My Lords, I apologise at the outset if my voice is a little croakier than normal: it is entirely down, I think, to four days of singing “God Save the Queen”.
Before turning to the Bill, I would like to make two brief observations. First, I associate myself and the Government with the outrage and abhorrence expressed throughout Northern Ireland in recent days at the vile videos circulating regarding the tragic killing of Michaela McAreavey in 2011. The actions of those responsible are contemptible beyond words; they are in no way representative of unionism or loyalism, and our thoughts are very much with the McAreavey and Harte families at this very difficult time.
Secondly, and on a more positive note, Northern Ireland, like the rest of the United Kingdom, has just spent four days celebrating the glorious reign, devotion to duty, integrity and selfless leadership of Her Majesty the Queen. I would like to thank all those responsible for planning events and activities that I know were enjoyed right across the community. The fact that I had messages at the weekend from people of a nationalist background expressing their admiration for the Queen is testimony to Her Majesty’s unique ability to unite people and bring them together.
The context of the Bill before the House this afternoon is the collapse of devolved government from 2017 to 2020 and the intensive efforts over almost three years to restore it. Although issues around language and identity were not the prime reason for the collapse in January 2017, during the subsequent Assembly election and beyond the capacity of these issues to poison debate and paralyse politics in Northern Ireland became all too apparent. It quickly became clear that without substantial progress on them, there was little prospect of seeing a return of the institutions that are such an integral part of the Belfast agreement that we in this Government staunchly support and uphold.
I will not detain the House with the details of the multiple phases of talks that took place during those three years. As one who played a role in the majority of them as a government adviser, I can say that it was a deeply frustrating experience that I do not look back on with any affection. It was proof, if any were needed, that it is far easier to pull down the institutions in Northern Ireland than it is to build them.
Eventually, following the 2019 general election, in January 2020 the UK and Irish Governments were able to present the document New Decade, New Approach to the main Northern Ireland parties as the basis for reforming the Executive, which duly happened. Of course, integral to New Decade, New Approach were commitments, principally though not exclusively in Annexe E, on identity and language, based on the discussions of the previous three years. Crucially, the document contained a commitment in part 2, paragraph 25 to
“respect the freedom of all persons in Northern Ireland to choose, affirm, maintain and develop their national and cultural identity and to celebrate and express that identity in a manner which takes into account the sensitivities of those with different national or cultural identities and respects the rule of law.”
As set out in New Decade, New Approach, the provisions on identity and language were to be taken forward by the restored Executive through three separate pieces of legislation, the main contents of which were published in Annexe E and in the three draft Bills prepared by the Office of the Legislative Counsel in Northern Ireland at the request of the UK Government, to support a successful conclusion to the ongoing political talks to restore the Executive. Once passed, these Acts would then become new, dedicated parts of the Northern Ireland Act 1998, reflecting the importance and significance of these issues to many people right across society.
It was always the Government’s intention and very clear preference that these provisions would be delivered by the Northern Ireland Executive and Assembly, as they are devolved matters. Regrettably, however, by the autumn of last year it became clear that this was unlikely to happen any time soon, and my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland decided to take these matters forward in this sovereign Parliament of the United Kingdom. The Bill before the House today honours that commitment. It represents a balanced package of measures that faithfully implements in one piece of legislation Annexe E of New Decade, New Approach, recognises Northern Ireland’s rich diversity of identity and language, and benefits both Irish language speakers and those from the Ulster Scots and Ulster British tradition.
It comes in addition to a number of other steps being taken by the UK Government under New Decade, New Approach, as set out in the annexe on UK Government commitments to Northern Ireland. Last year, therefore, we announced £2 million in funding for Northern Ireland Screen’s Ulster Scots and Irish language broadcasting funds to help deliver more high-quality Irish and Ulster Scots broadcasting in Northern Ireland. In May of this year, the Government officially recognised Ulster Scots as a national minority under the Council of Europe’s Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities. At the same time, under the section of New Decade, New Approach titled, “Addressing Northern Ireland’s unique circumstances”, we made available £4 million to the Irish Language Investment Fund to support capital projects associated with the Irish language.
Turning to the Bill, Clause 1 amends the Northern Ireland Act 1998 to make provision for national and cultural identity principles and requires specific public authorities to have due regard to them when carrying out their functions. To summarise, these principles affirm the freedom of everybody in Northern Ireland to choose, affirm, maintain and develop their national and cultural identity within the law. They establish the important role of public authorities in promoting reconciliation, tolerance and parity of esteem. The clause also establishes a new office of identity and cultural expression to promote awareness and to monitor and encourage compliance with the principles outlined above. It will be a statutory body and its director will be appointed by the First and Deputy First Ministers of Northern Ireland, acting jointly. It will be able to provide funding to groups and organisations in support of the cultural and linguistic heritage of Northern Ireland.
Clause 2 amends the Northern Ireland Act to make provision for the official recognition of the status of the Irish language and the appointment of an Irish language commissioner to enhance and protect its use by public authorities when they are providing services. The commissioner, who will be appointed by the First and Deputy First Ministers, acting jointly, will develop standards of best practice to which public authorities must have due regard. These standards, intended to be “reasonable, proportionate and practical”, will have to be approved by the First and Deputy First Ministers before they can take effect. The commissioner will also monitor and promote compliance with approved standards and investigate complaints where it is claimed that a public authority has failed to comply with its obligations.
Clause 3 makes provision for the appointment of a commissioner for the enhancement and development of the language, arts and literature associated with the Ulster Scots and Ulster British tradition. They will, for example, promote awareness of Ulster Scots services provided by public authorities and provide and publish advice, support and guidance in respect of language, arts and literature. Reflecting the Government’s recent recognition of Ulster Scots under the framework convention, this advice will also cover the effect and implementation of certain named international instruments. The commissioner will also be required to investigate complaints that a public authority did not have due regard to guidance relating to facilitating the use of Ulster Scots in the provision of services to the public.
The Government are of course mindful of the potential impacts of these three new public authorities on Northern Ireland’s carefully balanced constitutional framework, including the north-south language body and human rights institutions. For that reason, all three new public authorities will be able to co-operate with and, as they deem fit, consult the various language bodies and human rights institutions in Northern Ireland as they go about their work, such as the Ulster-Scots Agency and Foras na Gaeilge, which I met in Belfast last week. This reflects the vision set out in New Decade, New Approach.
Clause 4 will repeal the Administration of Justice (Language) Act (Ireland) 1737 so that provision for the use of languages other than English in proceedings will be a matter for the Northern Ireland Courts Service to determine as and when it deems necessary. I should point out to those who might still be concerned about this that the equivalent legislation for England and Wales was repealed by Lord Palmerston in 1863.
Clause 5 amends the Education (Northern Ireland) Order 1998 to place a duty on the Department of Education in Northern Ireland to encourage and facilitate the use and understanding of Ulster Scots in the education system. Clauses 6 and 7 contain important concurrent powers and powers of direction for the Secretary of State to ensure the implementation of the commitments in this Bill. Finally, the remaining Clauses 7 to 11 deal with consequential and general provisions.
The Bill is an important milestone in the delivery of New Decade, New Approach, which was so instrumental to the restoration of devolved government in January 2020. It takes forward commitments on identity and language for the whole community in Northern Ireland. In doing so, this Government recognise the rich tapestry of identities, languages and culture which enhance, enrich and strengthen, rather than weaken, our United Kingdom.
