Official Report (Hansard)

Session: 2006/2007

Date: 31 May 2007

Irish Language Legislation

The Chairperson (Mr McElduff):
We will now consider the Committee’s response to consultation on indicative clauses for Irish language legislation. Members will find the relevant information at tab 6 of their packs. That information consists of a foreword on Irish language legislation, a statement from the former Minister, Maria Eagle, some background information on the drafting of the indicative clauses, and the text of the indicative clauses themselves.

The draft clauses cover four main areas: first, the Irish language commissioner and his or her functions; secondly, the duty on public authorities to prepare Irish language schemes; thirdly, the use of Irish in courts and tribunals; and fourthly, forums on the Irish language. That is an overview of the indicative clauses.

I ask the Committee Clerk to explain the procedure for this item of business, including how it will be taken forward and discussed.

The Committee Clerk:
A protocol was agreed between the Departments and the Executive during the first Assembly mandate to the effect that Committees would be consulted on draft legislation and on the policies that underlie it at appropriate stages. Consequently, when a Bill is introduced, its provisions do not come as a complete surprise to the Committee. The Department is following that protocol in this case.

The consultation on the Bill occurred during the period of direct rule. Therefore the Committee has been brought into the process at the earliest possible stage. This meeting is an opportunity for Committee members to give their views on the indicative clauses and to submit those views to the Department.

The Chairperson:
Will the Committee consider each clause individually?

The Committee Clerk:
These proceedings are unlike a Committee Stage of a Bill, in that no vote is required. However, the Committee may wish to express its views.

Mr D Bradley:
Based on my conversations with them, I am aware that most Irish language groups find the indicative clauses lacking in many ways. For example, there was an expectation that there would be some reference in the legislation to Irish-medium education and the right of parents to choose it. It was also hoped that parents could have their children learn Irish at school if they so wished. That has been ignored.

I know that broadcasting is a reserved matter, but it is extremely important to language development. It too has been omitted.

As an Irish speaker and a Member of the Assembly, I would like to use Irish in the Chamber as much as possible. However, I find that I am obliged to translate everything that I say in Irish into English.

Simultaneous translation services are provided in other legislatures; they are a modern, state-of-the-art convenience for people who want to speak in a minority language or in a language other than English. Such provision is not available in the Assembly; therefore if I have a five-minute slot in which to make a speech, my choice to speak bilingually reduces my contribution to two and a half minutes and curtails what I want to say and the ideas that I want to develop.

I recently submitted a question for written answer in Irish and was told by the Business Office that I would have to translate it into English. When I suggested that there was a member of the Assembly staff who had the relevant translation skills, I was told that he was a Hansard specialist and that his expertise was not available to the Business Office. I provided my own translation, but later discovered that only the English version of the question had been published; the Irish version had been left aside. When I queried that, I was told that the Business Office did not have the competence to include questions in Irish in the published list. I found that quite frustrating. In addition, at least a percentage of the documents published by the Assembly should be available in Irish. That issue is part of the debate about the use of Irish in the Assembly — and indeed in local councils — which has been ignored.

I am also anxious about references in the indicative clauses of the Bill to Crown authorities and Crown bodies. I am not sure what, if any, difference there is between Crown authorities and Crown bodies, but neither the clauses of nor the schedules to the Bill indicate which of those authorities or bodies would be affected. It seems that there are quite a few opt-out clauses for Crown bodies, which is far too loose. I would like those aspects of the Bill to be tightened.

Similarly, in relation to the use of Irish in the courts, an opt-out clause appears that is described as “in the interests of justice”. However, the indicative clauses do not explain how or in what context the use of Irish might affect the interests of justice. I would like to see detailed clarification of those aspects of the Bill.

The language schemes are not defined in any way, and it seems that a body may be free to design its own scheme. If that is acceptable to the commissioner, well and good. However, the lack of definition of the content of schemes could lead to much wrangling between the commissioner and local authorities. That would stall the provision of services; I expect that it would also result in the constant referral of schemes to the Secretary of State for deliberation, which is not a good thing. The powers of the commissioner should be extended so that he can monitor the way in which state bodies and local councils implement the schemes and fulfil their duties under the legislation.

