Irish Language Act
The Irish Language Act (Irish: Acht na Gaeilge) is proposed legislation in Northern Ireland that would give the Irish language equal status in the region, similar to that of the Welsh language in Wales since 1993. It is supported by the Republic of Ireland, Sinn Féin, SDLP, the Alliance Party, and the Green Party, and opposed by the Democratic Unionist Party and Ulster Unionist Party.
Sinn Féin and POBAL, the Northern Irish association of Irish speakers, say that the act was promised to them in the 2006 St Andrews Agreement. Unionists say that prior commitments have already been honoured.
About 184,898 (10.65%) Northern Irish people claim some knowledge of Irish, while about 4,130 (0.2%) speak it as their main home language.
Currently, the status of the Irish language is guaranteed by the European Charter for Regional and Minority Languages, which will continue to bind the United Kingdom after Brexit. Since 2008, the Irish republican party Sinn Féin has been advocating that these protections be strengthened by legislation.
- In the judicial system
- In the Northern Ireland Assembly (Stormont)
- With public sector services
- In Irish-medium education
- On bilingual signage
- the Official status of the language;
- Irish in the Assembly;
- Irish in Local Government;
- Irish and the BBC;
- Irish in the Department of Education;
- the role of a Language Commissioner; and=
Other proposals have included replicating the Welsh or the Scottish Act.
Support and opposition
Irish language activist and unionist Linda Ervine stated that she had come to support the legislation after comments by Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) MLA Gregory Campbell mocking the Irish language. She said that the act would have little effect on non-Irish speakers and that some politicians had engaged in "scaremongering". When a draft bill was leaked after talks stalled in 2018, Irish language groups criticized the legislation for not going far enough, specifically in not creating new rights for Irish speakers. Meanwhile, DUP supporters condemned the compromise legislation.
In 2017, pressure group An Dream Dearg organized a rally in favour of the act in Belfast, attracting several thousand supporters. In May 2019, more than 200 prominent Irish people signed an open letter urging Republic of Ireland head of government Leo Varadkar and then-Prime Minister of the UK Theresa May to support the act.
DUP leader Arlene Foster has stated that it would make more sense to pass a Polish Language Act than an Irish Language Act, because more Northern Ireland residents speak Polish than Irish. Her claim has been disputed by fact checkers. Foster also stated that "If you feed a crocodile they're going to keep coming back and looking for more" with regard to Sinn Féin's demands for the act and accused the party of "using the Irish language as a tool to beat Unionism over the head."
Role in political deadlock (2017–2020)
In January 2017, Sinn Féin deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness resigned in protest over the Renewable Heat Incentive scandal, and the party declined to replace him. Due to Northern Ireland's power-sharing system, a government cannot be formed without both parties, and the Stormont Assembly was suspended.
Gerry Adams, then Sinn Féin leader, stated in August 2017 that "There won't be an assembly without an Acht na Gaeilge." According to The Independent in 2019, the Irish Language Act has become the most public issue of disagreement in discussions about restoring Stormont, and it is "almost certainly" required for a deal to be made to end the deadlock.
On 11 January 2020, Sinn Féin and the DUP re-entered devolved government with the appointments of DUP leader Arlene Foster as Northern Ireland's first minister, and Sinn Féin's Michelle O'Neill as deputy first minister.
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