This legislation complements and underpins this Government’s vision of a Northern Ireland which is open, inclusive and tolerant and embraces people from all parts of the community regardless of their religious belief, political opinion or racial group. This Government are and will remain steadfast in their belief in the union and Northern Ireland’s integral place within it, but recognise that, if the union is to prosper and endure, it must work for everyone. I believe that this carefully balanced piece of legislation achieves just that. In that spirit, I commend it to the House. As they say in Irish, sin é. I beg to move.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for going through the Bill so clearly with us today; he has answered a number of questions. This is a good Bill and it is part of the Good Friday peace agreement. It has taken a long time to reach this stage. A new approach is welcome, but we must have timelines in the Bill if it is to succeed and move forward. I thank all the organisations that have been in touch with me for their information and helpful advice. I look forward to working with them, and with the Government, in the passage of this Bill. I will be putting down amendments with my colleagues over the next few days.
I am worried that the Democratic Unionist Party, which is committed to the Bill, has not yet committed—for different reasons, as we know—to setting up the Northern Ireland Executive. That is vital for the Bill to move forward. Further, it is important that the committees and commissioner that will be set up by the Bill should have 50:50 representation of men and women. Let me tell noble Lords that, as they know, there are plenty of good women in Northern Ireland who will apply to sit on the various committees. I really feel that this is an important move in going forward with this new approach. The Good Friday agreement, in many ways, has made this possible, and we have seen it as we have gone forward. This is really important.
What might the timeframe for this legislation be once the Northern Ireland Executive is set up, including the timeframe for putting the adverts out and getting the committees in place? Furthermore, the current list of public authorities should be expanded to include the National Health Service, the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency, all the education departments throughout Northern Ireland, et cetera. These are vital for moving this forward. There should be much more public consultation, although we know that the number of people who can speak Irish and want their children to speak Irish is very high. I grew up in a family where some of my relations and my parents could speak Irish, and I know how important this is to the culture of Ireland—and to understanding and keeping the peace there. I would be pleased if the Minister could give me assurances on these matters. I will be asking further questions with my noble friend Lady Ritchie in Committee.
My Lords, the Liberal Democrat Benches broadly welcome the Bill in the context of delivering on the commitments set out in New Decade, New Approach—an agreement that, we should recall, was agreed by both the DUP and Sinn Féin, as well as by the majority of the other political parties in Northern Ireland. However, I deeply regret the context and political circumstances that mean it has proved necessary to pass the Bill here in Westminster. I appreciate that the Minister and his department are not directly responsible for negotiating changes to the Northern Ireland protocol, but the lack of progress in that regard and the sense of distrust that now pervades is hampering his department’s abilities to make progress on all matters of Northern Ireland politics.
It is the Government’s incompatible promises and their choice of the hardest possible Brexit that have taken us to this point, and it is the current absence of trust that is not allowing us to move forward and make progress. It is hard not to reflect that if it was possible to bring sufficient levels of trust to bring about the talks that led in the 1980s and 1990s to the Belfast/Good Friday agreement, it is surely possible to do the same today in finding a practical way forward on the protocol. I have spoken privately to the Minister about finding someone all sides respect to act as a facilitator in this regard, and I sincerely hope that, behind the scenes, more is being done to resolve the stalemate on the protocol than currently appears to be the case. The people of Northern Ireland voted in good faith last month to have a functioning Assembly and Executive to tackle the many strategic, economic, healthcare and education issues that are so much in need of attention. The Government must leave no stone unturned in moving on from this current stalemate.
I turn to some specific aspects of the Bill, which, as I said earlier, we broadly welcome. As a Scot and a linguist who studied French and Russian at university, I am extremely aware of the importance of language to identity and culture. Indeed, I come from Hawick in the Scottish Borders, where we have our own very independent and distinct version of Scots and hold on fiercely to the cultural and musical traditions that stem from that powerful linguistic identity.
Embracing cultural and linguistic diversity should not, however, lead to prejudices against “the other”. Can the Minister confirm that “sensitivities” of others will not be interpreted as encompassing the prejudice or intolerance of others to another’s national or cultural identity? Can he also confirm that the provision should be read as a qualification only on cultural expression when interfering with the recognised rights of others?
Regarding the Irish language commissioner, can the Minister explain the rationale for placing in the Bill ministerial approval by the First and Deputy First Ministers of the Irish language standards produced by the Irish language commissioner? Can he further say whether consideration has been given to the risks that this provision could be used to frustrate the purpose of the commissioners? I believe there is a risk that this could result in unnecessary delays and so I ask the Government to reflect on whether this provision is really necessary.
The Committee of Experts—COMEX—which oversees compliance with the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages under the auspices of the Council of Europe has also broadly welcomed the commitments in the Bill. It has, however, assessed the package as falling short of fulfilment of the broader range of treaty-based obligations towards the Irish language entered into by the UK. Can the Minister say what further steps the Government plan to ensure that those international obligations are met?
Finally, can the Minister say why there was no consultation with Ulster Scots speakers prior to the Secretary of State’s Ministerial Statement that accompanied the introduction of the Bill? I welcome that he said he met them himself last week. The Bill moves away from a focus on Ulster Scots speakers as a linguistic minority to UK recognition of Ulster Scots as an ethnic group. The Minister will be aware of the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission’s concerns and recommendations about conflating Ulster Scots as a recognised linguistic minority with Ulster British as a political identity. He will know that Ulster Scots speakers are from across the community in Northern Ireland. Will he please give us some reassurances in this regard when he concludes?
My Lords, I support the Bill and I thank the noble Lord, Lord Caine, for his excellent introduction. I felt his pain when he recalled the many hours and days he had spent working on this in a previous life, and I enormously respect that.
The noble Lord, Lord Caine, laid a lot of stress on this as the outgrowth of the NDNA agreement. He is quite right, but the noble Baroness, Lady Goudie, was also quite right to say that the roots of this approach lie in the Good Friday agreement. There is reference to the Irish language in the Good Friday agreement; I can recall the Thursday night before Good Friday when the special adviser to the noble Lord, Lord Kilclooney, Dr Steven King, played a key role in the negotiation of those sections. It is rooted in the Good Friday agreement and it was quite right for the noble Baroness, Lady Goudie, to remind us of that.
I will say something about what the noble Baroness, Lady Suttie, just said about trust, but I do not want it to be taken in the wrong way. Trust is a good thing if you can get it but, actually, political agreement between bitter opponents does not depend on trust. I recall very little of it in 1998—I see the noble Lord, Lord Kilclooney, nodding. That agreement did not come about because of an outburst of trust on one side or the other; it was based on narrow, hard-headed political calculations. So it will be with respect to the protocol, the EU and relations between the parties in Northern Ireland. Trust is desirable but it is not an essential feature of agreements. The essential feature is that people make a rational assessment of where their interests lie and think they could go with that particular agreement.
