By Baroness Kate Hoey
My Lords, the Second Reading of the Bill is an opportunity to put it into context, to look at why and how we got here and to look at some of the myths and propaganda that have been around it over the last year or so. It is called the identity and language Bill, but despite anything that anyone says, including the Minister, it is widely known as the stand-alone Irish language Bill, with a little Ulster Scots put on at the side as a bit of a sop to the small but articulate Ulster Scots group in Northern Ireland.
It is also very clearly a ransom payment to Sinn Féin for holding Northern Ireland hostage for three years when it brought down the Assembly. That was supposedly because of the “cash for ash” scandal, but very shortly afterwards—with the support of the Irish Government and unfortunately, I have to say, the support of our then Secretary of State—the demand for an Irish language Act became the ask before it would go back in. This then went into New Decade, New Approach. As has been said by the noble Lords, Lord Moylan and Lord Browne, it is very interesting that parts of New Decade, New Approach seem to get priority. Maybe I am a little biased, but it seems that they are always the bits that Sinn Féin wants and not the bits that the pro-union community wants, such as the internal market Bill and now, very importantly, dealing with the protocol.
However, a myth has grown up, which we have seen in the tweets and articles recently, that somehow withholding this kind of Irish language Act has anything at all to do with the withholding of minority human rights. “Human rights” and “Irish language Bill” are almost intertwined. Of course, it does not. The Irish language can be learned, spoken, written and taught by anyone or by any non-governmental group in Northern Ireland. Any picture of a part of the population being prevented by law from connecting with their ancestral linguistic culture in private or public is like a cartoon from the past, like the days of hedge schools.
There are even Protestants in some areas learning Irish, in loyalist neighbourhoods, and who have formed a society for doing this, so Gaelic is freely accessible to all in Northern Ireland, and everyone is already English-speaking. Irish is taught in state-subsidised Catholic schools and there are many small and medium Irish schools at primary and post-primary level. Some of them were opened with very small numbers and allowed to stay open with very small numbers even though other smaller country state schools were closed. Let us get rid of that myth.
Yet the numbers of those who choose to speak the Irish language as a second language—no one is unilingual in Irish in Northern Ireland—in their daily life or on special occasions is miniscule. No one turns up in court, or transacts with officialdom or government, able to speak only Irish and needing translation from the English to explain, defend or conduct themselves. No one is legally or socially deprived by living in an officially English unilingual society. Were this a precondition of linguistic representation in the courts and government offices, Polish and Cantonese speakers in Northern Ireland would, by dint of population and numbers speaking those languages, have prior claims.
I hope that Members of your Lordships’ House will also not have any belief that an Irish language Act has anything to do with the protection of an endangered language, because it does not. We are not speaking here of Manx or Cornish. Irish is read or spoken by pockets of Irish, as has been mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Moylan, in the widespread Irish diaspora. These are not declining outlying pockets of native speakers but rather pockets of the educated and motivated who wish to keep alive their Irish heritage. There are many speakers and readers of Irish in the Republic of Ireland and a thriving publication of books in Irish, and even though only 1.7% of the Republic’s population chooses to speak Irish outside the classroom, despite a century of government promotion, compulsion and lavish subsidisation, it cannot go extinct because of the Republic’s constitutional commitment and the linguistic requirements in government employment. However, there is absolutely no need for a comparable constitutional commitment in Northern Ireland, for Northern Ireland, since its beginning in 1921-22, has never been an ethnically based country with a native language, unlike the Irish Republic. A key point of the 1921 settlement was that both sides of the border had a right to be different.
What I have just said is crucial to understanding the Irish language Act campaign in Northern Ireland. Irish is perceived by most Catholic nationalist Irish people as inextricably connected with Irish nationhood. This is a token or passive perception for many people in Northern Ireland of a nationalist background, but most language activists wish that inextricability to be extended to Northern Ireland, to aid the eventual absorption of Northern Ireland, with an official bilingualism as one rationale, into a 32-county Republic of Ireland.
People also say that if you do not support the campaign for an Irish language Act you do not respect the Irish language and those who speak and study it. As the noble Lord, Lord Bew, made very clear, there are many who genuinely love the language apolitically and personally and of course that means having respect, but that respect already exists in Northern Ireland. For example, the BBC broadcasts regular programmes in Irish. Indeed, commentators have pointed out that the BBC’s coverage of a recent Irish language protest with a few thousand people on the streets was far more extensive than its coverage of the recent Northern Ireland centenary celebration with hundreds of thousands of people on the streets. Which event, which cause, was more disrespected?
Irish language campaigners must also respect and understand why those in Northern Ireland who are not from an Irish language background—that is, non-Catholic, non-nationalist, non-ethnic Irish—withhold respect. They are too aware of the political culture the Irish language occupies and of the open-ended, ongoing, unceasing campaign by republicans to have Northern Ireland detached from the monarchy of the United Kingdom and annexed by the Republic of Ireland. Some people will say, “Look at Wales and how it does the Welsh language”. The loudest proponents of the Welsh language do not tirelessly seek dissolution of the jurisdiction, see Welsh as the iconic medium of their political work or have a recent history of using violence in their cause. That is the difference. Because of the politics involved, an Irish language Act will further divide the people of Northern Ireland into Irish and British, territorially by neighbourhood and district through signage and language initiatives, and the momentum will be with Irish language activists. So there are cultural as well as pragmatic reasons for an Irish language Act not being welcomed by all in Northern Ireland, particularly those whose identity is British and whose object of allegiance is the Queen and country.
