Brandon Lewis to explore ‘all options available’ on Irish language laws

The NI Secretary said it was ‘vital’ that cross-community commitments to culture and language made in the New Decade New Approach deal are honoured.
Brandon Lewis to explore ‘all options available’ on Irish language laws

By James Ward and David Young, PA

Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis has said he will explore “all the options available” to introduce Irish language laws in the region.

It comes amid tensions over the issue between Sinn Féin and the DUP that potentially threatens the future of powersharing in the North.

Sinn Féin told Mr Lewis on Monday that “the only way forward” was to move the legislation through Westminster.

Following meetings with the main parties on Tuesday, Mr Lewis said it was “vital” that cross-community commitments to culture and language made in the New Decade New Approach deal are honoured.

He added: “This includes the creation of an Ulster Scots British commissioner, an Irish language commissioner and an office of identity and cultural expression for everybody in Northern Ireland.

“I want to drive real progress on these issues for all of the people of Northern Ireland and I’ll continue to engage closely with all parties to that end, exploring all the options available.”

It comes amid a stand-off between the two main parties on the language issue and the imminent requirement to appoint a new First Minister.

But the DUP has warned the British government against intervening to pass Irish language laws in the UK parliament.

“Following the latest demand from Mary Lou McDonald, the Government must not interfere in devolved issues at the behest of Sinn Féin,” MP Sammy Wilson said.

Former DUP leader Arlene Foster’s resignation as first minister on Monday set a seven-day clock running within which her successor, Lagan Valley MLA Paul Givan, must be appointed.

However, the joint nature of the office Mrs Foster shared with Sinn Féin Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill, meant Ms O’Neill was automatically removed from her post when her partner in government quit.

Paul Givan is the DUP's choice for the post of first minister (Liam McBurney/PA)
Paul Givan is the DUP’s choice for the post of first minister. Photo: Liam McBurney/PA

She must also be renominated to her role within those seven days.

If one of the parties fails to renominate within the time period, a properly functioning executive cannot be formed and the UK Government assumes a legal responsibility to call a snap Assembly election.

Sinn Féin has made clear it will only engage in the renomination process if it was accompanied by the commencement of legislating for protections for Irish language speakers.

Unmet commitment

Irish language laws are an unfulfilled commitment within the 2020 deal that restored powersharing at Stormont.

New DUP leader Edwin Poots has vowed to implement all outstanding aspects of the New Decade, New Approach deal, including Irish language legislation.

However, he has declined to give Sinn Féin an assurance that he will move on the language laws in the current Assembly mandate, a key demand of the republican party, and had insisted there are other priorities the Executive should be focusing on, including the health service and economy.

On Tuesday, five Stormont parties, Alliance, the Green Party, People Before Profit, SDLP and Sinn Féin, signed a joint letter calling on the Executive and UK and Irish governments to agree a timetable to pass the legislation by the end of the mandate.

Following a meeting with Mr Lewis on Monday evening, Mrs McDonald said: “This evening we met with the British government and told them that they need to move the Irish language legislation through Westminster.”

She said the party had made efforts to introduce the laws through the Northern Ireland Assembly, but had been told by Edwin Poots that this would not happen in the current mandate.

She added: “This legislation was negotiated a year and a half ago and it is now incumbent on the British and Irish governments to act.

“This is the only way forward to finally resolve this issue.”

Westminster intervention

On Tuesday, East Antrim MP Mr Wilson warned against the move.

He noted the Westminster interventions in Northern Irish laws, including on abortion, during the three-year power-sharing impasse between 2017 and 2020.

“The government foisted the most liberal abortion laws in the British Isles on Northern Ireland.

“Such actions only served to undermine devolution,” he said.

“To force through the latest Sinn Féin wish list will cause further damage to the credibility of the Northern Ireland Assembly.

“Repeated interventions in devolved matters undermines the manifesto promises of Northern Ireland parties and rightly raises questions about the confidence that voters can have in those they elect if their promises can be causally overridden by the Secretary of State.

“Rather than running to HMG [her majesty's government] when they can’t get their way, republicans should respect our mandate.

“Sinn Féin is playing the politics of ransom and are placing culture above health, education and economic recovery.”

On Tuesday MLAs voted in favour of a motion to provide translation services for debates in the Northern Ireland Assembly in Irish and Ulster-Scots.

The motion was passed by 58 votes to 27.

An Ulster Unionist Party amendment, supported by the DUP, requiring that the service be reviewed every six months passed by 44 votes to 41.

The service was provided for under the New Decade New Approach deal that restored powersharing.

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