However, I believe very strongly, just as both speakers before me have emphasised, in the tremendous importance of the Good Friday agreement here. We tend to forget about the international agreement that accompanies the Good Friday agreement and imposes on the sovereign Government—in this case the United Kingdom Government—a responsibility to look after the economic and cultural rights of Northern Ireland. It says that this power—it is a power—should be exercised with “rigorous impartiality” and “respect” for the cultural rights of the people of Northern Ireland, and that there should be an attempt to provide
“just and equal treatment for the … aspirations of both communities”.
This what the Bill is about. It has to be admitted that enthusiasm for it is far greater in the nationalist community than in the unionist community. That is a simple fact; there is an attempt to find a degree of balance but essentially, in most cases, support for the Bill comes from the nationalist community. I make the same point about the Bill that the Government will shortly be bringing to this House and to Parliament as a whole with respect to the Northern Ireland protocol—which responds more to a demand from the unionist community. The sovereign Government have a difficult balancing act to perform. That is what we are seeing here and what we will see with the Bill on the Northern Ireland protocol.
You cannot flout these opinions. You cannot say that nationalist communities should not be so keen on the Irish language—for lots of good reasons; it just will not wash—and you cannot say about the unionist communities, as the recent American delegation did, that their concerns about the protocol are “manufactured”. You just have to accept these realities and then try to work with them. It will be an act of great subtlety and difficulty for the UK Government but this is demanded by the Good Friday agreement, the prior international agreement; this is how it says that the British Government —the Government with sovereign power in the area—should behave. They must accept that obligation under the agreement; it is the prior agreement.
This is the view not just of this Government but of the May Government. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Keen, in this House in March 2019, as well as the then Brexit Secretary, stated that the prior international agreement was the Good Friday agreement. The UK Government believed that they had a case in international law to disapply elements of the protocol to the withdrawal agreement in the unlikely event that these should conflict with the working of the Good Friday agreement. The lonely hour of that unlikely event has arrived fully and is now upon us, with the institutions down and, east-west, north-south, the strands not working at all.
Returning to the language Bill, I am sure that before the debate ends people will talk about Wales and Scotland as comparators and it is entirely correct that they should do so; but in the case of Northern Ireland the truth is that the most important comparator is language policy in the Republic of Ireland. There is a paradox here. In 1947, De Valera told the British ambassador that the Irish people, having gained their political freedom, were no longer so interested in the language. Those who fought for Irish freedom would be amazed by the low number of people in the Irish Republic who filled in their census forms in Irish; that was not what they thought it was all about. It was a central part of the cultural certainty and definition that led to Irish independence, but just not how things have actually worked out in practice.
On the other hand, one aspect did work out in practice. I refer to the words of Myles Dillon, son of the last leader of the great Irish Parliamentary Party in this Parliament, John Dillon. Myles Dillon was the greatest Irish language scholar of his generation. Like his father, he was an Irish language enthusiast. In 1958, he said, it had become an “instrument of discipline” as a means of excluding Protestants from key jobs and cultural institutions of the country. He spoke of this as arising from the Catholic nationalist tradition, and found it horrifying. He said this bluntly and clearly. He said that this factor destroyed the value of the Irish language as a means of building up an Irish national identity.
We cannot approach this problem without realising what the real history of the Irish language has been in the Irish Republic. That is not to say that there are not, for example, many people who love the language, speak it as a first language and so on—there are—but there is a darker side to the history of the Irish language in the Irish Republic. It is therefore inevitable that unionists looking at this Bill will feel somewhat wary.
One thing I would say is that, the more deeply a man or woman loves the Irish language, the less inclined they are to use it as a political instrument against others. Myles Dillon, probably the greatest Gaelic scholar of his generation, is an example. I therefore question the role of the commissioner and argue that it would be the best of all worlds if we could have a good, deep Irish language scholar who passionately loves this beautiful language. The more one gets somebody of that sort for the job—I am not drawing up the ads—the more this legislation will be progressed in the right and correct spirit.
I have one final word to say about the reference to the Ulster-Scots/Ulster-British tradition in this agreement. I note that the commissioner has a purview with respect to the media; the Explanatory Notes state this explicitly. In Northern Ireland, there is a growing danger of parochialism, particularly in the local media. For example, in the 1990s BBC Northern Ireland used to have regular coverage of this House and Northern Ireland Questions in the House of Commons; for some time, they were really quite interesting. There is no such coverage now.
In March 2019, the then Brexit Secretary, with the authority of the Attorney-General, stated a thesis that the Good Friday agreement was the prior international agreement and that, in international law, the UK Government had a case that conflicted with the protocol—although they hoped it did not. As far as I can see, that was never reported in Northern Ireland. A very significant moment in government life just passed by. Now, we have the idea that, when a position is returned to in part by the current Government, it is seen as something new. It is not new at all; British Governments of different hues have been stating it for some time.
To take another recent example, I watched BBC NI’s coverage of the local election results for three days. There were endless hours of discussion but not one of the pundits referred to the fact that, on the Thursday morning, senior London journalists had published a great deal of detail on the Government’s proposed legislative programme for Northern Ireland. Nobody referred to it. They might as well have been whispering in a box, because people in Northern Ireland do not read London journals any more. The local commentariat does not do so either.
There is a role here for the Ulster-Scots/Ulster-British commissioner with respect to the media, as is stated. The role is this: the increasingly great danger in Northern Ireland is parochialism. We know from the horrible example given in the opening remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Caine, that sectarianism has far from gone away; it is a horrible, ugly example that brings shame to everybody connected with it. I am very glad that he made that reference. We know that sectarianism is the greatest evil. I am not saying that parochialism is an equal evil—it most certainly is not—but it is one of the growing evils in Northern Ireland. It is therefore my hope that the Ulster-Scots/Ulster-British commissioner will not see this role as an attempt to be an exciting driver forth on the intricacies of the Ulster-Scots dialect, but will see it in its broader terms, which are about requiring the sort of settlement that reflects both identities: the Irish nationalist identity and the British unionist identity in Northern Ireland.
My Lords, first, I add my condemnation of the vile footage regarding the McAreavey family, which was wrong and hurtful.
I speak against the backdrop of an ongoing political crisis in Northern Ireland. Regrettably, this is not the first time I have uttered that phrase in your Lordships’ House. Although Northern Ireland has seen much progress in recent years, there has now been a considerable period of uncertainty, in large part due to the issues regarding the Northern Ireland protocol. It is challenging to discuss any new legislation on Northern Ireland without first acknowledging and discussing the impact of the protocol and how we have arrived at this point. Beyond costing the Northern Ireland economy £100,000 per hour, the protocol has driven up haulage costs between Great Britain and Northern Ireland by 27%. It has facilitated a divergence between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom by virtue of a border in the Irish Sea.
I welcome recent comments and proposed action from Her Majesty’s Government, who have now accepted the very real harm the protocol is doing. I will support all attempts to find solutions to the protocol through negotiation and through legislation which respects Northern Ireland’s position as an integral part of the United Kingdom. I will also support new legislation which enhances and protects the integrity of the United Kingdom’s single economic market.
As regards the Bill, my party, the Democratic Unionist Party, originally re-entered the Executive in 2020 based on the agreement reached called New Decade, New Approach. That agreement included a range of measures dealing with various issues and respecting different cultures and identities. However, at the heart of New Decade, New Approach was a commitment to safeguard and protect Northern Ireland’s place within the internal UK market. To legislate on one or two parts of this agreement without urgently addressing this key element would be to approach New Decade, New Approach in an unbalanced fashion. That would not be the way to prioritise support for the Belfast agreement and its institutions.
