Official Report (Hansard)
Date: Thursday, 31 January 2008
31 January 2008
Members present for all or part of the proceedings:
Mr Barry McElduff (Chairperson)
Mr David McNarry (Deputy Chairperson)
Mr Francie Brolly
Mr Kieran McCarthy
Mr Nelson McCausland
Mr Pat Ramsey
Mr Jim Shannon
The Minister for Culture, Arts & Leisure ) Mr Poots
Mr Brian Smart ) Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure
The Chairperson (Mr McElduff):
I welcome the Minister for Culture, Arts and Leisure, Edwin Poots, and one of his senior colleagues, Mr Brian Smart, to the Committee. Mr Smart will join the Minister in making a presentation about the language and linguistic operations aspect of the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure. The presentation deals with the strategies related to the Irish language and the Ulster-Scots language, heritage and culture. Minister, you are welcome. Tá fáilte romhat. That is “fair fa ye” in Ulster Scots. Is that right?
If what you have just said means “hello”and “welcome”, you are right.
Will we talk any English in this Committee? We should respect the English language.
Most of it will be in English.
Let us start off on a good footing.
The Committee for Culture, Arts and Leisure is an appropriate place for a language discussion.
The Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure (Mr Poots):
Chairman, you will be aware that I made a statement to the Assembly on 16 October 2007 setting out my views on the proposed Irish language Bill. Subsequently, I appeared before the Committee on 25 October to answer questions on indigenous languages and to seek the Committee’s views on the way forward for language policy. In addition, I wrote to you on 12 December as a reminder that I would appreciate the opportunity to reflect on the Committee’s views before I finalise my own thoughts on those matters and prepare a paper for the Executive Committee.
On the two occasions mentioned, I explained my reasons for not bringing forward legislation by way of an Irish language Bill, namely that in view of the political sensitivities that surround linguistic and cultural policy issues, the proposals to introduce an Irish language Bill could be divisive throughout the community and would not command the necessary support in the Assembly, on the grounds that it would be incapable of securing sufficient consensus. Legislation could seriously undermine the efforts of those in the Irish-speaking community who genuinely want to develop the language in a depoliticised and wholly inclusive manner.
The table in my submission sets out existing expenditure and the anticipated cost of introducing legislation over a five- and 10-year period. The existing Irish language commitments for all Departments during the five years between 2008 and 2013 will amount to £55·311 million. Over 10 years, that will amount to £116·378 million. The estimated additional funding required as a result of introducing Irish language legislation would be a further £26·367 million over five years, and £56·638 million over 10 years. The subtotals are £81·678 million for five years, and £173·016 million for 10 years.
With regard to existing commitments to Irish-medium and higher education, there is further expenditure of £56·33 million for five years, and £118·522 million for 10 years. If Irish language legislation were introduced, therefore, the total expenditure on Irish would sit at £138·008 million for the first five years, or £291·538 million during the 10-year period.
The costing exercise was focused on the 11 Northern Ireland Civil Service Departments, which employ 22,973 staff and the NIO, which employs approximately 2,000. In the wider public sector, which includes local government, health trusts, education and library boards and the various non-departmental public bodies, 11,128 people are employed. Therefore, if that modest exercise to estimate the cost of implementing a language-scheme approach in 11 Northern Ireland Civil Service Departments and the NIO were to be extrapolated across the wider public sector and, for example, the agreed language scheme required public bodies to provide bilingual services, the costs would clearly be significant.
As a community, we are challenged to find new ways of managing our rich cultural diversity. That is enshrined in the duty placed upon the Executive by the Northern Ireland (St Andrews Agreement) Act 2006 to adopt a strategy that sets out how it proposes to enhance and protect the development of the Irish language, and to adopt a strategy that sets out how it proposes to enhance and develop the Ulster-Scots language, heritage and culture. In that regard, the UK Government signed the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages on 2 March 2000. The charter was ratified on 27 March 2001 and came into force on 1 July.
The European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages is an international convention that is designed to protect and promote such languages. In Northern Ireland, the charter applies to Irish and Ulster Scots. The Committee of Experts (Comex) that examined the implementation of the charter in the UK recommended the development of a comprehensive policy for the Irish language. It is my assessment that the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages presents a more cost-effective method of enhancing and protecting the development of the Irish language than that offered by proposed legislation.
