The Irish Language Act: Purdah, Promises, and Polling Booths…

I recently made reference to NI Secretary of State Brandon Lewis’ claim, regarding the implementation of cultural [and language] legislation, that it would not be “right or proper to introduce legislation during the election period” – the implication perhaps being that the election period is not the right time for anything politically contentious. Leaving aside the matter of whether or not the cultural and language legislation in question is as contentious as is often claimed, such tacit invocations of ‘purdah’ are not uncommon in British politics. Recently, for instance, a spokesman for the London Metropolitan Police stated that “due to the restrictions around communicating before the May local elections, we will not provide further updates [on Partygate fines] until after 5 May”. Ian Hislop, however, took it upon himself to point out that the act of invoking ‘purdah’ is not always politically neutral, and can actually be self-defeating as it is often politically contentious in itself:

“The police have said we won’t issue any more fines until after the elections because we don’t want the electorate to know about what’s going on; that would ‘ruin the point of democracy’…I mean, it’s just ludicrous!” (Have I Got News For You, 22nd April 2022)

Whatever the true motivation behind this purdah, the elections are drawing nearer – as is the time when Brandon Lewis must either make good on delivering this legislation after the election period or else proverbially ‘put it on the long finger’ yet again. However, in light of the British Government has done the latter twice already – once at St Andrew’s, again at the self-imposed deadline of October last year – I put questions to Conradh na Gaeilge’s newly elected Uachtarán (President), Paula Melvin, to try and gauge the mood of Irish language learners, speakers, and advocates ahead of the Assembly Election here:

BMcC: Paula, last year your predecessor (Dr Niall Comer) told me that “it was always in the back of our minds that if [the ILA] couldn’t be progressed at a local level, that Westminster was an option” (Emphasis added). Sixteen years after St Andrew’s, six months after the UK Government’s self-imposed deadline of October last year, and “táimid fós ag fanacht” (we are still waiting), as An Dream Dearg put it in their ongoing social media campaign. Do you believe Westminster is still a realistic option? If not, where do we go from here?

PM: I think it is perfectly realistic to expect a democratically elected government to keep their promises. The British Government are also co-guarantors of the Saint Andrew’s Agreement which promised an Acht Gaeilge back in 2006. We in Conradh na Gaeilge will continue to advocate for and demand what has already been agreed upon time and time again – a strong, rights-based Irish language act. This legislation may not bring us to where Wales is in their legislative journey, but it is an important starting point and staging post in our own journey towards comprehensive language rights.

BMcC: Brandon Lewis claims it would not be “right or proper to introduce legislation during the election period”. It is therefore implied the legislation will be introduced after the election period. How optimistic are you that this will be the case?

PM: The fact that Minister Conor Burns who we met lately could not update our community with a specific date for the legislation on the Westminster legislative timetable was not acceptable and we ended our meeting with him because of this. Let there be no doubt, the British Government have had the best part of 8 months to bring forward this legislation before the mandate ended, and has missed every deadline throughout. We have been told since Christmas that this legislation is ready. It has cleared the internal departmental and Parliamentary processes. If you start counting at the St Andrew’s Agreement, they have had the best part of 16 years to do this.

The vast majority of politicians and political parties not only in the North but also in the South, and also in Westminster, support an Irish Language Act. Unfortunately, we have zero confidence in the British Government to stick to their word and I don’t think anyone could blame us for taking that stance. The painful experience of the last 6 months leaves us in that situation. But we will continue to keep them under pressure. This is a grassroots campaign; thousands of people took to the streets for the cause. I am optimistic that it will be introduced. The question is when.

BMcC: Supposing this legislation is introduced after the election period, do you still believe – as Dr Niall Comer said – that “what is on the table is what is written in the NDNA”? Or do you believe, since at least the timing of the Assembly Election is of concern to Brandon Lewis, that the contents of the legislation may well vary depending on the outcome of the Election as well?

PM: We have been told by Minister Conor Burns and the officials at the NIO, including the Permanent Secretary, that the legislation will be as it was agreed as part of NDNA. The legislation is written and ready to go before Westminster. It is incredibly important, however, due to the fact this legislation is now coming through Westminster and the DUP and others oppose its implementation, that there remain powers to progress and fully implement the legislation, to appoint Commissioners, to implement language standards, to repeal the 1737 Act, etc, in that context.

BMcC: We have at least two ostensible justifications for this ongoing delay, but do you think there might be an ulterior motive at play? Irish News cartoonist Ian Knox, for instance, produced a cartoon on April 6th 2022 featuring a caricature of Brandon Lewis with the caption: “It would be sheer madness to bring forward an Irish Language Act…at a time when Unionists don’t want one!” Is there a kernel of truth in a satire like that?

PM: Let me be clear, we see no justifiable reason for delaying this legislation. It was a cornerstone component of NDNA which restored the Executive and the Assembly. Let’s get it implemented and see how it plays out. If it needs to be strengthened, and we believe it will, then that will be our direction of travel. As for now, promises should be lived up to without further delay.

BMcC: Finally, various political figures and commentators here in the North have sought to imply, recently, what I would call a hierarchy of political priorities – whereby it is implied you cannot simultaneously be passionate about tackling things like the ongoing cost-of-living crisis and things like an Irish Language Act (or other issues like a Border Poll and the Northern Ireland Protocol). What would you say to anyone who would argue there are simply bigger fish to fry right now?

PM: At every juncture [the British Government] have decided not to prioritise this legislation, or to kick it further down the line to suit their own political agenda. If the political will had existed in the past 6 months, then this could have been done very quickly with cross-party support in the Commons. We aren’t surprised. We told them time and time again if not resolved, this issue would re-emerge throughout the election and afterwards remain a core outstanding issue. They decided not to act on that.

The cost of living is an issue in other countries such as Wales and in the south of Ireland, yet legislative support for our languages is provided. It’s not a question of one or the other – both can be addressed if the political will exists to do so. Our community will continue to organise and ensure this issue remains to the fore during the election and throughout the following negotiations to form a new Executive. Language rights are human rights. Rights delayed are rights denied.

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