UK to make Irish an official language in Northern Ireland

The U.K. government has launched a bill to make Irish an official language in Northern Ireland, where unionists have long resisted the move as threatening to their own British identity.

Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis confirmed the step just days after ordering the U.K. region’s Department of Health to roll out fully state-funded abortion services, another move previously obstructed by unionists in the Northern Ireland Assembly.

However, following this month’s elections, the Democratic Unionist Party has blocked the reopening of the assembly or formation of a new cross-community government at Stormont. That political vacuum is being exploited now by Lewis as he finally introduces a bill repeatedly promised to the Irish nationalist side of the community.

Sinn Féin — the nationalist party whose name is pronounced “shin fane” and means “ourselves” in Irish — welcomed Lewis’ announcement as advancing commitments originally pledged in the St. Andrews Agreement, the 2006 deal that preceded formation of the first DUP-Sinn Féin government.

“We will finally see the repeal of archaic anti-Irish legislation and replaced with official recognition of the Irish language to enable people to access public services and the courts through Irish,” said Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald, a Dubliner much sharper in English than Irish.

The 2011 census found that only 3.7 percent of Northern Ireland residents identified themselves as fluent in Irish, but the Department of Education began investing in Irish-language schools once Sinn Féin gained that portfolio in previous power-sharing governments. Today about 40 Irish-language schools for children aged 5 to 18 operate on the Catholic side of the community divide, including in a west Belfast quarter where Irish is promoted as the locally preferred tongue.

The Democratic Unionists had agreed in 2020 to support an Irish language bill as part of the New Decade, New Approach agreement that revived power-sharing with Sinn Féin following a three-year collapse triggered partly by funding cuts to Irish-language programs. But the DUP quickly reneged on that deal too, citing its own unfulfilled demands for Britain to scrap the post-Brexit trade protocol as one reason why.

The Identity and Language (Northern Ireland) Bill, introduced Wednesday in the House of Lords, is expected to be debated in detail on June 7. Sinn Féin warned that Lewis might delay its passage as leverage to prod the DUP into reviving power-sharing at Stormont — from where it could resume obstruction of Irish language rights.

“There can be no more false dawns. This needs to be done now and before Westminster breaks for the summer. No more delays,” said McDonald, who has spent much of this week in London leading Sinn Féin lobbying of British MPs at parliament.

Anticipating Lewis’ move, more than 10,000 Irish language activists marched through central Belfast over the weekend. About a dozen celebrated Wednesday outside the Stormont Parliament Building overlooking Belfast.

Activists promoting the little-used Ulster Scots language, spoken by less than 1 percent of Northern Irish residents on the Protestant side of the divide, are due to gain their own rights commissioner and new support under the bill.

But the Ulster Scots Language Society’s chairperson, Anne Smyth, complained that her fringe movement was being used to promote a bill really designed to advance Irish.

She said the bill would empower Irish-language activists “to make a real pest of themselves with public bodies, and insist on maximum representation for Irish at every turn.”



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