘Forget the language of win and lose, this is a deal filled with compromises.’ That a compromise was made and accepted marks a potential turn away from old narratives surrounding language and language rights. This shift is supported by the language used in the legislation itself. Language rights, identity and culture are underpinned by two general principles which steer clear of the two communities approach which upheld ethnopolitical divides. The first principle emphasizes individual freedom to ‘choose, affirm and maintain’ cultural identity, in a manner respectful to others and the law. The second principle affirms the importance of reconciliation and mutual understanding between different cultural identities in Northern Ireland. Personal liberties, bounded by equal freedom of others and the rule of law, appear to be positioned as an underlying requirement for social cohesion. As such NDNA leans on existing frameworks for minority and human rights. Being full of compromises, NDNA has understandably had a mixed reception. The broad spectrum of perspectives on Northern Irish culture, history and politics mean language and identity have many meanings. Consequentially, for some NDNA goes too far, while for others it does not go far enough. Irish language organisations expressed concern over lack of robustness on implementation regarding particularly contentious issues such as signage. These specifics are left to the Language Commissioners whose proposals must be approved by the First Minister and Deputy First Minister, raising concerns that progress on language legislation may again be stymied by partisan politics. Still, the language provisions in NDNA have legitimised both Irish and Ulster-Scots, whether practice can follow in its path remains to be seen. 

The Coronavirus crisis potentially signals a long pause for language legislation in Northern Ireland, as resources are redirected to cope with the situation. This does not mean that language rights are irrelevant—it is precisely in times of crisis that the civic life of minorities is most vulnerable, and precisely in times like these that international frameworks protecting minority rights should be upheld, and national instruments which implement them critically examined, supported and strengthened. NDNA and its Draft Legislation signal a new approach to language rights in Northern Ireland, an approach made possible by converging international and local, social and political pressures, and within which language rights are framed as assets rather than obstacles. Crises have the potential to deepen both divisions and cooperation, and perhaps, the level of cooperation required by this crisis will lay the foundations for lasting change in power-sharing, so that when the time comes, new practice and new policy can combine to create a future for Irish and Ulster-Scots in Northern Ireland that looks very different from the past.

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