I acknowledge that there are those in the Northern Ireland community with legitimate aspirations to secure official recognition for, and protection of, the Irish language and the other indigenous language, Ulster Scots.
As regards ongoing work with indigenous languages, a range of projects and activities related to Irish and Ulster Scots is funded locally. Existing commitments for the development of the Irish language across all Northern Ireland Departments over the next five years amount to £55 million. In addition, commitments to Irish-medium education and higher education are estimated at £56 million over the next five years. Therefore, even without introducing an Irish language Act, the Executive is scheduled to spend approximately £111 million on Irish-language projects and education over the next five years — a substantial amount.
It is estimated that the Executive will spend £12·55 million on funding for the Ulster-Scots Agency over the next five years. Approximately £11 million is available for the establishment of the proposed Ulster-Scots academy.
The UK Government has signed up to 36 provisions for the Irish language under Part III of the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages. Those relate to activities in areas ranging from education to the media. Ulster Scots is recognised under Part II of the charter, but it is not subject to the strength of provision that is made for Irish. Work is ongoing in the Ulster-Scots community to strengthen the language’s position.
The UK Government is committed to providing a three-year periodical report on the implementation of the charter for each language that it has agreed to protect, including Irish and Ulster Scots. The third report is due in June 2008, and will be co-ordinated by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, with input from each jurisdiction. My Department will co-ordinate input from the Northern Ireland Departments with regard to Irish and Ulster Scots. Following the submission of the UK’s report, a Committee of Experts will visit the UK and will report on implementation from an independent perspective. At that stage, stakeholder groups across the Irish-language and Ulster-Scots communities will have an opportunity to comment on the implementation of the charter groups, and individuals will be notified in advance, by the Council of Europe, of the visit by the Committee of Experts, as it is an independent assessment.
The last report by the Committee of Experts, in 2006, considered Northern Ireland to be largely compliant with its obligations, although it requested further information on several specific obligations. That additional information will be supplied in the UK’s third periodical report.
The interdepartmental charter implementation group continues, every quarter, to monitor compliance with the charter across Northern Ireland Departments. The last meeting was in late January 2008. The group is considering how best to take forward recommendations that were made by the Committee of Experts with regard to a comprehensive Irish-language policy and efforts to strengthen the position of Ulster Scots. It is likely that the group will recommend to Ministers that the development of strategies to implement the charter under the Northern Ireland (St Andrews Agreement) Act 2006 will be the most appropriate way in which to effect those recommendations.
In conclusion, I am content that the commitments given in relation to indigenous languages, as outlined in the Northern Ireland (St Andrews Agreement) Act 2006, can best be met through the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages. In doing so, I recognise the full range of projects and educational activities that are currently supported to enhance, develop and protect the Irish language and the Ulster Scots language, culture and heritage. Against that background, and subject to input from the Committee, I propose to bring to the Executive Committee a paper that will be aimed at meeting the commitments in the Northern Ireland (St Andrews Agreement) Act 2006 in the context of the obligations placed upon us by the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages.
Thank you, Minister. I neglected to say, before the Minister’s presentation, that Hansard is covering this meeting and members must make absolutely sure that their mobile phones are switched off.
Four members have indicated that they wish to ask questions.
Thank you, Minister, for your presentation and for providing some facts about the languages. My first question relates to the spend for the Irish language.
Is it not true to say that, in all honesty, the Province cannot afford to provide this all-seeing, all-knowing, luxury version of the Irish language Act, which will cost £291·538 million over 10 years? The Committee is well aware that there are other demands on the Culture, Arts and Leisure budget; for example, sport, arts, culture and the forthcoming Olympic Games. Thus, there are many commitments. Is it not the case that we simply cannot afford this luxury version of the legislation that some people seem to think would be appropriate? That £291 million could be spent elsewhere.
That is my first question.
Jim, I might let another Member ask a few questions now before the Minister replies to your questions as this will be a very involved debate.
Could I ask the Minister a second question, in that case?
Yes, absolutely. I ask the Minister to answer your questions and Pat Ramsey’s questions together.
I want to ask about Ulster Scots. Setting aside that figure of £291·538 million for the moment, the expenditure over the next five years on Irish language projects and education will be some £111 million. Thus, a real commitment to the Irish language has already been made. I am somewhat perturbed that the expenditure figures for Ulster Scots total £23·5 million and, that, in contrast, the figure for the Irish language is £111 million. Is there sufficient money in the budget to ensure that the Ulster-Scots language and culture can develop?