We all want a devolved Government who deliver for everyone in Northern Ireland and who can build on stable foundations for the future. I believe in devolved, fair and workable government. For a Government to work in the long term, they must be based on the foundations of mutual respect. The Democratic Unionist Party indicated clearly in 2017 that it could not support legislation for Irish on a basis that would elevate the Irish language above English or reduce career opportunities for those who do not speak the language. Although those overt provisions are not included in the Bill, there exists a clear imbalance in status granted under the proposals to Irish and Ulster Scots.
My party has made it clear that we do not object to people speaking in the Irish language or having their children educated in the Irish language if that is their wish. Indeed, the Northern Ireland Executive have in the past contributed many millions of pounds in funding towards the promotion of and education in the Irish language. We have, however, objected to, and do object to, the politicisation of any language which means that these issues have, regrettably, at times, seemed to be divisive.
Looking at some of the specific proposals in the Bill, there seems to be no reciprocal requirement for public authorities to provide an action plan on how they will fulfil their obligations to the Ulster-British tradition, whereas this is required in respect of Irish language best practice standards. It is unclear from the Bill whether the office of identity and cultural expression would be able to fund single-identity projects, and it would be preferable if that was specifically referenced in the Bill.
In order to maintain the confidence that unionists have in the Government on this Bill, it is crucial that the Government deliver on the parallel provisions in New Decade, New Approach on the Armed Forces Act and on rolling out the Armed Forces covenant across all parts of the United Kingdom. In dealing with all these issues, there must be fairness and equality in delivering for all people, regardless of their community background or tradition, and based on the principles of equality, fairness, respect and consent. Respect and consent are key words in all this, and all this can be achieved if there is the will.
I am sure there will be additional opportunities to scrutinise the details of the Bill and move any necessary amendments in Committee. Her Majesty’s Government must be balanced when addressing these issues, and must take into account the concerns and views of the unionist community as well as the concerns of others. To date, the concerns of others have been addressed. As a unionist, I value and cherish my British identity and respect all those who value and cherish their Irish identity. All the pro-union supporters in Northern Ireland ask in return is that others respect their values, too.
My Lords, we all know that language and politics are frequently bound up, even in some of the strangest places. I recently discovered that even the small and relatively homogenous country of Norway, when it became independent from Sweden in the early 20th century, fell immediately into a long and furious row about what the written version of Norwegian should be. For historical reasons, the language of administration in Norway had been Danish until that point. Two candidates presented themselves, both somewhat artificial—a Norwegianised version of Danish or a sort of mélange of Norwegian dialects from different parts of the country. As far as I know, this remains unresolved and two versions of written Norwegian still exist—so even there, there is no consensus.
It is obviously a privilege to speak after the noble Lord, Lord Browne of Belmont, but it is truly intimidating to speak after the noble Lord, Lord Bew, with the knowledge he showed of language—the Irish language in particular and its use north and south of the border. I was going to start by making a few comments that will sound quite domestic and jejune compared with what we heard from the noble Lord, Lord Bew, from my own experience.
My mother’s family has been on the west coast of County Clare for the best part of at least 200 years. While I am sure in the early to mid-19th century they would have spoken or been able to speak Irish, certainly by the late 19th century that had largely gone. My grandmother, whom I remember well, was born in the 1880s and had no Irish at all. Later, of course, it became a mandatory school subject, which ensured that absolutely nobody spoke it, because it was both hated as an imposition and badly taught.
So you can wander around County Clare and not find any Irish at all whereas, if you cross the Shannon estuary and go over to County Kerry, part of the Gaeltacht is there—an area of preserved Irish language, which has taken the concept so far that, a few years ago, they started to prohibit road signs and directions from appearing in English. Noble Lords will understand that, in the greater part of the Republic of Ireland, road signs are in both English and Irish, but there is no English down there on the Dingle peninsula. Of course, the Dingle peninsula is one of the most famous and important Irish tourist attractions, but it is now absolutely impossible to read the words “Dingle peninsula” on a road sign and the Irish—I am not going to attempt to pronounce it—bears no comparison or relationship with the words “Dingle” or “peninsula” in the way it is either written or spoken.
So one ends up with a degree of absurdity, but this is common in areas where language is sensitive. None the less—this was the crucial point that the noble Lord, Lord Bew, made—the sting has been taken out of all of it. Shopkeepers and the tourist industry get annoyed about the absence of road signs in Kerry. In County Clare, around where we are in Liscannor Bay, the biggest annoyance is that some bureaucratic zealot up in Dublin keeps sending down road signs changing the customary spelling of the village of Lahinch to Lehinch, which is the Dublin-approved way of spelling it. We will not have any of that, and these road signs are regularly amended by spontaneous night-time activity so that the “a” is put back and the “e” is not there—and even then, I have to tell noble Lords that Lahinch is not the proper Irish name of the town, which is something quite different again.
But this is all managed. There is an element of civilised behaviour in all this. In Northern Ireland, sadly, the question of language is still more political and weaponised. There are genuine concerns: you might lose your way in County Kerry but you will not lose your job because of the language you speak, and nor will you lose your identity. These issues are real. I do not claim a great qualification in entering into them, because what I want to move on to talk about, rather more seriously and less anecdotally, is the question of the Good Friday agreement itself.
Since the Good Friday agreement was entered into, I have always regarded it as not only an international agreement and a compact between communities but, if you like, a foundational constitutional document for the devolved Government of Northern Ireland on the basis of consent in a constrained and managed but none the less democratic framework based on community consent. As other noble Lords have said, the crucial thing is that the whole question of identity and language rights, and their legal basis, are rooted in the Good Friday agreement—no Good Friday agreement, no language rights, no rights to identity.
So it behoves everybody participating in this debate, on the Front and Back Benches, to put the protection of the Good Friday agreement right at the top of their agenda, because everything flows from it. My question is: are we doing that? I do not think we are. We are not protecting the Good Friday agreement; we are undermining it in a number of ways.
The first is that it cannot be the case, with this Bill and other legislation we have passed, including the imposition of abortion—a devolved matter—on Northern Ireland without the consent or agreement of the Executive and the Assembly, that we are strengthening the Good Friday agreement. It can only be the case that we are weakening it if, every time a difficult matter comes up that local communities or their political leaders do not wish to face in the context of the structures they have agreed to, it is taken away—I am not disputing the lawfulness of doing so—by the Government and passed through this sovereign Parliament. We have to take the Good Friday agreement seriously as the basis of legislation. If we were doing this in relation to Scottish or Welsh devolution, the anxieties and upsetness, especially on opposite Benches but all around the House, would be very serious. We are in danger of turning this into something routine and in doing so we undermine the Good Friday agreement.
The second way in which it is being undermined—the noble Lord, Lord Browne of Belmont, referred to this—is through the existence and operation of the Northern Ireland protocol. Now, one can have an argument about whether checks in the Irish Sea are doing damage, what sort of damage and what quantum of damage—both to the economy, in material terms, and to the identity of the unionist community in, so to speak, psychological terms—but there is one way in which it is definitely doing damage to the Good Friday agreement: legally, it has effectively displaced the Good Friday agreement as the foundational constitutional document, because it takes priority over it.