Furthermore, the commissioner must have the power to investigate any complaints that members of the public make, and, in certain circumstances, initiate a review if there is a failure to act on the rights of Irish speakers. The commissioner must also have the power to tell the public what their rights would be under the proposed legislation.

My contribution is not a comprehensive reaction to the indicative schemes; I have merely raised points that I picked up from conversations with various Irish-language groups. The SDLP will respond in more detail to the consultation document. Thank you. Go raibh maith agat.

The Chairperson:
Go raibh maith agat as sin.

Mr P Maskey:
Go raibh maith agat arís. I agree with everything that Dominic said; he covered many of the issues, saying that the legislation ought to be established firmly on a rights basis.

The apparent lack of direction with regard to Irish-language broadcasting means that it must be included in the Bill. Signage and street names were mentioned, and those must also be clearly demonstrated in any legislation.

Personal names — as well as street signs — ought to be recognised more. We had some trouble in the Chamber when some Members could not pronounce Irish names and had to learn them. They have since done that, but it remains an issue. The Business Committee is considering ways in which to address such matters, including how motions are tabled. Given that many MLAs are councillors as well, councils need to be included in the proposals. Sin é.

The Chairperson:
Go raibh maith agat. Do members have any other contributions to make?

Mr Brolly:
To reinforce Paul’s point, supporters of the Irish language Bill do not want a schemes-based approach. People’s right to speak Irish should be the bedrock of the legislation. There cannot be individual schemes for this or that, and, as Dominic said, there are reservations about certain elements of some schemes. A right, if it is a right, is 100% a right.

Mr McCausland:
The comments of the members opposite are intended to enhance and strengthen the Bill. However, there is clear opposition to the proposed legislation. Someone said earlier that this was not a contentious issue. Anyone who suggests that is delusional — it is a contentious issue. That is why there has been so much focus on it. Any attempt to enhance and strengthen an Irish language Bill will merely increase the opposition to it.

The St Andrews Agreement contained three elements on language issues. There was reference to an Irish language Bill as well as comment on the Executive’s developing comprehensive and coherent strategies for Northern Ireland’s two recognised indigenous minority languages, Irish and Ulster Scots. I am interested to know what is being developed in that regard.

It is detrimental to ignore the fact that, at present, the public broadcaster, the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), discriminates against the other minority language in Northern Ireland.

For every hour of Ulster Scots on radio and television, there is a disparity of 100 to one: there is 100 times as much Irish as Ulster Scots. A sporadic half-hour radio programme, which is aired once a week, periodically, is totally inadequate.

A discriminatory pattern has been established in order to give preferential treatment to one minority language over another in broadcasting, resources and funding; in the provision of primary, secondary and tertiary education; and in expenditure by the Department of Education on educational provision. In any sector of society — particularly, as has been noted, in media and education — one will find that Ulster Scots suffers substantial and disgraceful discrimination. The proposed Irish language Act will merely enhance and entrench that discriminatory pattern.

Mr P Ramsey:
I listened to the member’s comments in good faith, and I want to assist him in whatever way I can. Rather that point out the negatives, can he tell the Committee what he wants? I do not wish to be controversial. However, rather than use the Irish language act as an excuse to say that Ulster Scots is discriminated against, can the member not meet parties privately to discuss his proposals to enhance Ulster Scots? He would find the door open.

Mr D Bradley:
Does Mr McCausland agree that the Ulster-Scots cultural and linguistic community is much more underdeveloped than its Irish language counterpart? Thirty years ago, I set up an Irish language summer school in my local village to teach language, music, song, dance and sports. Local people funded it by paying for their children to attend. Grant aid was not available from the council or from any other source, and Foras na Gaeilge did not exist. Local people paid the teachers, who were full-time professionals, to work at the school. It is still in operation today.

Recently, I talked to people who are interested in setting up a similar school for Ulster Scots; I gave them advice and explained how the school had been set up. Ulster Scots is not discriminated against; rather, developmentally, the Ulster-Scots linguistic and cultural community has not reached the same stage as that of the Irish language. As Pat Ramsey said, my party is willing to examine any proposals that Mr McCausland has.