Mr P Ramsey:
I welcome the Minister and thank him for attending today.
The Minister will be aware that there is still anger and frustration among the Irish-language community because the Irish language Act has not been introduced. I note some of the language that the Minister used — the words “enhance” and “protect”. Presumably, one would want key aims of the strategy to be to enhance, protect and develop the Irish language.
I presume that the strategy that the Minister has outlined will be developed in conjunction with the Irish-speaking community. I hope that their participation and input will be facilitated, and the appropriate resources provided.
The Minister also mentioned partnership projects. Could he tell us what they will be? There should be a clear timescale for the implementation of the Irish language strategy, and a defined action plan. It should be clear who owns the strategy and what the community’s role will be in developing it. More important, though, is the funding and implementation of that strategy. The strategy should be holistic and include and support all the activities that pertain to the Irish-language sector. The bottom line is that there should be full consultation with all those involved in the sector and an assurance that they will have some level of ownership of it.
Jim Shannon’s first question was about the affordability of the Irish language Act. Obviously, Government must set priorities, and people have different priorities. Some people think that health should be focused on, almost to the exclusion of any other area, while others think that the most important area is infrastructure or education.
My Department made bids for funding. Some other Ministers challenged me about the Irish language Act, and I asked them if they would be prepared to give me some of their funding to enable me to introduce it. None of them volunteered or offered any funding from their Departments to assist me in delivering Irish-language legislation in Northern Ireland. I want to make it clear that no Minister from any political party was prepared to support me financially in developing an Irish language Act; therefore, all costs would have to be sustained exclusively by my Department.
I understand that one of my departmental officials appeared before the Committee last week, and that he was asked many questions about funding of various departmental areas — libraries, arts, sport and so on. Members wanted to know why more funding had not been allocated to one area or another, and whether the Department thought that there was enough funding going to a particular sector. Clearly, the Committee has identified that there are still areas of weakness in the departmental spend.
I lay down a challenge to Committee members; if I am to introduce this legislation, and if the funding for it is to come from my Department, can they demonstrate where it will come from? In which areas should I make the cuts? Other Ministers are not prepared to support me; I will have to do it on my own. I ask the Committee to demonstrate where I can make the cuts in other areas and achieve what is sought.
The spending on Ulster Scots refers to the identified spending across all the Departments. I have responsibility for the spending in DCAL alone. In DCAL, spending on Ulster Scots will rise significantly over the next three years. A baseline of £2·9 million in 2007-08 will rise to £4·942 million in 2008-09. In 2009-10, the baseline will be £7·064 million, and in 2010-11 it will be £5·734 million. Funding for the Irish language will start off with a baseline of £7·18 million in 2007-08, rising to £8·385 million in 2008-09. In 2009-10, the baseline will be £3·999 million, and, in 2010-11, it will be £4·171 million. Therefore, there is more of an equalisation in funding in DCAL than was previously the case. I can be responsible only for my own Department.
Can those figures for funding for the Irish language be made available after the meeting?
Yes, those figures will be published as a written answer to a question that was tabled by Mr Storey. They will be publicly available.
Mr Ramsey asked about the Irish-language projects in which the Department is involved. Foras na Gaeilge, which is a North/South body funded by the Department but at arm’s length from it, is responsible for projects. There is a similar arrangement with the Ulster-Scots Agency, Sport NI and the Arts Council. Foras na Gaeilge is involved in a considerable number of projects, including summer schools and outreach work to children. During the last North/South Ministerial Council meeting of the Language body in sectoral format, we received a report from Foras na Gaeilge, detailing its work with youth groups during the summer camps and its Irish-in-the-community scheme. Irish-language speakers in the community schemes were divided equally — 10 in Northern Ireland and 10 in the Republic of Ireland. Furthermore, Foras na Gaeilge has initiated a teaching materials scheme, scholarships for teacher-training colleges and third-level scholarships. It has in place an Irish language officer scheme to promote best practice in Irish language teaching in English-medium schools and business schools. Those are some of the current projects.
The creation of a strategy, setting out how the Executive propose to protect the development of the Irish language, is part of the Northern Ireland (St Andrews Agreement) Act 2006. Moreover, it fits in with the recommendations of the Committee of Experts. The Department is considering drawing up that strategy.
