Dear Mrs Foster,
We are writing this open letter to you to ask you to clarify your party’s stance on the Irish Language Act and to reiterate the reasons for the community-based demand for legislation, reasons also explained by our recent delegation to meet with you and other party members at Stormont. Our delegation included representatives of POBAL, the south and east Belfast Irish language organisation, An Droichead, the Irish Medium education resource centre, An tÁisaonad, and the Armagh Irish language group, Cairde Teo.
The Irish language here remains the only primary indigenous language in these islands that is not subject to specific domestic legislative protection. Welsh has been protected by the Welsh Language Act since 1993, and more recently, the legal regime for Welsh has been further developed by the Welsh Language Measure 2011. Scottish Gaelic is now subject to the Gaelic Language (Scotland) Act 2005. The Irish language is also the subject of constitutional protections and the Official Languages Act 2003 in the south.
The need for appropriate domestic legislation for the Irish language here is one that has been clear to our community for many years. It has been a consistent demand from Irish speakers for over forty years. It is an issue that POBAL, as the non-governmental independent advocacy organisation for the Irish speaking community in the north, has encountered again and again in different forms in the course of our work. Since our inception, it has been a question that we have consistently raised at all levels of government and in the broader society. This work has also included research into the needs and priorities of our community, training in language awareness and best practice for government, public and community sectors, and the ongoing monitoring of the implementation of current international legislative protections for Irish.
We are well aware that legislation is a complex area, and POBAL has sought to build and focus the debate so that the Irish speaking community can move forward with clear, strong and agreed proposals on what is needed. To this end, POBAL has driven forward a consultative process that began in the autumn of 2004. Working with support from Irish speakers in all sectors and all areas, we have organised international conferences and public discussions and the production and distribution of our draft legislative proposals in the document The Irish Language Act Issue II. Our work has been carried out at all times with the invaluable advice and support of a number of highly distinguished experts in international law and human rights. We are particularly grateful to Prof. Robert Dunbar (University of Edinburgh), Prof. Wilson McLeod (University of Edinburgh), Dr. Maurice Hayes, former Head of the NI Civil Service, Prof. Colin H. Williams (University of Cardiff) and Prof Fernand de Varennes (Monckton University, Canada) who have contributed immeasurably to the proposals.
POBAL’s Irish Language Act NI document incorporates the views and needs of the Irish speaking community and others who have taken part in the consultative processes and the best international practice on language rights. Among the Irish language groups that have taken part in our various consultations are: An Droichead, Cumann Cultúrtha Mhic Reachtain, Cultúrlann McAdam Ó Fiaich, GESO, Altram, Ionad Uíbh Eachach, Cumann Staire Uí Fhiaich, An Cumann Cluain Árd, An Ceathrú Póilí, Aisling Ghéar, Taca, An Carn, Cumann Cultúrtha Leath Chathail, Gaelphobal an tSratha Báin, Pobal Mhuileann an tSín, Pobal Bhaile an Chaistil, Cairde Teo, An tÁisaonad, Iontaobhas na Gaelscolaíochta, Comhairle na Gaelscolaíochta, In addition to a wide range of schools, local councils and human rights organisations.
Our proposals are a powerful, agreed advocacy instrument which contributed to the inclusion in the St Andrews’ Agreement (October 2006), of the following British government commitment:
“The Government will 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.”
There have been some important developments since 2006 but also, unfortunately, no similar progress in terms of legislation for the Irish language. There have been three public consultations by government in 2007 and 2014 on the need for Irish language legislation, all of which showed overwhelming and widespread support for the POBAL proposals. Another important development has been the support of international bodies for the introduction of Irish language legislation. These have included the Advisory Committee on the Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities (2007, 2011, 2017), the United Nations Committee for Social, Economic and Cultural Rights (2009, 2016), the Committee of Experts on the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages (2010, 2014) and most recently, in 2017, a further report of the Advisory Committee of the Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities listed, amongst the issues for immediate attention, the adoption of ‘appropriate legislation protecting and promoting the Irish language’ and called for the authorities to ‘take measures to ensure progress on language rights’ of persons belong to the Irish-speaking community.
POBAL’s legislative proposals continue to have the strong support of the Irish language community, its supporters and those with an interest in building an equal society. The experience of the last ten years has only confirmed our view and that of those who have contributed to the creation of the POBAL proposals, that legislation in the form we recommend is essential, both in terms of satisfying the needs and aspirations of the Irish language community and, also crucially, the legal obligations of the UK. The introduction of the Irish Language Act is an enabling action that will clarify the rights of Irish speakers and the responsibilities of public and government bodies. It will make it easier for individuals to understand and protect their rights and it will enable those working in the government and public sectors to fulfil their duties. It will assist in harmonising indigenous language protections throughout the UK and will help unify equality and rights legislation. In conjunction with the Irish speaking community, and with the generous support of international legal experts, POBAL has presented clear, consistent and realistic proposals. We believe that they will contribute to the enacting, within the near future, of a comprehensive Irish Language Act.
POBAL, independent advocacy organisation for the Irish speaking community.