Every time there is a conflict between the Good Friday agreement and the Northern Ireland protocol, the Northern Ireland protocol comes first. We know that, first of all, because we legislated to amend the consent mechanism in the Good Friday agreement to allow the Northern Ireland protocol to be agreed in the first place. We did that here in this Parliament; I was not a Member of your Lordships’ House at the time. It has the legal effect that the Good Friday agreement remains, if you like, the foundational constitutional document except when it has to give way to the Northern Ireland protocol. In other words, the Northern Ireland protocol takes priority and is replacing it as the fundamental document on which the country is governed.
The second way in which the Northern Ireland protocol affects this is that this is all happening without any consent—not even consent under one mechanism or another. No consent mechanism has been tested in Northern Ireland for the imposition of this agreement upon it. There will be a mechanism and means of testing it in the course of next year and subsequently, but none the less the offence of introducing it and forcing people to live under it without any consent cannot be easily remedied and explains why the Good Friday agreement is not being supported in the way we would want by so many communities at the moment.
It goes further, because it is not merely the Northern Ireland protocol that has been imposed without consent. Periodically, amendments to existing European Union laws that are issued by Brussels have direct effect in Northern Ireland, although the people of Northern Ireland have no say in the democratic institutions that in other ways operate as a check and a mechanism for controlling those legal changes. This is a form of living under law that nobody in the Irish Republic would accept for themselves. Indeed, it would be wholly incompatible with its constitution, but we expect the people of Northern Ireland to live in this fashion. It really is quite infamous.
While the Bill sets up commissioners for the Irish and Ulster Scots languages, I am increasingly of the view that we actually need a commissioner for the protection of the Good Friday agreement. I look around and wonder who is actually speaking for the Good Friday agreement and its primacy. If we do not keep that at the forefront of our minds, as I have said, we will lose that agreement and all these rights, and this whole business of identity and language, which is so important to so many people, will be thrown back into a flux.
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.
My Lords, first I add my words of condemnation of the footage that is doing the rounds at the moment, which is vile and has deeply hurt the McAreavey family. There is no place in society for such action.
It would be foolish to disregard the current political situation in Northern Ireland as we debate this Bill. The current situation, brought about by the Northern Ireland protocol arrangements, is deeply regrettable. The protocol lacks cross-community support and fundamentally undermines the core principles which underpin the democratic structures in Northern Ireland. That makes it impossible for power sharing to operate on the basis of cross-community consensus. We have even had Tony Blair in the last few days saying very clearly that the protocol was a bad deal which is undermining the Belfast agreement and peace in Northern Ireland. In the last few days, the noble Lord, Lord Trimble, has said much the same words. They are very much architects of the Good Friday agreement and are saying very clearly that the protocol is now causing serious damage to the Belfast agreement.
In respect of the Bill before the House, I criticise the Government for introducing the Bill before dealing with the concerns about the current operation of the Northern Ireland protocol. The New Decade, New Approach agreement of 2020 was entered into in good faith. But it was a package that was agreed. The introduction of a Bill that cherry picks one element of the agreement while ignoring the commitment to protecting Northern Ireland’s place in the UK internal market from the carnage of the protocol is both ill-judged and imbalanced. It totally undermines devolution in Northern Ireland.
We have seen over and over again with one party’s wish-list that, if it does not get it through Stormont or the Executive, it brings it here. Usually, the Government do what needs to be done to get whatever has to be got through this House and the other. That creates a problem for devolution in Northern Ireland and how it can be delivered, not only in the future, but also for all the people of Northern Ireland. There has also been no attempt to build consensus towards this Bill at a time when confidence in the Government and devolution has been eroded to the point of being on life support.
Everyone in Northern Ireland should feel comfortable expressing their national and cultural identity. This includes those who cherish the Irish identity. I want to say something briefly about identity, which I have raised several times with government Ministers. I hope at some point to raise it in this House through a Motion. Here is one example: people who were born in the Irish Republic, have moved to Northern Ireland and lived there all their life—paid their taxes and national insurance, voted, and all of that—find it very difficult to apply for and get a British passport. In fact, the cost of applying for a British passport through the whole process, which will take six months to one year, is £1,300, which many people in Northern Ireland cannot afford. It is an issue I want to raise in this House at some point because it creates a problem for people who want to have a British identity and passport and to be British. At this moment it affects around 40,000 people in Northern Ireland; that is a huge number of people who find it difficult to get British identity in Northern Ireland. The only reason is because they were born in the Irish Republic. I will leave it at that, but that is a very serious issue that needs to be addressed when it comes to culture and identity.
The way forward in our approach to legislation must be fair and balanced to each tradition, recognising and reflecting the balance of the community it relates to in Northern Ireland. Unfortunately, there are aspects of this Bill that are certainly not balanced. There needs to be a lot of work done to get this Bill where we need to get it to and to get the balance within the Bill, which is not there at this minute in time.
We all want to see the institutions up and running, but progress can be made only with the support of unionists and nationalists in Northern Ireland moving forward together for the future. It is important that, during the passage of this Bill and especially in Committee, consideration is given to the inaccuracies of this particular Bill. For example, on the whole issue around funding and the rollout of this Bill on the ground, how is it going to work? The noble Lord, Lord Moylan, talked about weaponising the Irish language, and that is a real fear within the unionist community. How will the language be used by certain people in and around public bodies and in and around courts? All of that is very serious for the unionist community.
On the whole issue of funding which I have alluded to, we do not know the cost of all of this. At the minute, the Irish language gets about £170 million a year from the Executive. You would nearly think the way some people are talking they were getting nothing. Is that figure going to increase? Quite obviously it is going to increase. The Bill is silent on funding.
Another issue in the Bill is that the Secretary of State will take powers so that, if he feels that a Minister or a department is not doing what they should do, he can intervene. Once again, to me that undermines devolution in Northern Ireland.
I will leave it there. I want to say to the House: do not underestimate the situation in trying to get the Assembly up and running. It will be a very difficult job to get it up and running if the protocol and the issues around it are not resolved.
My Lords, I wish to make some comments in the gap. At the outset, I would just like to come alongside what the noble Lord, Lord Caine, has said in relation to the McAreavey and Harte family. I visited the Harte family at the time of that great tragedy, along with three of my colleagues Peter Robinson, Arlene Foster and Nelson McCausland. We wanted to assure them of our support. The Harte family come from the same village where I lived the first 16 years of my life, Ballygawley. I also want to assure the Minister that he was not alone in singing the national anthem many times over recent times. I too had a hoarse throat and I am putting it down to my rendering of the national anthem on many occasions.
I have many questions for the Government about the Bill before us today, but in the limited time available I will be able to touch only on one or two of them. New Section 78H(1)(d) refers to the following principal aim:
“to support, and promote the celebration of, the cultural and linguistic heritage of all people living in Northern Ireland.”
However, there is not one reference in the entire Bill to any languages other than Irish Gaelic and Ulster Scots, apart from a passing reference to English. Is this credible? Does the remit of the Ulster Scots commissioner refer only to Ulster Scots, or does it include Hiberno-English as spoken in Northern Ireland?