I explained the outcome of consultation process for the proposed Irish language legislation to the Assembly on 16 October 2007, and to the Committee for Culture, Arts and Leisure on 25 October 2007. In my letter, dated 12 December 2007, I requested thoughts and views of the Committee on the development of the strategy. I have not yet received any support for that. It would be better for the Committee, and those with a particular interest in the indigenous languages, to work with me on the development of the strategy, and how it can be brought about, rather than hang their hats out for something that is currently unachievable. Even if I were minded to create an Irish language Act, that would still be unachievable because it would not get through the Assembly. If Committee members are interested in the development of indigenous languages, I ask them to work with me on a strategy.
Mr P Ramsey:
Can the Minister and the Department confirm that they will work in conjunction with the speaking-language sector in the development of the strategy? There would not be much point in the strategy if that sector were not part of it.
I am happy to work with everyone that is involved with the indigenous languages.
I want to make clear the benefits of an indigenous language strategy. It is inclusive, easier to deliver and will provide a degree of all-round equality. I am happy to work with people from the Irish-language and Ulster-Scots sectors. Ultimately, I need people to work with me. Therefore, rather than organising protests and events connected to legislation — and. in any case, and leaving politics to one side, those are not the best way forward — people would be better off working with me on the development of a strategy that may benefit indigenous languages.
I trust that you will be patient with me, because several questions arise from that issue. The Minister is correct that the way forward for both minority languages is through the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages that sets out a good framework for progress. Members must keep in mind, and the Minister touched indirectly on, the concept of a shared future, to which equality, diversity and interdependence are crucial. Linguistic and cultural diversity exist, but we must ensure that there is cultural equality between the two linguistic traditions. There must also be interdependence to avoid segregation.
I have a sense of grievance that goes back, long before the present dispensation, to the last report to the Committee of Experts, which was several years ago. One problem with that report was that it included statements that were simply untrue. For example, the BBC quoted broadcasting figures for both Irish and Ulster Scots. The figures for broadcasts in Ulster Scots included the amount of time given to pipe bands on the radio. With the best will in the world, Tommy Millar’s half-hour radio programme on pipe bands is not an Ulster-Scots language programme. I doubt whether it contains more than about three words of Ulster-Scots.
Nonetheless, it is a very good programme.
It is a good programme. The BBC later apologised and published corrected figures, which showed that it broadcast virtually nothing in Ulster Scots. The BBC is now addressing that issue, but I request an assurance that the next report accurately reflects what is happening on the ground. For example, the last time it was asked whether there was an opportunity to learn the Ulster-Scots language. The answer was that there is an eight-week class in Ulster Scots in the Linen Hall Library. That is in contrast with an entire Irish-medium sector to support the study of the Irish language. No one will learn the language in eight weeks. The process must have integrity, and I ask for an assurance on that.
Some years ago, when Michael McGimpsey was Minister, an Ulster-Scots future search programme was launched. It produced an embryonic report that was never completed, for reasons that did not concern the Ulster-Scots community. Nothing has come from that report, which was an agreed vision developed over three days. The challenge for the Department and the Ulster-Scots community is to find a way to implement that vision, because it is a core element in developing a strategy.
The Minister has asked the Committee for guidance on developing languages. The approach to Irish is cross-departmental, and every Department plays its part. However, when it comes to Ulster Scots, the prevailing attitude is that it is the responsibility of the Ulster Scots Agency. As the Minister admitted, in most years the Department of Education does not spend a single, solitary penny on Ulster Scots. The Committee must challenge other Departments to step up to the line and play their part. I welcome any comments on that.
Finally, what is the Minister’s timescale for taking Ulster Scots from Part II up to Part III of the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages? He said that Ulster Scots is currently recognised under Part II of the charter and is not subject to the strength of provision made for Irish. I am not even sure that the provisions in Part II are fully implemented. The first report Donal Ó Riagáin produced was in 2004 and, under direct rule, it sat in a cupboard and never saw the light of day. It was only found when its existence was pointed out. How do we implement that to proceed to Part III? That should be possible in a couple of years.
Minister, do you want to answer Nelson’s substantial question?
I am happy to do whatever you want.
