Wednesday, 2 December 2009

"What might the Tories ever do for us?"

It is one of the ironies of political history that it was the Conservatives, so often seen as the party of England, who introduced S4C and passed the Welsh Language Act 1993.

With the prospect of an imminent UK general election, according to Wikipedia most likely on 6 May 2010, and Labour consistently behind the Conservatives in the polls, it seems relevant to ask what the latter's attitude to the Irish language might be.

In May this year, the Fermanagh-based Tory activist Seymour Major published a series of five blog posts on the issue of an Irish language Act. His conclusion was that there should be a law and that it should broadly follow the provisions of the Gaelic Language (Scotland) Act 2005.

The Gaelic Act is considerably less robust than the Welsh or Irish legislation, being based on statutory language schemes rather than speakers' rights. However, it also represents a good deal more than the language strategies envisaged by the new section 28D inserted into the Northern Ireland Act 1998 by the Northern Ireland (St Andrews Agreement) Act 2006, which Major, a lawyer by trade, describes as "flawed" and "only as strong as the most obstructive member of the Executive".

It is notable that the current UK Labour Government stated as recently as this week that it "remains of the view, as reflected in the St Andrews Agreement, that there is a case for legislation reflecting on the experience of Wales and Ireland" (incidentally, in the same document it also confirms that TG4 will be on Freeview in 2012).

However, expressing one's support for a language Act or ending academic selection is of doubtful relevance if one uses the prospect of a veto on those same issues to entice Unionists into devolved Government.

There are several substantial hurdles that must be overcome if an Irish language Act is to be passed.

Since any Bill introduced at Stormont would either be defeated outright or vetoed on the basis of the cross-community consent procedure, the principle must be conceded that the Bill should be introduced at Westminster, thus repatriating a devolved power. This difficulty will of course not apply if, as is quite possible, the Assembly is in suspension at the time.

The Conservatives must be prepared to act in a way likely to be counter to the wishes of their Ulster Unionist allies and accept the consequences.

Despite the fact that Labour would probably vote with the new Government on the issue, the Conservatives would still have to enjoy a healthy majority, since a hung parliament would give enough leverage to Unionists in general to extract a veto before the First Reading.

It is perhaps this last prerequisite that is the most difficult. While passing an Irish language Act would be a nifty move towards neutralising the effect of the link-up with the Ulster Unionists — an unnecessary gamble that could yet destroy Nationalist faith in the peace process entirely — a hung parliament would see the Conservatives having to listen to the DUP as well as their own UUP allies.

The issue of a language Act is unlikely to go away. Current events tell us that allowing the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure excessive discretion on Irish is a recipe for its politicisation; indeed, DCAL is actively reducing the funding available to the language, while, in all the other areas of disagreement between Sinn Féin and the DUP, the latter is merely exercising a veto. Not least, there seems clear evidence of a double standard, since all major British political parties either support the existing legislation in Scotland and Wales or wish to extend it. International pressure, too, will continue. However, given the difficulties described above, the Blether Region will believe a Conservative language Act when it sees it.

In light of the fact that, spill-over notwithstanding, a double standard also applies with regard to the reserved field of broadcasting, the next time that a concession is due — perhaps to mitigate the non-appearance of an Act — the UK Government might do well to pick that, for example, by establishing a radio station or integrating a beefed-up broadcasting fund into TG4 on Freeview. Although some matters will remain difficult, within reason — and, in the case of Ulster Scots, famously without it — funding is always available according to the principle that treating Northern Ireland as a special case means less spent on security in the long run.

It is also true that, as recently discussed, Nationalists in the Northern Ireland Assembly have the power to secure an important symbolic gain in the status of the language, and a concomitant increase in its use, by declining to translate their speeches into English, thus forcing the extension of the simultaneous translation facility to ordinary Members.

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