The provision of two commissioners—one to have regard to the interests of the unionist community as they relate to Ulster Scots, the other having regard to the interests of the nationalist community as they relate to Irish—seems like a balanced expression of commitment to parity of esteem. But it seems to me that they have been designed very differently such that they will be destined to have very inequitable impact. The Irish commissioner has a clear function in terms of facilitating the use of Irish in public service provision, while the role of the Ulster Scots commissioner is far more opaque both in terms of what the commissioner will do and who will be engaged by them. Whereas all public authorities which provide public services can obviously be engaged in terms of the languages in which they provide their services, it is completely unclear that the development of the Ulster Scots language art and literature will engage anything more than a tiny number of public authorities.
In this context, while the Irish language commissioner looks to have a very big impact on Northern Ireland, the Ulster Scots commissioner looks destined to have a much more limited impact. The latter does not even have any monitoring or enforcement powers—how does this demonstrate parity of esteem? In addition, the drafting of the Bill seems to suggest a blatant inequality: the Ulster Scots commissioner for the unionist community is given a role that engages various international legal conventions because Ulster Scots is a minority language, whereas the nationalist community is afforded a commissioner whose language is apparently not deemed a minority language. Put another way, the Bill lays the foundation for normalising the sense in which the concerns of unionists should be legitimately regarded as a minority interest, whereas the concerns of nationalists should not be. As such, this feels like a Bill drafted not by the UK Government but, indeed, by the Irish Republic Government, set on breaking up the United Kingdom and placing Northern Ireland in a nationalist state. I think this is an attempt to assimilate Northern Ireland with the Irish Republic. We are always told that the status of Northern Ireland will not change without the consent of the people—in other words, without a referendum—and the Bill goes far past that.
The protocol has been mentioned and I will finish on this matter. The protocol has driven a horse and coach through the Belfast agreement. Sadly, however, I do not hear from the opposite Benches the cry to deal with this issue. I plead with your Lordships’ House today that the protocol must be dealt with; it is stymying devolution and its return.
My Lords, no one can deny that the Irish language has been weaponised by Sinn Féin and the SDLP. Those of us who live in the west of the Province are fully aware of that fact; it is in our face every day. It is a way of marking out territory by republicanism. The context and content of the Bill fail to acknowledge that those who consented to the New Decade, New Approach agreement did so in the belief that it would be implemented by facilitation rather than imposition. The introduction of this legislation cherry picks one element of the January 2020 agreement, while ignoring the commitment to protect Northern Ireland’s place in the United Kingdom’s internal market from the carnage of the protocol. It is both ill judged and imbalanced.
It is clear that there has been no attempt to build consensus towards the legislation at a time when confidence in government and devolution has been eroded to the point of being on life support. Clauses 6 and 7 would implicitly override the integral cross-community safeguards at the heart of the Belfast and St Andrews agreements, which would normally require controversial decisions in the devolved areas of culture and language to be made by the Executive in the future. This disregard for the democratic process in Northern Ireland is disgusting and will be clearly seen as a deliberate attempt to denigrate the concerns in particular of the unionist community. Of course, this is not the first time that the Government have done this; on each occasion, they have done this to placate the three demands of Sinn Féin and one of them—the final one—is being carried forth today.
Can the Minister tell your Lordships what measures Her Majesty’s Government have taken to override the authority of devolution in Scotland or Wales? At the whim of republican demands, devolution has been totally —perhaps irreparably—damaged in Northern Ireland. Although the implementation of the protocol continues, compounding the cost of living crisis, there is an irony—but also a sadness—that the Government have reserved action for those in Sinn Féin and the nationalist community who shout the loudest, despite this legislation offering no tangible or practical benefits for hard-pressed families across our Province. Some suggest that the publication of the legislation concerning the protocol in another place this week will address the situation of the protocol, and that should somehow placate or satisfy unionists and get Stormont up and moving again. I remind this House that this is foolish thinking.
The latest poll today reveals that the vast majority of the unionist population support the Democratic Unionist Party’s stance on the protocol and the stand it is taking on the restoration of devolution. Let me make it clear: I do not support this legislation and it will not command the support of the unionist community from which I come. This was not to be taken in isolation; it was to be a total, comprehensive deal, and this is only one part of it, while the Government seem to forget the rest.
My Lords, so far, I have found this debate rather depressing. The Bill has been a long time in the making. Only now we see it because the Government are utterly fed up, as are we all, with the lack of any meaningful movement on part of the DUP to engage in the formation of a new Northern Ireland Executive. The Government have therefore decided to pre-empt this impasse and require commissioners to be appointed to oversee and promote the language and culture associated with the Ulster Scots and Ulster British tradition for the Irish language, and to establish the office of identity and cultural expression. I can only hope that the powers that be will get on with these appointments as soon as possible. Can the Minister give me a timescale for this to be achieved? Through what process will these positions be appointed?
This legislation was largely based on the DUP/Sinn Féin agreement, back in 2018, which went into the 2020 New Decade, New Approach—or NDNA—deal. Three Bills were proposed, as we have heard: one on the Irish language; one for a commissioner, which I mentioned; and one to establish an office of identity and cultural expression. The DUP, having initially agreed this approach, quickly changed its mind. No doubt, it had its reasons. The UK’s international obligations were to consult the public on these proposals, but in reality the only consultation to have taken place has been on the Irish language. Can the Minister explain why this is the case? Why has consultation not taken place on the other proposed Bills? Why did the Government not fulfil their undertakings under the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages, under the 2006 bilateral St Andrews agreement, to implement the Irish Language Act at that time? There was an obligation on them to do so.
The UK Government gave a clear warning in June last year that if legislation on the Irish language had not been introduced into the Assembly by September, they would introduce it into the UK Parliament by October 2021. The DUP has, once again, blocked its passage. We are under a duty to legislate so that we meet treaty-based obligations. The UK Government, under the Good Friday agreement, has competence to legislate in these matters and this legislation will amend the Northern Ireland Act 1998. Importantly, we see in Clause 7 that the powers can set aside the St Andrews veto, which can be used to prevent Northern Ireland Ministers taking controversial or significant decisions.
One area of possible discord might be that the Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister, OFMDFM, would seek to approve the Irish language commissioner’s standards. We have already heard from my noble friend about this. Can the Minister explain why that has been inserted into NDNA and retained by the current Bill? Surely, that would interfere with the commissioner’s independence. Will he also clarify something else for me? Under paragraph 2 of Schedule 1, the office of identity and cultural expression will also have a director and officers. These posts, it would appear, are to be appointed by the OFMDFM. If these persons are not in place and the Assembly not constituted, how and when will the director and officers be appointed, and by whom?
The preferred option of the Council of Europe Committee of Ministers on the introduction of the Irish language policy for Northern Ireland was that it should be taken forward through legislation, which would have provided statutory rights for Irish speakers. This Bill has somewhat watered down the commitment in the St Andrews agreement to an Irish language Act. However, it is better than nothing, albeit not strong enough to forestall political interference. Granting concurrent powers to the Secretary of State might just help prevent that; I certainly hope so.
Finally, when does the Minister propose to engage in consultation on the Ulster Scots provisions in the Bill? Will he undertake to do so immediately? Will the commissioner and officers be required to be speakers of Ulster Scots, for instance? Surely the needs and wishes of all Ulster Scots speakers should shape Ulster Scots policy. The briefing from the Northern Ireland Committee on the Administration of Justice says:
“Ulster-Scots language is spoken in different areas of Ireland by both Protestants and Roman Catholics alike”,
“its constitution stipulates that it is ‘non-political and non-sectarian’.”