The Comex group is, of course, independent. It will make an assessment of the information supplied and, to some extent, identify its accuracy. We must also ensure that information supplied to the group is accurate. That is something to look out for, and if members are aware of information that is not accurate, it should be brought to our attention. I am happy to work with the Committee on the future search strategy and on its development.
I cannot speak on behalf of the Department of Education, but members might want to ask whether the Ulster-Scots Agency should pay for the summer schools, rather than the Department of Education. The Committee may wish to take that up with the relevant Department.
It will probably take five years to proceed to Part III. We are, to some extent, reliant on the implementation group getting up and running and, unfortunately, progress on that has been slow, although more progress has been made of late. The timescale might be pulled forward if the implementation group were in operation, but, realistically, it looks like five years.
A cross-departmental approach is essential for both Irish Ulster Scots. If the Minister of Education wants to see progress on the Irish language — and I have no doubt that she does — then she should step up to the line for both languages, so that there would be a cross-departmental approach for both. The Minister of Education must play her part.
I disagree with the five-year timescale; that is an overestimate. The most recent evidence suggests that it could be done in two years — or three at the most.
In relation to the strategy, I hope to look at how other Departments can play their part in facilitating indigenous languages.
I want to see an end to setting the Irish language off against Ulster Scots. I have a great affinity and affiliation with both languages.
Ban the both of them, Francie, and then we would be happy.
David does not speak either language. I understand that there is a difficulty with the Ulster-Scots language. As Nelson said, when listening to Tommy Millar’s programme, there may be only a few words. He chats with people from different areas, and they are very good. They talk about old times, and about ploughing, snedding turnips and such like. It is very entertaining.
There is very little Ulster Scots in the Ulster-Scots Language Society’s journal — it is all in English. Liam Logan did a column for a while.
Did Colin Gillespie do a column?
Colin Gillespie does some writing.
He does bits and pieces.
Excuse me, Mr Chairperson; are they having a wee chat?
No, I am just commenting that the use of Ulster Scots is poor.
Are you moving on swiftly to a question?
Moving on swiftly, the Minister said that we should help. Obviously Sinn Féin wants an Irish language Act, and that is its commitment to Irish language supporters and activists. Sinn Féin is not an Irish language group; it is a group of politicians who have been asked to work on behalf of the Irish language. That is what we do.
Will the Minister think of having a commissioner or group to oversee the development of a strategy? He has already given a commitment that we are working under the St Andrews Agreement and the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages; however, Irish language supporters and activists get the impression that it is a bit like pulling teeth, and that, if the charter and the St Andrews Agreement were not there, the Minister would do very little about the Irish language. As it is, what we get is minimal, and a long way from what is required.
I have a shopping list here. A big concern is the threat to the broadcasting fund after 2008, and I ask the Minister to provide for a sustained into-the-future fund for broadcasting programmes through the medium of Irish. Apart from the important funding we would also like a sign of goodwill from the Minister that he is aware of the rights of Irish speakers, and the right to use the Irish language wherever Irish language speakers are — in politics, in the Chamber in Stormont, for example. In any circumstance in which an Irish language speaker finds himself or herself, he or she should be encouraged to use that language as much as people are encouraged to use good English.
The Minister has covered most of the other areas, and our efforts will help him to come up with a strategy, which we prefer to be overseen by someone who is fully committed to the language.
Two groups currently oversee and act as commissioners: they are the Inter-departmental Charter Implementation Group (ICIG) and the Committee of Experts (Comex), and both are tasked with looking independently at the development of indigenous languages. Furthermore, under the European Charter, we have commitments and obligations to fulfil, and the Department and the Executive will not shirk those responsibilities.
The Department bid for the continuation of the Irish Language Broadcasting Fund, which commenced in June 2005 with a total funding package of £12 million. That was a one-off, to be delivered over a three-year period. It has now actually been rolled out over a four-year period, and that funding was secured for 2008-09 in the budget this year in line with the commitment that was previously made. Unfortunately the resources were not forthcoming from the Department of Finance and Personnel to allow it to continue; the bid was made, but no additional funding was secured. I understand that the Welsh broadcasting fund is imported directly from Westminster, and I have made enquiries about whether that could be the case for Northern Ireland. If so, that will be pursued. Other means of funding the Irish Language Broadcast Fund are being examined.
Minister, the Member is making specific proposals, which is line with your challenge to individuals to work with you and provide proposals.
