UK government says it stands by pledge to table Irish language laws at Westminster

The DUP has warned against pressing ahead with the controversial legislation at a time when unionist concerns about Brexit’s Northern Ireland Protocol remain.
UK government says it stands by pledge to table Irish language laws at Westminster

David Young, PA

The UK government has confirmed its intent to press ahead with legislating for Irish language protections at Westminster.

It has not provided a definitive timeline for introducing the controversial package of culture laws, however the UK's Northern Ireland secretary Brandon Lewis has previously said the move would come at some point in October.

Since Mr Lewis made that pledge in the summer, the UK government has faced calls from the DUP not to press ahead with the legislation while unionist concerns about Brexit’s Northern Ireland Protocol remain unaddressed.

The UK government's decision to intervene to break a Stormont impasse on the stalled laws, which include legal protections for both Irish and Ulster Scots, was a key factor in the demise of short-lived DUP leader Edwin Poots in the summer.

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Brandon Lewis announced the UK government move on the Irish language in a late-night press conference in June (David Young/PA)

Mr Poots’ successor, Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, has since warned that passing the laws, which are a key Sinn Féin policy objective, would further undermine devolution in Northern Ireland at a time when unionists are so opposed to Brexit’s Irish Sea border.

Mr Donaldson is threatening to collapse Stormont within weeks if major changes to the protocol are not secured.

The UK government agreed to table the language laws at Westminster after Sinn Féin threatened not to re-enter the power-sharing administration after failing to secure a firm timetable from the DUP on implementing the legislation at Stormont.

The culture package was a key plank of the 2020 New Decade, New Approach deal that restored devolution.

The internal DUP revolt that removed Arlene Foster as party leader and first minister earlier in the summer triggered a Stormont mechanism that required the renomination of a DUP first minister and Sinn Féin deputy first minister. A functioning executive could only have been formed if both posts were filled.

The procedural mechanism gave Sinn Féin a degree of leverage with Mrs Foster’s successor, Mr Poots, and the party made clear it needed movement on Irish language before it was prepared to renominate Michelle O’Neill as deputy first minister.

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Edwin Poots leaving the DUP headquarters in Belfast after resigning as leader (Brian Lawless/PA)

When Mr Poots refused to commit to passing the laws at Stormont before the end of the current Assembly mandate, Sinn Féin called on the UK government to interject and pass the laws at Westminster instead.

Mr Lewis agreed and said if Stormont did not table its own Bill by the end of September he would move the legislation at Westminster in October.

A UK government spokesman confirmed a Bill would be tabled at Westminster.

“It is disappointing that the Executive has not progressed legislation to deliver the balanced identity, language and culture package as agreed in the New Decade, New Approach agreement,” said the spokesman.

“This legislation will recognise Northern Ireland’s rich diversity.

“In accordance with this government’s commitments, and in the absence of progress on this matter, we will take the necessary steps to introduce the legislation through the UK parliament.”

Many within the DUP reacted angrily to the UK government's move in June, characterising the decision as giving in to a Sinn Féin ransom demand.

However, Mr Poots still decided to press ahead with reconstituting the Executive, nominating Paul Givan as First Minister.

That was despite a significant majority of his MPs and MLAs being vociferously opposed to re-entering government with Sinn Féin on that basis.

The decision would cost Mr Poots his leadership as he was forced to quit within hours of Mr Givan being confirmed as First Minister.

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