Mr P Ramsey:
We will discuss the needs and aspirations of Ulster Scots.

The Chairperson:
I want to ask Mr McCausland to respond to those comments as quickly as possible. We are dealing with indicative clauses for the Irish language legislation.

Mr McCausland:
I accept that. However, the two members were given ample opportunity to quiz me. It would be wrong if I were not given enough time to respond to their points.

The Chairperson:
Indeed, but I must also have an eye on the clock.

Mr McCausland:
In 2002, when those issues were taken up with the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure and the devolved Minister Michael McGimpsey, various clear-cut examples of discrimination were put before him. For instance, the Ulster-Scots sector relies on volunteers to do 99% of the work because it has only three or four full-time employees. We were told that the Department would set up the Ulster-Scots Future Search programme. A conference was organised to take place in November 2002 after the re-introduction of direct rule.

Five years later, our approach to the Minister has delivered nothing because of Government apathy, lethargy and, in some cases, obstructionism.

I refer to a paper that was read into the record of a meeting of the Committee on the Preparation for Government last summer. It was produced by Tony Canavan, a civil servant from the former central community relations unit (CCRU), and subsequently appeared in the ‘Andersonstown News’. Mr Canavan deliberately set out a strategy on how to use the Irish language for political ends in negotiations with Sinn Féin and, at the same time, ensure that the Ulster-Scots language received nothing.

The legacy of the policy implemented by the CCRU in the 1990s lives on. Some £12 million was given to the Irish-language film fund, and a similar amount was set aside for an Ulster-Scots academy. To date, apart from a small amount of funding for administration and so forth, £11·9 million remains unspent, because obstacles have prevented the academy getting off the ground.

Before direct rule ended, the Minister signed off the business case for consultation on the academy, which is listed in the Committee papers, and we are still waiting for that to be circulated. The implementation group in Newtownards operates without even proper administrative support. The treatment of Ulster Scots has been a disgrace, and the Committee should progress both languages on the basis of equality.

Mr Brolly:
I note that no provision is made for Ullans in Scotland, only for Scots Gaelic. Is there any association between the Ulster-Scots movement here and Ullans speakers in Scotland?

Mr P Ramsey:
Certain people have used the confidence and capacity of some communities in supporting the Irish language as an excuse to blame them indirectly for the lack of grass-roots support for Ulster Scots. However, the SDLP is open to hearing Nelson McCausland’s proposals.

Mr McCausland:
In response to Francie Brolly’s point, the language spoken in Scotland is not Ullans any more than is the language spoken here. Ulster Scots is spoken here, and Scots or Lallans is spoken in Scotland.

There is contact between the Ulster-Scots movement here and Lallans speakers in Scotland. The founders of the Ulster-Scots Language Society were former members of the Scots Language Society. I have attended meetings of the Scots Language Society on behalf of Ulster-Scots groups in Northern Ireland. Ulster Scots and Lallans are sister languages in the same way as Scots Gaelic and Irish Gaelic.

The Chairperson:
Stepping out of the role of Chairperson for a moment, I favour a strong rights-based approach to any Irish language Act or legislation. I envisage the Act being about safeguarding rights. A commissioner should be appointed and given adequate powers to oversee the outworking of the Act. I will paraphrase a quote that I heard earlier this week during a presentation by Pobal in Room 135. The quote comes from the Equality Commission: those who seek to assert their rights should not attempt to deny the rights of others. I think that that is the point that Pat Ramsey was making.

The Committee’s response to the indicative clauses must reach the Department by Tuesday 5 June. Will the Committee agree that the Committee staff draft a response for agreement based on Hansard and that it be issued to meet the deadline?

Members indicated assent.

Mr McCausland:
Will the opposing unionist view be noted?

The Chairperson:
Absolutely. It will be based on the Hansard report, which will be complete.

Mr D Bradley:
Is the member speaking on behalf of Mr McNarry as well?

Mr McCausland:
There are no Ulster Unionists in the room at this point.