My strong views that the use of the Irish language is part of the political-agitation agenda are on record, and the problem does not seem to be going away.
Minister, I am glad that you have not introduced an Irish language Act, and I have noted your comments about the unwillingness of your ministerial colleagues to help you out with money. I will not be encouraging you to spend the sums mentioned in the paper that you presented this morning.
You said that the Executive are scheduled to spend approximately £111 million on Irish language projects and education over the next five years. The Assembly recently adopted a Budget for the next three years. Were there any allowances, specific to the Executive’s schedule of the £111 million, in that Budget? If not, how will that money be incorporated into your Department?
I am concerned about the European issue — and I am surprised at the supportive references to it. Are we subservient to Europe on the language issue? I hope not. Are we discussing these issues to comply with the charter? Are these issues out of the Assembly’s hands? Are the powers of Europe not only overriding the sovereignty of the Parliament at Westminster, but anything that we do in the Northern Ireland Assembly? It is similar to the case of the Europeans successfully imposing fines of many millions on us for our water and sewerage dislocations. If we do not comply with the charter, will we be subject to fines or some other retribution by Europe? We must mark time on that, Minister.
I understand what has been said about the Northern Ireland (St Andrews Agreement) Act 2006. Some people have taken that as a promissory note, but I do not know who will deliver on it. We are going out of skelter over the Irish language and its role in the needs of our country. I cannot understand how £111 million has been set aside for it, when I consider what we went through in the Programme for Government and the Budget — the pain that the Finance Minister asked us to take on, and the financial challenges that he introduced. Colleagues, and particularly colleagues in this Committee, said that there were shortfalls in the DCAL budget, and I supported them. The Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety and its Minister went through pain, only to have a shortfall, even now. Furthermore, The Department of Education is in a mess.
I cannot accept that such money will be spent on language-related projects and education. The Minister has asked for our comments to help him address the challenge. I want him to look again at the money. That is not on. That amount of spending cannot be justified to the communities that I represent, and it will not be justified by me to the communities that I represent. Unfortunately, it puts a twist in my arguments, because I will be accused of being a bigot — as I was during the debate on the Irish language Act. Nothing in my heart or mind will lead me to prevent anyone from speaking the wonderful language that Francie Brolly tells me it is.
Mr McNarry, your use of the phrase “wonderful language” is enough to annoy people. Your saying that is despicable. I do not support Francie Brolly, but I challenge David on that; language is all-important.
I understand your sensitivities, Kieran, but I did say “that wonderful language” and I really did not mean to disparage it. I do not understand the language, but it is still wonderful to Francie Brolly, and I respect that it is wonderful to him.
David, I will move you in the direction of a question to the Minister.
My question is about European money and the Budget. No other Minister in the Executive will be of assistance. Is Europe going to help? Will European money be forthcoming that will help us to comply with the charter that it wants us to implement? We need to know that.
Is there any additional European money for language promotion, Minister?
There are three questions in there. First, the amount of £111 million was the spend that we identified for 16 October, before the completion of the comprehensive spending review. Incremental inflation rises would have been built into the additional money that was to roll into years four and five, as opposed to anything further. The money that was identified at the outset would have been what was included in the draft comprehensive spending review, in association with incremental rises over that period.
We work on funding with the European Council, as opposed to the European Parliament or the European Union. Are we subservient to Europe —
Minister, could you elaborate that you are working with them?
I was just coming to that. In 2000, the UK Government gave a commitment that was ratified in 2001. In that sense, we are subservient to Europe, because the UK Government has given a commitment on that particular issue. Some members may view that as lamentable; nonetheless, we find ourselves in that situation.
I am sorry to interrupt. Are you saying that the Irish language in our country, Northern Ireland, is not ours; it belongs to Europe, and that they control it?
As far as the policing of indigenous languages is concerned, yes.
I am largely in agreement with what the Minister said earlier, in that we must work through this together. It is a pity that languages have been politicised in this place.
We cannot afford the figures that have been presented to us. My party voted against the Budget this week because there are many things that have not been funded, and we simply cannot afford to go down the road that we are being asked to take at this time. I have the utmost respect for those people who want to promote Irish, Ulster Scots or any other culture or heritage. However, the Northern Ireland Assembly does not have the money to do that in its entirety. As the Minister says, we must work together to get the best out of what is available.
