The St Andrew’s Agreement committed the UK Government to an Irish Language Act, but subsequent legislation compelled the Northern Ireland Executive to produce a strategy (which may or may not include an Irish Language Act).
The following article was originally published by TheJournal.ie FactCheck project, for its coverage of the 2017 election to the Northern Ireland Assembly. It is republished here by FactCheckNI, by collaborative agreement, of potential interest to our readers.
FactCheck: Did the DUP really never commit to an Irish Language Act?
Edwin Poots raised some eyebrows when he refused to accept his party had agreed to an Irish Language Act at St Andrews. So is he right?
LAST WEEK, A DUP member claimed that his party had never agreed to establish an Irish Language Act in Northern Ireland.
This caused a bit of a stir among Northern Ireland political circles as the former two power-sharing parties – the DUP and Sinn Féin – argued about whether it had been agreed as part of the peace process.
Edwin Poots, a former Northern Ireland culture minister and health minister in the now dissolved Stormont Assembly, was being interviewed on BBC Radio Ulster’s The Nolan Show when he made the remark that sparked the confusion.
“The DUP at no point has ever agreed to establish an Irish Language Act with the UK government, with the Irish government, with Sinn Féin or anybody else.”
You can listen to the exchange yourself here (9.25).
On the other side of the debate is Sinn Féin’s take. Sinn Féin’s Conor Murphy, a former Minister for Regional Development in the Assembly said that the DUP committed to an Irish Language Act as part of St Andrews Agreement.
Other Sinn Féin politicians have also suggested this, including Irish language spokesperson Barry McElduff, who said in response to Poots’ radio interview:
“It is utterly ludicrous for Edwin Poots to suggest that the DUP did not sign up to an Irish Language Act and that it is not a matter for them. Respect is a matter for everyone.
“It was part of the terms of the St Andrews Agreement. They signed up to that agreement and they have failed to implement it.”
In response to FactCheck, the DUP reiterated Poots’ claims, stating that “At no point during the St Andrews talks was the issue of an Irish Language Act ever discussed with the DUP and we never made any commitment to it.”
So who’s right?
St Andrews Agreement
The St Andrews Agreement, signed in 2006, involved the two major parties in the North – the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), led by Dr Ian Paisley and Sinn Féin, led by Martin McGuinness in the North – agreeing to terms that would introduce a power-sharing executive (or government) to the province, which had been under direct rule since 2002.
A section of that agreement states:
“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.”
In this context, ‘the government’ means the British government, which means that the pledge made isn’t by the DUP, but by the British government at the time.
But what the British government actually legislated for after St Andrews Agreement differs from what was agreed to at St Andrews. The UK government legislated for a language strategy, which would ensure the “enhancement and protection of Irish and Ulster Scots language” – with no mention of an Irish Language Act.
Although a language strategy could include an Irish Language Act, it doesn’t have to, as provisions for protecting a minority language could mean increasing funding for Gaelscoileanna, or hiring Irish language officials, and so on
So although the DUP signed the St Andrews Agreement, they never agreed themselves to implementing an Irish Language Act as part of the deal.
So is there a commitment by the DUP to an Irish Language Act anywhere else?
We contacted the UK House of Commons Library for them to expand on a research paper about the St Andrews Agreement, and they offered some insight into how agreement was reached.
They said that during negotiations at St Andrews Agreement, the Northern Ireland parties were supposed to confirm their acceptance of the Agreement by 10 November 2006.
The DUP issued a four-page consultation to its members on 18 October 2006 called “Your verdict – what is it to be?” which included contents of the Agreement and also what it saw as still under negotiation – including their stance on the Irish language.
The DUP issued a statement on 9 November 2006, detailing a resolution of its Party Officers, Assembly Group, and Party Executive. This did not mention the language issue.
According to the House of Commons Library spokesperson: “I have not found a further statement by the DUP before the 10 November deadline.”
We have not been able to find any mention of a commitment by the DUP in Assembly debates (there may have been claims about it, but there was no actual commitment by the DUP), in Westminster debates, or in media reports at the time of St Andrews or ever since.
We also asked Sinn Féin if any of their members had received an assurance from a DUP member that an Irish Language Act would be established, but Sinn Féin did not respond to that request.
WHAT WE DID FIND
Outside of the St Andrews Agreement, the DUP’s stance on an Irish Language Act (ILA) has been consistent, both in parliamentary debates and in their public statements, and it has been one of consistent opposition. Here are some examples of what we found:
In this Assembly debate from 2007, Edwin Poots outlines why the DUP is opposed to an ILA, saying that it could potentially cost over €291 million in the next ten years, and that it wouldn’t necessarily help the language:
“…The Irish-speaking community appears to be growing in Northern Ireland, where we do not have an Irish Language Act, and declining in the Republic of Ireland, where there is legislation… An Irish Language Act would not necessarily help the language.”
On page 25 of the 2007 DUP Manifesto, which was published prior to the restoration of devolution, it listed “an Irish Language Act will place Irish on par with English” as an ‘opposition lie’ and claimed that this was the truth:
“Parliament confirmed this would be an issue for the Assembly which will have a unionist majority. The DUP will not support an Irish Language Act.”
Another strong statement on the Irish language came in an Irish Times article from August 2007 by DUP leader Dr Ian Paisley, entitled ‘Paisley to block Irish Language Act’.
“The DUP will not support the creation of any such legislation. This was a proposal made by the two Governments (British and Irish at the St Andrews talks) and was never agreed to or even discussed with us.
“As a result of the changes we secured on the decision-making process in the Assembly, the Irish language legislation would require unionist support in the Executive.”
A more recent example of DUP member Gregory Campbell in 2014 is even stronger: “The DUP politician who mocked the Irish language earlier this month has said he would treat a proposed Irish Language Act ‘as no more than toilet paper’”.
The DUP’s claim that they never agreed to establish an Irish Language Act as part of St Andrews Agreement is true, as the legislation refers to the British government’s commitment to an Irish Language Act, not the DUP’s.
Although they signed up to the St Andrews Agreement, this includes a commitment by the UK government, and not the DUP. After devolution, responsibility for a language policy was transferred to the Northern Ireland Executive, but this did not include a commitment to establish an Irish Language Act.
What was legislated for was a language strategy, which could include, but is not the same as, an Irish Language Act.
Apart from the St Andrews Agreement, there’s no evidence that they’ve ever agreed to establish an Irish Language Act.
Claim: “The DUP at no point has ever agreed to establish an Irish Language Act with the UK government, with the Irish government, with Sinn Féin or anybody else.”
This is the first time we have fact-checked a claim by Edwin Poots. You can read his FactCheck file here.
Written by Gráinne Ní Aodha for TheJournal.ie and originally published: http://www.thejournal.ie/factcheck-irish-language-act-3209218-Jan2017/
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