Joint Committee on the Implementation of the Good Friday Agreement
2 March 2021, 10am
Conradh na Gaeilge – Opening speech
Dr Niall Comer, President, Conradh na Gaeilge
‘Greetings. Firstly I would like, on behalf of Conradh na Gaeilge, to thank you for the welcome and for the opportunity to be with you today to discuss the case of the Irish language in the north. Before I begin this discussion, I should mention, as you know, that this year’s Seachtain na Gaeilge started yesterday, 1 March, and this year’s festivities will continue until St. Patrick’s Day. We are very pleased that this event is taking place during Seachtain na Gaeilge. Because of the pandemic this year’s Seachtain na Gaeilge will be held almost entirely online. There will be many great events available to attend and I ask you to make a particular effort this year to use Irish and to advance Irish locally, at party level and at Government meetings, when you have the opportunity. Conradh na Gaeilge and the Seachtain na Gaeilge team will be available to help you do so.
As you know, the theme of our talk and discussion today relates to the question of language rights in the north.
In the Good Friday Agreement of 1998, a new era of equality was promised for the Irish language in the north. Specific and strong commitments were given regarding the promotion and protection of the Irish language, including:
- take resolute action to promote the language;
- to facilitate and encourage the use of the language in speech and in writing in public and private life when there is appropriate demand for such;
- to seek to remove, where possible, restrictions which would discourage or work against the maintenance or development of the language;
- to place a statutory duty on the Department of Education to promote and facilitate Irish-medium education in the same way as is done in the case of integrated education;
Despite these commitments, the Irish speaking community have continuously been obstructed in using the language and continuous attacks have been made on those who choose to live their daily lives through Irish. As a result of that, pressure came from the community itself to ensure Irish language rights are enshrined in law and to achieve Irish language legislation for the first time ever in the north. Arising from those efforts, as part of the Saint Andrews Agreement of 2006 it was clearly promised that “The [British] Government will introduce an Irish Language Act reflecting the experience of Wales and Ireland and work with the Executive to enhance and safeguard the development of the Irish language.” This commitment has never been met.
Unfortunately, by the time of the Assembly Election in 2016, no fewer than 3 opportunities to introduce an Irish Language Act were lost in that 10-year period. The question came before the assembly three times, and public consultation was held on the subject three times; on each occasion there was support from a large majority for Irish Language Rights, but progression was hindered and blocked in the Assembly itself. Thanks to the efforts of the Irish speaking community and Conradh na Gaeilge we managed to encourage a majority of the parties in the Assembly to support a stand-alone Irish Language Act, that is to say 50 out of 90 Members across 5 different parties.
Also at this point the ‘An Dream Dearg’ campaign began, which reinforced the #AchtAnois campaign, and drove it to the very centre of political discourse in the north and put language rights at the top of the programme of talks in the negotiation processes between 2017 and 2020. In January 2020 a new commitment was achieved for Irish language legislation in the “New Decade, New Approach” Agreement and through this legislation the Office of Language Commissioner and “best practice” language standards would be established. Even though the agreement didn’t contain everything we lobbied for, and believe us, it is not one of the best pieces of language legislation ever written, not even close, it is still an opportunity to make a proper start to the statutory protection of the language in the north, which is definitely historic in itself. Many of the provisions included in the legislation were based on recommendations made by Conradh na Gaeilge to the parties and to the two governments over the years.
It was promised that the language legislation would be in force within 100 days of the agreement being agreed to. This didn’t happen. A promise was given also that the promised Irish Language Strategy, also part of the Saint Andrews Agreement of 2006, would be in force within six months. This didn’t happen.
More than a year on from that Agreement the Irish language community is still waiting on these commitments to be fulfilled. The Irish Government and the British Government are co-authors and so-signatories of this agreement, and even though it falls on the Executive itself to implement it, the two governments have a central role in fulfilling this vision without further delay. If these commitments are not fulfilled very soon, there is a serious possibility that its language legislation will be lost out on in the current mandate, and if that happens, rest assured that Irish language legislation will become a bone of contention between the parties in the next election campaign at the beginning of 2022. This would do huge damage to the Irish language and to the Irish speaking community. We wish to avoid that. That can be done by implementing the legislation promised in the NDNA agreement without further delays.
To that end, we would like to ask this Committee to pass a resolution that the committee will contact the interested parties as follows:
- that the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Simon Coveney TD, and British Secretary of State, Brandon Lewis MP, who are both co-signatories of these various agreements, will be written to, and that the Office of the Executive in the north will be written to, to request that they ensure that the Irish language legislation and the Irish Language Strategy promised in the ‘New Decade New Approach’ Agreement are implemented without further delay.
We would be delighted if this resolution was accepted, and Conradh na Gaeilge is happy to cooperate with the Committee in your other efforts to bring about the Irish language commitments in the Good Friday Agreement as soon as possible.
Many thanks to you all for your time.