The law, language and identity debate in Northern Ireland: some thoughts on the on-going struggle to find consensus

Verona Ní Dhrisceoil
Verona Ní Dhrisceoil

If language was merely a communicative tool it would pack a much lighter emotional punch (J Edwards, 2003)

On the 17th January the Committee of Experts (COMEX) published the Fourth Report on the application of the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages (ECRML) by the United Kingdom. In it, the COMEX chastised the UK Government and the Northern Ireland Assembly (NIA) for the lack of progress made in relation to the protection and promotion of the Irish language in Northern Ireland since the previous monitoring round and also for the complete failure to comply with the reporting requirements under Art.15 of the Charter. On the basis of the findings of the Fourth Report, the Committee of Ministers (CoM) have now recommended that the authorities of the United Kingdom “as a matter of priority … adopt and implement a comprehensive Irish language policy, preferably through the adoption of legislation providing statutory rights for Irish speakers.”

This latest recommendation offers an opportunity to revisit the law, language and identity debate in Northern Ireland and to consider the extent to which language as a marker of cultural identity continues to be contested. Notwithstanding the commitments made in the Belfast Agreement – to peace, to equality, parity of esteem and indeed, “respect for linguistic diversity”, it is now clear that expressions of culture and identity, whether through voice or symbols continue to be a source of deep rooted conflict in Northern Ireland. The recent flag debate and the violence that ensued illustrates this point well. In essence, cultural differences central to the ‘traditional’ conflict in Northern Ireland remain salient. More broadly, the discussion here can be viewed in light of the NIHRC’s current project exploring the protection and promotion of the human right to culture in the context of societies emerging from conflict.


Readers may recall that as part of the St Andrews Agreement in 2006 (to restore devolution) the United Kingdom made a commitment to “introduce an Irish Language Act reflecting on the experience of Wales and Ireland and work with the incoming Executive to enhance and protect the development of the Irish language” (Annex B). This has, as we now know, never transpired. Yes, two consultation processes on the introduction of an Irish language Act followed in –  2006 and 2007 respectively but when government devolved to Northern Ireland in May 2007, the Language Act ‘issue’ then became a matter for the Northern Ireland Assembly. At the time, much criticism from supporters of Irish language legislation was levied at the British Government for ‘closing the window’ on Westminster legislation when it was quite clear that should it become a devolved matter, unionist parties would seek to block any such legislation. This is precisely what happened and since then the Irish language issue and language more generally has become deeply embedded in identity politics.

Following the two consultation processes, then Minister for Culture, Arts, and Leisure Edwin Poots  decided against introducing language legislation in October 2007. In his view, it would be unwise to introduce a Language Act because of, “insufficient community consensus, potentially significant costs and a real possibility that legislation could undermine good relations”. His successor, Gregory Campbell also declined to introduce an Act in 2008. According to Campbell, the responsibility of a language Act belonged to central government, and it was something the “British Dept Arts CultureGovernment and the Government of the Irish Republic committed themselves to” – his party did not.

It is in this political context that demands have also been made for greater protection of the Ulster Scots language in Northern Ireland. Ulster Scots is recognised as a language under the ECRML but only as a Part II language meaning that the UK authorities and the devolved administration have not agreed to undertake any specific undertakings, under Art.8. McDermott notes that the “potential encroachment of Irish culture in the public space has been perceived in some quarters as a loss for the unionist community”. For many unionists, an increase in Irish language rights is seen as a direct threat and attack on their culture and identity. In response, Ulster Scots has been mobilized by some unionists as a badge of their cultural identity and as a retort to the demands for increased legislative status for the Irish language.

More recently, the appointment of Carál Ní Chuilín (from the Sinn Féin political party and supporter of Irish language matters) as Minister for Culture, Arts and Leisure has seen greater support for Irish language policy. The Minister has also sought to work towards promoting  Ulster Scots under her remit as can be seen from the establishment of MAGUS. With respect to Irish, she declared, soon after her appointment, that she would present proposals to the Northern Ireland Assembly for an Irish Language Act and a language strategy. In an attempt to depoliticise ‘language’, the Minister claimed during the launch of a Draft Language Strategy that the purpose “is to make the Irish language more accessible, to promote Irish in a positive and progressive way and, in doing so, break down barriers and negative preconceptions affecting the language”. The hostility towards any increased protection, however, remains steadfast. Unionist political parties have reminded the current Minister that any Irish language Bill will need Executive and Assembly approval and according to Michelle McIlveen (DUP Party), “it won’t get it”.

Beyond the COMEX, it should also be noted that the NIHRC, the UN CESCR and the Advisory Committee of the FCNM have all called for the adoption of legislative protection for the Irish language in Northern Ireland but again those statements and recommendations have fallen on deaf ears both in Westminster and Stormont.

The struggle in accommodating culture, identity, language…

In terms of wondering what may come of this latest COMEX Report and recommendation from the CoM, it strikes me that very little will change and the political wrangling and polarisation of ‘language’ will continue. Though often framed as a fiscal related argument, it becomes clear that arguments rejecting increased legislative protection for the Irish language are firmly connected to cultural identity. That will not change. As noted by McEvoy, even after signing peace agreements, groups often continue to “rely on a system of meanings and repositories of memories to interpret both the conflict and the new political framework”. The Fourth Report and the clear recommendation from the Committee of Ministers do bring an authoritative statement about obligations on UK authorities and devolved administration to introduce language legislation to give effect to the promises made in the St Andrews Agreement and the commitments made under the ECRML. However, in essence, that is all the Committee can do. No individual rights arise from the ECRML nor can any real sanctions be imposed.

As I have noted elsewhere, I support the idea of increased legislative protection for the Irish language in Northern Ireland and on that basis statements from the COMEX are to be welcomed. And yet, the sceptic in me and, more generally, my interest in exploring rights debates through a lens of substantive equality, lead me to wonder whether a language legislative or rights framework in the current political context in Northern Ireland can ever be achieved. And if some measure is to be introduced, whether it could be more destructive than constructive both to the peace process and goodwill towards the language? Can a rights/legislative framework, especially one that embodies language and identity be achieved in any true sense within the consociation – power sharing model in Northern Ireland? Colin Harvey and Alex Schwartz in Rights in Divided Societies (Chapter 6) have deliberated at length about the challenges posed by the model adopted in Northern Ireland in the accommodation of difference and the fulfilment of human rights. On the Bill of Rights discussion they write (p.125):

“[I]n a deeply divided society. A would be-bill of rights must also pass through a kind of double ‘veto-gate’; the bill must secure sufficient support from (at least) two distinct sets of political elites whose attitudes and interests will have been shaped by very different experiences”.

Some final thoughts

Thus, it could be some time (if ever) before consensus is reached on Irish language legislation in Northern Ireland. (That is, unless the UK authorities will take some kind of lead on the issue – which is doubtful!). Depending on the consultation process currently under way, some consensus may be reached on an Irish language strategy, but even with that many difficulties lay ahead in terms of practical application. In his discussions of language policy more generally, Francois Grin talks about the need for “capacity, opportunities and desire”, in order for any language policy to be effective. It is difficult to envisage, that those tripartite language policy elements can be achieved in the continuing climate of cultural contestation in Northern Ireland.

It appears to me that the language debate in Northern Ireland exposes in a very real way the gaps between the ideals of a rights and equality framework for post-Belfast Agreement governance and the reality of the cultural conflict and contestation that remains steadfast and a challenge to establishing a human rights agenda across, and for all, sectors of the community in Northern Ireland.

Verona Ní Dhrisceoil is Lecturer in Law, University of Sussex.

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