Minister, my only concern is that, as time goes on, and bearing in mind the shenanigans that went on at St Andrews, your complete refusal to go down that road will run up against the agreements that were made by some groups or parties to implement these provisions. Where will we be then? Will we be forced to find the money? We must acknowledge the Minister’s contention that other Departments — presumably those led by Sinn Féin Ministers, or others — were not prepared to hand over some of their money to the Culture, Arts and Leisure Department so that it could implement Irish language provisions, to the detriment, for example, of the Arts Council, which has not been granted sufficient funding.
Has a commitment been made to implement and fund an Irish language Act?
Everything that I have done up to this point has been consistent with the Northern Ireland (St Andrews Agreement) Act 2006, which was developed on the back of the St Andrews Agreement.
That Act places a duty on the Executive to adopt a strategy on how it will enhance and protect the development of the Irish language. The legislation under which the Assembly operates does not include a commitment to introduce legislation on the Irish language. I am fully compliant with legislation, as it was passed by the sovereign Government of the United Kingdom, to which the Assembly is subservient. The sovereign Government’s power rests at Westminster and is the key authority. However, the matters that we deal with today have been devolved to the Assembly. The sovereign Government have not directed us to do other than that which I have proposed. It is a matter for the Assembly if it wishes to go further. I am compliant with that which has been asked of me by the sovereign Government of the United Kingdom.
I welcome the Minister’s statement that he intends to work in accordance with the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages. In common with other Committee members, I have concerns about the funding of the strategy. The UK’s current economic climate — and that of the world — will worsen. Therefore, the funding is a key issue. Because a lot of European migrant workers come to Northern Ireland, we should encourage them to speak English. Money should be directed towards that end.
Can the Minister give the Committee an indication of the increase in the number of people who speak Irish and Ulster Scots since the establishment of the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages, and the 2001 census? What is that figure?
Currently, we rely on the census figures, which are not regarded as totally reliable. For example the census contained questions such as “Can you speak Irish?” “Can you Speak Spanish?” “Can you speak French?”. I can say a few words in all of those languages. Therefore, while I can say that I speak those languages and I can understand some of each, but I do not have a working knowledge of any of them.
Four thousand children are engaged in Irish-medium education. Clearly, those children will understand Irish language and, probably, there will be some understanding of that language in the homes from which they come. In my estimation, there are growing numbers of people who know and understand the Irish language and Ulster Scots. However, we do not currently have definitive figures or empirical evidence to support that estimate.
Mr P Ramsey:
The Minister referred to the indigenous strategy. Will support structures be included in that strategy in order to help organisation, delivery, effectiveness and capacity-building?
We expect that the Ulster-Scots Agency and Foras na Gaeilge will assist and help development. The Department takes advice from those bodies. I have met both of them independently and as part of the NSMC. I have visited the headquarters of Foras na Gaeilge in Dublin. We are happy to work with those organisations that have the responsibility to work with languages groups and the delivery of the strategy.
Minister, you referred to money that is spent on Irish-medium education. A point was made in the Assembly, by some Members, that that money is, essentially, for education rather than for the teaching of the Irish language. Is it not disingenuous to present money that is spent on Irish-medium education as money spent on Irish language teaching? Children have to be provided with an education, irrespective of their language.
There is, certainly, a cost to providing children with education, irrespective of the language in which it is delivered. An Irish-language school can be set up with as few as 12 children.
Irish language schools generally have smaller classes, and that costs more. Therefore, in that sense, there is an additional cost for Irish-medium education. However, I cannot identify that additional cost from the figures supplied by the Department of Education.
We discussed a cost-benefits analysis. Are you open to the accusation that you are strong on analysing costs but weak on analysing benefits?
It is harder to analyse benefits. As a strategy to do so, we can work with the Committee and language groups to identify benefits and encourage people to put forward what they consider to be benefits. Subsequently, we can revisit this matter.
Do members have any final comments?
Over what timescale could the Department develop a strategy for the two languages?
I am cautious about timescales, although, all things being equal, it could be done for the summertime. However, if responses are slow to come in, how long is a piece of string? For example, if this Committee did not respond until June, that would ensure that developing a strategy would take considerably longer.
That is a good idea.
With a fair wind, we could have a strategy by the summertime, but I am not giving — and it should not be taken as — a commitment to that date. I suspect that it will take longer.
I thank the Minister and Mr Smart for engaging with the Committee about language strategies.