Of course, there are other pragmatic reasons. One very important one, which never seems to get mentioned, is the cost. The Explanatory Notes state:
“In accordance with the commitments on identity and language contained in the New Decade, New Approach agreement … the Identity and Language (Northern Ireland) Bill will remain a matter for the Northern Ireland Executive and Assembly to administer, support and fund.”
I am sure that a lot of people in Northern Ireland have no idea what is coming down the road in terms of finance. We just have to look at what happens in Quebec, where language has become hugely political. The costs there have been shown very clearly by people who have written about it. Professor John Wilson Foster, the author of 12 scholarly books on Irish literature and culture, has written extensively about how what is happening in Quebec could very similarly, but for very different reasons, happen in Northern Ireland.
I want to make a couple of points on the specifics of the Bill. It is a stand-alone Irish language Bill that will be inserted in the Northern Ireland Act 1998, a constitutional statute, and will thus benefit from all the enhanced constitutional protections. This should concern your Lordships’ House. Why is one cultural tradition in Northern Ireland being given enhanced status in the constitutional statute?
There are many legal problems with the Bill, and I hope to have amendments in due course. I shall point out just two and perhaps the Minister will want to comment at a later stage. New Section 78F(2)(a)(ii) in new Part 7A, on national and cultural identity, states that a public authority must have due regard to the principle that everyone can
“express and celebrate that identity in a manner that takes account of the sensitivities of those with different national and cultural identities and respects the rule of law”.
I am sure that, on the face of it, that sounds attractive to most of your Lordships’ House, but what does taking account of sensitivities mean? In Northern Ireland, unionists have been subjected to a decade-long cultural war, with the right to fly the national flag challenged, and the Orange and marching band tradition, and traditional well-maintained bonfires, all under constant attack by contrived nationalist residents’ groups and lobbying organisations. The cultural warfare follows a familiar pattern, with contrived grievances and sensitivities that are deliberately weaponised in an effort to target unionist culture and every vestige of British identity.
From a legal point of view, this would seem to be a different test from that which applies to public bodies under Section 6 of the Human Rights Act. I know that the Bill says that it has been passed as being okay with the Human Rights Act, but that Section 6 requires public bodies to act compatibly with convention rights, which includes freedom of expression and of assembly, as set out in Articles 10 and 11 of the European convention. As the Minister will know, the scope of Articles 10 and 11 in particular was examined by the Supreme Court in the Ziegler case, and this provision would seem at the very least to confuse that. In any event, it plainly invites contrived grievances.
New Part 7B requires by law not only the promotion of the Irish language but its enhancement. In addition, this all-powerful commission can set standards for public bodies, standards which will keep expanding as part of the duty of continued enhancement. That will embolden efforts by some republicans to use the Irish language even more as a political weapon.
The most worrying part of all is the new powers that the Secretary of State purports to take for himself, giving him the power to disapply once again the key cross-community protection in Section 28A of the Northern Ireland Act 1998, and the ministerial code, should he wish to do so. The noble Lord, Lord Moylan, raised concerns that many in this House will have felt about how the Belfast agreement is being treated. We are told that it is sacrosanct—an international treaty that cannot be unilaterally amended. Yet here we are again, with the Secretary of State trying to override its key protections lest they be utilised by unionists, in this case. There is also an important and related point. That the Secretary of State feels it necessary to disapply Section 28A and the ministerial code is proof that competing obligations cannot in and of themselves cause such key provisions to be set aside. That is very interesting—and Members from Northern Ireland will understand it very well—because it entirely validates the approach of Edwin Poots, the Minister, in recently ordering a halt to the Irish sea border checks because of the then primacy of Section 28A and the ministerial code.
Those are some of the points that we will be able to look at in Committee. It is a pity that the Committee is not being held in the Chamber, because too often Northern Ireland debates and subjects get waylaid into just a small number of the same people. It is part of a problem with Northern Ireland that we are far too often simply left as a bit of an aside to be dealt with when necessary—and, one hopes, when people are not being angry.
The campaign for an ILA and this Bill is driven chiefly not by practical need, symbolic equality or hunger for a human right currently withheld but by a political strategy. Sinn Féin election posters keep up the momentum, and Irish unity conveniently identifies the strategy and the destination. The medium-term goal is to transform Northern Ireland culturally in pursuit of a constitutional end. No one in this House should feel that being a friend to the Irish language is incompatible with opposition to Sinn Féin’s stark politicising of the indigenous language. Of course, there are numerous formal and informal encouragements of the Irish language that could be done and practised, without bankrupting the Treasury in Northern Ireland, inconveniencing and alienating the population, and advancing one political party’s project to undo Northern Ireland. This Bill is not one of them.