I hope that this legislation can now pass through this Parliament without further hindrance from any quarter.
My Lords, it has been an interesting debate. I sometimes wonder how we ever passed the Good Friday agreement, but we did. We had similar arguments about issues perhaps much more significant than the language 25 years ago. Comparing this with what has occurred in Wales, where I was a Member of Parliament for many years, the Welsh language has been treated in a way which I never thought would happen as an English-speaking Welshman. I am deeply proud of the fact that I am an English-speaking Welshman from the Welsh valleys, but I am also deeply proud of the fact that perhaps 20% to 25% of the people in Wales regard Welsh as their first language, and the vast majority of them regard themselves as being as British as anybody in this Chamber.
In many ways, over the last 20 to 30 years there has been a revolution, but it has taken away the politicisation of the Welsh language—which has been touched on in the debate as far as Irish is concerned—and made it much more acceptable. My former constituency, which is the most anglicised constituency in Wales, has three Welsh-medium schools, everybody is taught Welsh, and the vote for Plaid Cymru is minimal. That does not mean to say that there are no problems, because there still are.
Of course, you have to deal with the enormous sensitivity around language issues—I will take the example of Wales before I come on to the Bill itself, because it is a good comparison. You have to ensure that you tailor the language to wherever the majority of Welsh language speakers might be, and do it in a slightly different way where there are English speakers—but you do it in a way that suggests there is nothing unusual about it any more.
I was never taught Welsh, because I was in Monmouthshire, a county which in my day was actually English, although its loyalties were Welsh. I just feel that everybody ought to calm down a bit and realise that things can happen that will not be so difficult that they will mean something which a weaponization of the language would imply. It is not like that. It can be like that, but if you deal with it properly and sensitively, it need not be.
Of course, it is about identity. The language we speak is part of our identity. In 1860, my great-grandparents came from County Cork as Irish speakers. They arrived in a village which was Welsh speaking and the priests who dealt with their religion were Italian Franciscans, so they all had to speak in English. But that did not mean that, somehow or other, their identities were unaffected. What always struck me when I was in Northern Ireland was that, when I talked to people such as Ian Adamson and others from the unionist community, they reminded me of the huge presbyterian Irish language history in Northern Ireland and southern Ireland which goes back hundreds of years, to when language was not an issue of sectarian differences.
A number of noble Lords talked about the Good Friday agreement of 1998; on page 19, there is a section titled “Rights, Safeguards and Equality of Opportunity: Economic, Social and Cultural Issues”. Obviously, there is reference to Ulster Scots—and, incidentally, to the languages of the various ethnic communities in Northern Ireland, whom we must not forget—and quite large reference to the Irish language. It is not that it was not dealt with in 1998—it was; in fact, I wrote most of that page—the issue is that, as far as the peace process is concerned, the Irish language issue has not gone away over the last 20 years. It started in 1998 and it is still there. The St Andrews agreement talked about the Irish language, and New Decade, New Approach, on which this Bill is based, dealt with it too.
It is quite interesting that the noble Lord, Lord McCrea, talked about “the package”; just as you cannot take bits out of New Decade, New Approach, the whole point of the Good Friday agreement is that you have to accept it as a package. That package includes having an Assembly up and running and an Executive operating to deal with all these difficult issues. You cannot pick and choose which bits you like. You have to ensure that the whole package is dealt with, and that includes making laws and running the country. Those things are vital. It is an international treaty. The guarantors of the Good Friday agreement are the Irish Government and the British Government. That is why, although of course I have differences with the British Government, on this issue they are absolutely right to honour the pledge they made when the New Decade, New Approach agreement was reached.
There are difficult issues. That is why we have Committee stages in making legislation. We will table amendments, as I am sure other Members of your Lordships’ House will, on the independence of the commissioners, public bodies and other communities—all of which have been raised today. Of course, those things will be raised, as is right and proper. However, the principle of this legislation is that both communities, and those who regard themselves as being in neither, are protected. That is why, although I do not at all like the idea of the Secretary of State coming in and intervening in devolution—even though I was one many years ago—it is a good idea, as in the legislation, that both the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister will have to agree on both commissioners and on the office, and the Secretary of State will have a role only if that breaks down and people start vetoing each other all the time. That is not the principle behind New Decade, New Approach, so I agree with the Government on that.
But where I think the comparison to the protocol is not right comes back to the package that we were talking about. Of course the protocol has to be addressed. I understand completely what the unionist community feels about it, and I understand the point that we must have consent across the nationalist and unionist communities on issues as major as that—but why did we not get it? Part of the reason was that there was no Assembly and no Executive meeting when all these things were discussed when we were dealing with Brexit. In that case it was Sinn Féin that decided that the Assembly and the Executive should not be up and running. Now we have the DUP saying that they should not be up and running, but of course they should. If noble Lords disagree with a policy in the House of Lords, we do not suddenly dissolve Parliament —we have to deal with it in the ways that we can as a Parliament.
The protocol has to be addressed, and it has to be addressed on its own. Of course, it has to be addressed in the context of the Good Friday agreement, in terms of the consent that is required for it to happen, but you cannot do it by flying over to Belfast for 24 hours and coming back again. It has to be dealt with by a proper negotiating protocol and procedure. I am sure that members of the DUP and other parties in Northern Ireland understand that intensive negotiation is the only real answer to all this.
We need our institutions in Northern Ireland. We need them to deal with issues like this. I feel deeply uncomfortable that the British Parliament should be dealing with these matters, whether it is abortion, this issue, legacy, or whatever it might be. We should not be doing that. This should be a matter for the devolved parliament in Northern Ireland. Why have devolution if we do not use it? On the other hand, if those politicians in Northern Ireland suddenly bring it down and we have no institutions, what else do we do? We cannot have an ungoverned Northern Ireland; it still has to work. I suppose my message, or my plea, to politicians in Northern Ireland—some of whom are in this Chamber today—is to restore the institutions and to start talking seriously amongst yourselves about the protocol, the Irish language and Ulster Scots so that there will be no real reason in this world why the House of Lords should discuss legislation which is really none of our business.
My Lords, it is a great pleasure to respond to this debate, and I thank all those who have taken the time to participate this afternoon. If I may, I particularly welcome the tone and approach just shown by the noble Lord, Lord Murphy, who was a very distinguished Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, as I have said before. I agree with many of his wise words, particularly around the Belfast agreement and the need to restore the political institutions, so I thank him very much for his contribution. I cannot match the level of knowledge of the Welsh language he displayed, the knowledge of Scots displayed by the noble Baroness, Lady Suttie, or indeed the knowledge of Norwegian set out by my noble friend Lord Moylan. As a native of the West Riding of Yorkshire, it is sometimes said that we also have our own language or dialect occasionally, which I will not detain the House with.
A common thread among a number of comments, including from the noble Lord, Lord Murphy, and the noble Baroness, Lady Suttie, was the need to take the sting out of this issue. As I said in my opening remarks, I experienced the three years in which it poisoned and paralysed politics in Northern Ireland and prevented the effective functioning of the devolved institutions. One of the aims of the Bill, frankly, is to deal comprehensively with language and identity issues in a way that allows the sting to be taken out of them, allows them to be depoliticised, and prevents them paralysing politics in the way that they have previously.
