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This article was written by Laurie Maher. From Wicklow, Ireland, Laurie is currently a master’s student in the International Human Rights Law programme at Lund University. She graduated with an LLB in Law and French from Trinity College Dublin, including a one year at Sciences Po, Paris. Her areas of interest include climate change, cultural and refugee rights.
One year ago, on 26th October 2022, the House of Commons passed the Identity and Language (Northern Ireland) Act, recognising Irish as an official language in Northern Ireland. Six weeks later it received Royal Assent, the final step to becoming law. Introduced in May 2022, the Act followed commitments that were made in the Northern Ireland Act 1998 (Good Friday Agreement), a significant foundation of the peace process in Northern Ireland. These commitments were reiterated in the New Decade, New Approach Deal 2020. The Identity and Language Act (the Act) came as an important development for those who have been seeking standalone recognition for the Irish language, akin to the status afforded to Welsh and Scots Gaelic. Language rights have long been a significant and divisive issue in Northern Ireland, with allegiances to both Irish and Ulster Scots entrenched along sectarian lines. These languages are also a representation of cultural and political identity.
The Northern Ireland Act 2022
The Act gives the Irish language official status in Northern Ireland for the first time. It will allow for the use of the Irish language in the courts, repealing the 1737 Act of Justice which had outlawed this. It also provides for the development of both the Irish language and Ulster Scots and their respective cultures and traditions. An important element of this is appointment of an Irish language commissioner and an Ulster Scots commissioner, as well as the establishment of an Office of Identity and Cultural Expression. The objectives of these commissioners and the Office will be to guide public bodies in their implementation of the languages and to monitor the provision of services to minority language users. The Office will also seek to, ‘promote social cohesion and reconciliation between those with different national and cultural identities’ (Article 78H(b) of the Act).
This Act comes after years of campaigning by language groups within Northern Ireland to see Irish language rights and the protection of the language realised. In 2001 the British government ratified the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages, which specified Irish in Part III. This afforded the language a degree of protection, however, national organisations and international bodies continued to call for separate legislation to further cement this. In 2017, the Council of Europe Advisory Committee for the Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities called for legislation to protect and promote the Irish language, echoing previous findings. In their 2016 periodic review, the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights reiterated what they had stated five years previously and recommended that an Irish Language Act be enacted due to concern about the lack of effective measures in place to protect the language.
Developments in the last year
Northern Ireland has not had a functioning executive since February 2022 due to disagreements relating to the power-sharing agreement and the formation of government. However, the implementation of the Act and its provisions are not reliant on there being an executive in place – responsibility falls to the Secretary of State and the Northern Irish Office in its absence. The Identity and Language (Northern Ireland) Act 2022 (Commencement) Regulations 2023 were passed on 22nd May 2023. This brings these powers of the Secretary of State and the Northern Irish Office into force in relation to the establishment of the Office of Identity and Cultural Expression and the Irish and Ulster Scots commissioners.
As a result, the appointment of the commissioners may now go ahead. However, there has been little movement as of yet. Some steps have been taken with regards to other objectives of the Act which do not require supplementary legal provisions, such as the installation of bilingual street signs which can be facilitated through local council policies. That said, there is still a lack of clarity as to the timeframes for the implementation of many of the Act’s provisions. Language campaigners and organisations have continued to call for effective and efficient implementation to ensure that the commitments within the Act are upheld.
In their 2022 Annual Report the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission recommended that the Department for Communities implement an Irish Language Strategy and an Ulster Scots Strategy through engagement with the commissioners, individuals from the respective communities and representative organisations. These strategies would allow for long-term goals to be set for the development and protection of the languages and culture. Although this was a legal duty created by the Northern Ireland Act 1998 and reiterated in the New Decade, New Approach Deal 2020, it has not yet materialised. According to the Department of Communities, these strategies are due to be delivered within the next year.
The implementation of these strategies, as well as the appointment of the Irish language commissioner and the Ulster Scots commissioner will be vital next steps to ensuring that the obligations under the Act are being met. Without timely and effective action, the language rights and the protections that the Act envisages will not be fully realised.
Identity and Language (Northern Ireland) Act 2022
Identity and Language (Northern Ireland) Act 2022 (Commencement) Regulations 2023
Robbie Meredith, ‘Language and identity laws could spell significant change’ BBC (11 December 2022) https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-northern-ireland-63923308
Robbie Meredith, ‘Irish language and Ulster Scots bill clears final hurdle in Parliament’ (26 October 2022) https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-northern-ireland-63402597
Council of Europe, Advisory Committee on the Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities, Fourth Opinion on the United Kingdom adopted on 25 May 2016 ACFC/OP/IV(2016)005 https://rm.coe.int/16806fb9ab
Northern Ireland Human Rights Council, Annual Report 2022 https://nihrc.org/publication/detail/annual-statement-2022
Lord Cain, ‘Update on the implementation of the Identity and Language (Northern Ireland) Act 2022’ (6 June 2023) https://questions-statements.parliament.uk/written-statements/detail/2023-06-06/hlws810
Robbie Meredith, Strategies for Irish language and Ulster-Scots due within year’ BBC (7 July 2023) https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-northern-ireland-66123393
Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, Concluding observations on the sixth periodic report of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland E/C.12/GBR/CO/6