DELAYS in the implementation the Identity and Language Bill, now not to be enacted before the May 5 Assembly election, are one of a number of potential threats to Stormont's future, post election.
Often described in the public debate as 'The Irish Language Act', it is actually a package of Language and Identity legislation that also includes Ulster-Scots components agreed in the New Decade New Approach (NDNA) agreement of January 2020, that saw the restoration of the Assembly.
The package including the Irish Language part, was not enacted, with Sinn Féin blaming the DUP for the delay.
Last year, in order to keep Sinn Féin on board, the British government agreed to enact the Legislation at Westminster, if Stormont parties failed to do so.
Now on the cusp of an election, there is still no timetable for the enactment of the legislation, and shining a light on what is happening at Westminster has not proved easy.
On February 9 the BBC 'understood' that that Sinn Féin were objecting to the Ulster British part of the Ulster-Scots/Ulster British commissioner contained with the Ulster-Scots part of the legislation package.
The matter was subsequently discussed on Nolan, with much speculation, but little real clarity.
The Chronicle subsequently contacted the DUP, Sinn Féin, the NIO and the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission (NIHRC), in respect of the issue.
Commenting on the issue, a DUP spokesperson said:
"The DUP has been clear from the outset that the New Decade New Approach agreement should be implemented in full and as published. Any cherrypicking from commitments within it will only serve to hamper devolution and further highlight the need to restore fairness."
Speaking to The Chronicle on February 25 a UK Government spokesperson said: "In the absence of progress by the Executive to deliver the balanced identity, language and culture package as negotiated in the New Decade, New Approach agreement, the UK Government is taking the necessary steps to introduce the legislation in Parliament. The legislation will faithfully deliver the commitments on identity, language and culture."
The Government is continuing the preparations to recognize Ulster Scots as a National Minority under the Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities, which forms part of the balanced package of NDNA measures on identity and language
“The Government intends to complete the preparations for the recognition of Ulster Scots in parallel to the passage of the legislation.”
On March 29 Secretary of State Brandon Lewis was quizzed by a House of Commons committee, including North Antrim MP Ian Paisley.
He revealed that the legislation would not be pushed through before the election on May 5.
He appeared evasive on the subject of the name of the commissioner, repeatedly saying there is no British Commissioner in NDNA, technically correct, as it's an Ulster-Scots/Ulster British Commissioner mentioned.
A UK Government spokesperson told The Chronicle:
"The Government is committed to delivering what was carefully negotiated by the parties in New Decade, New Approach, and the legislation we will bring forward will be faithful to it.”
“Due to pressures on the parliamentary timetable, it has not been possible to do so ahead of the pre-election period.”
The Chronicle tried unsuccessfully a number of times to get a statement from Sinn Féin with regard to the speculation that the Ulster British part of the commissioner's name was problematic; asking them if they were using the move of the Legislation from Stormont to Westminster to tinker with parts they didn't like.
They eventually released their statement calling on the government to 'honour its commitment on the 'Acht Gaeilge' or Irish Act.
Local MLA Philip McGuigan said:
“The British Secretary of State Brandon Lewis agreed and promised to deliver on the commitment of an Irish language Act with accelerated passage by October 2021.
“That date passed without delivery or any credible defence from Brandon Lewis.
“If Acht Gaeilge remains undelivered it represents a serious breach of yet another agreement by this Tory Government.
“However, they underestimate the determination of the Irish speaking community and the momentum behind the campaign for the official status of the language to be recognised by the state and rights enshrined in law which certainly will not go away, but become stronger.
“There is an onus also on the Irish government to stand up decisively for the rights of Irish language speakers, and to the British government who must honour its obligations under the political agreements they have made.”
As reported in the Chronicle at the time, the NIHRC report on the Ulster-Scots parts of NDNA advised against conflating Ulster-Scots and Ulster British terms in the proposed commissioner's title, in their response document released in May 2021.
HUMAN RIGHTS COMMISSION
The Chronicle asked the NIHRC if they had been approached by Sinn Féin, the NIO or anyone else, in respect of this advice.
An NIHRC Spokesperson said:
"The NIHRC has had no requests for advice from political parties or government since it issued the initial response to the NDNA proposals in May 2020. We continue to monitor developments, but at the minute our written advice to the consultation (and available to view on our website) remains the extant position.
“The Commission has a statutory duty to advise on legislation affecting the protection of Human Rights in NI and we are waiting for the package of measures by the UK govt in Westminster that will address the culture, language and identity commitments contained in the NDNA. Once this is introduced to Parliament the Commission will analyse the Bill and provide any required additional advice."
In a further twist, the Recommendations of the Ulster-Scots Language, Heritage & Culture Strategy report by the Expert Advisory Panel, is currently out for consultation.
The panel noted the NDNA use of the terms 'language, literature, and arts' in the context of proposed legislation.
The report stated: “There is no legal or policy basis for the language, arts and literature formulation currently proposed and the legislation should be revised in line with human rights and established policy as language, heritage, and culture.”