The Bill takes forward a number of commitments in New Decade, New Approach and sets up a framework through which the Executive can themselves deliver the offices and the two commissioners. These commitments were clearly made for the Executive to deliver. I think it was the noble Lord, Lord Hay, who referred to funding; we are very clear that, consistent with undertakings at the time of New Decade, New Approach, this would be for the devolved Administration to take forward. They would set the funding from the very generous block grant. I remind the House that the spending review settlement from last autumn was the largest since devolution was restored in 1998-99.
It is also worth remembering, as I said at the outset, that the Bill did not suddenly appear out of nowhere. It is very firmly based on the New Decade, New Approach document, which I again remind noble Lords formed the basis of the re-establishment of devolved government in January 2020. That document was based on three years of detailed discussions and negotiations, and the Bill reflects that status. We plan to pass the legislation through Westminster for the reasons I outlined in my opening speech, but it is of course open for the Northern Ireland Assembly to take it forward, to add to it and to take it in different directions on a future occasion.
The noble Baronesses, Lady Suttie and Lady Harris of Richmond, referred to the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages. They claimed that the Bill falls short of some of the commitments in that charter. This is the New Decade, New Approach agreement, at Annex E, being faithfully implemented. The Government support and celebrate linguistic diversity—no question of that—which is why we signed and ratified the European charter in 2001. The Bill represents a significant step forward regarding provision for Ulster Scots and the Irish language, but as I said, if the Executive wish to take things forward on a future occasion, they can.
Given some of the comments raised during debate, it is important to put on record some of the things that the Bill does not do. As I think I made clear, it does not deviate from the carefully balanced position in New Decade, New Approach, nor, I contend, favour one side of the community over the other. I strongly push back on the comments of the noble Baroness, Lady Hoey, that the Bill represents a stand-alone Irish language Act. It certainly does not. The Bill contains provisions for all parts of the community and a clear reading of it makes that apparent. It does not alter, diminish or adversely affect the status of English as the de facto language of Northern Ireland. It does not result in one language, culture or identity being elevated above or treated more favourably than any other. It does not, for example, create quotas for Ulster Scots or Irish speakers in public service roles.
The noble Baroness says “Yet” from a sedentary position. The Bill, with its safeguards, makes it clear that any best practice and any schemes would have to be approved by the First and Deputy First Ministers acting jointly, one of whom, I assume, would be a unionist. That is an important safeguard.
The legislation does not make the teaching of the Irish language or Ulster Scots compulsory in schools, and it does not impose mandatory bilingual road or street signs, which will remain a matter for local councils to decide. The noble Baroness raised a number of what I can only describe as scares about the potential expansion of the Bill’s provisions, but that could come about only with the agreement of the First and Deputy First Ministers, one of whom, as I said, will, I imagine, always be a unionist.
Turning to a number of the other points, I will try to be as brief as possible. A number of noble Lords, including the noble Baroness, Lady Goudie, I think, talked about the appointments process. The public appointments process will be for the First and Deputy First Ministers and the Executive to decide; obviously there are well-established procedures in Northern Ireland for public appointments, which will have to be adhered to. We hope that once the legislation is passed, the appointments can take place as swiftly as possible, in a timely manner. However, if that is not the case, there are of course the concurrent powers for the Secretary of State to step in. A number of groups raised with me last week why there is not some time limit by which the Secretary of State is obliged to step in. I think the Government’s view is that the Secretary of State ought to retain the discretion to decide when and how to intervene, depending on the circumstances at the time.
The number of bodies to which the legislation applies is set out in the Public Services Ombudsman Act (Northern Ireland) 2016 but, again, it would be open to the First and Deputy First Ministers to add or subtract to those bodies through legislation in the Assembly.
The noble Baroness, Lady Suttie, talked about ministerial approval of Irish language standards, which I have slightly touched on already. It is a faithful implementation of New Decade, New Approach; for the sake of complete accuracy, I draw her attention to paragraph 5.8.1 of Annexe E. I have dealt with her point about the European charter.
The noble Baronesses, Lady Suttie and Lady Harris of Richmond, talked about engagement with Ulster Scots. As I mentioned in my opening speech, and as the noble Baroness kindly acknowledged, I met the Ulster-Scots Agency in Belfast last week and it was broadly supportive of the Bill’s provisions. Of course, the Government have, over a pretty lengthy period, been engaging with a large number of groups that have an interest in this legislation.
The noble Lord, Lord Browne of Belmont, talked about an imbalance in the implementation of New Decade, New Approach, as did a number of noble Lords from the Democratic Unionist Party. I just gently point out that, in addition to this legislation, the Government passed the Northern Ireland (Ministers, Elections and Petitions of Concern) Act fairly recently, at the heart of which was providing for greater resilience in the institutions of the Belfast agreement—a key demand of the Democratic Unionist Party going into the discussions after the institutions were pulled down in 2017. Very quickly we appointed a veterans commissioner and an office for veterans, and we have provided £3 million for events to celebrate and mark the centenary of Northern Ireland. There are things that the Government have done over the past two years in implementing New Decade, New Approach which have benefited all parts of the community. However, of course I accept that there is more to do.
That leads me on to the Northern Ireland protocol, raised by a number of noble Lords. The Government’s position on this has been pretty well set out by my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary. The Government recognise very serious defects in the implementation and construction of the protocol. As I have said in this House on a number of occasions, it has diverted trade, increased burdens on business, disadvantaged consumers and led to political instability in Northern Ireland—witness the lack of a functioning Executive since February. The Government are committed to resolving those problems and, if I may put it like this, I do not think noble Lords will have to wait too much longer to find out what the Government propose to do in this respect.
My noble friend Lord Moylan mentioned road signs in the Republic of Ireland. As I have just made clear, there are no provisions in this legislation that would deal with road signs or change the existing position in Northern Ireland.
My noble friend Lord Moylan, the noble Baroness, Lady Hoey, and other noble Lords talked about our commitment to the Belfast agreement. I have been a supporter of the Belfast agreement since 10 April 1998, when it was signed. Again, I pay tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Murphy, for his key role in bringing about that agreement. But if there are no institutions functioning in Northern Ireland—no Assembly and no Executive—strands 2 and 3 do not work and the agreement begins to look incredibly thin. For that reason, the Government took action and spent three years trying to reach an agreement to get the institutions back up and running.
We put through a number of pieces of legislation— for example, the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation etc) Act, which, if the noble Baroness recalls, gave civil servants greater powers to spend money and keep government in Northern Ireland functioning. That is just one example.
As I was saying, the commitment of this Government to the Belfast agreement remains unwavering. It is because of that commitment that we have had to intervene on occasion. I take the point from around the House that it is unfortunate when this has to happen, but the situation in Northern Ireland is not akin to that in Scotland or Wales. At times, it has been necessary for the Government to take reserved powers or, in this case, concurrent powers to ensure that the institutions stay up and running.
I have sought to deal with a number of points and am sure I have missed some. I will go through Hansard and, where I have missed anything, endeavour to write to noble Lords.
Bill read a second time and committed to a Grand Committee.