By Nick Lester, Chief Lords Reporte
People should “calm down a bit” over a move to grant the Irish language official status in Northern Ireland, a former secretary of state for the region has said.
Speaking in the UK Parliament, Lord Murphy of Torfaen also argued the controversial matter and other sensitive issues ought to be dealt with by the devolved institutions as he urged a restoration of power-sharing at Stormont.
The Labour frontbencher made his plea following strong criticism by unionists at Westminster of the Identity and Language (Northern Ireland) Bill.
The draft cultural legislation started its passage through the House of Lords, amid a continuing impasse over forming a new Executive in Belfast following last month’s Assembly election.
The DUP has said it will not nominate ministers until the UK Government takes action over its concerns around the Northern Ireland Protocol.
The post-Brexit trade arrangements agreed by the UK and EU as a way to maintain a free-flowing Irish land border have created economic barriers on the movement of goods between Great Britain and Northern Ireland, causing resentment and anger among many unionists and loyalists.
Legislative protections for the Irish language in Northern Ireland were a key plank of the New Decade, New Approach agreement that restored power-sharing in January 2020 after a three-year stalemate.
The draft laws also propose two commissioner roles – one for the Irish language and another for the Ulster Scots/Ulster British tradition.
An Office of Identity and Cultural Expression would also be established “to promote cultural pluralism and respect for diversity”.
One of the fiercest critics of the Bill was former Labour MP Baroness Hoey, who said: “It is called the Identity and Language Bill, but despite anything that anyone says… 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 Fein for holding Northern Ireland hostage for three years when it brought down the Assembly.”
Warning it would be used by campaigners to “aid the eventual absorption” of Northern Ireland into the Republic, the non-affiliated peer added: “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.”
DUP peer Lord Browne of Belmont said: “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.”
Fellow DUP peer Lord McCrea of Magherafelt and Cookstown said: “I do not support this legislation and it will not command the support of the unionist community from which I come.”
For Labour, he highlighted the teaching of Welsh in his native country and said: “I just think that everybody ought to calm down a bit and realise that things can happen, which aren’t going to be so difficult that it’s going to mean something which weaponisation of the language would imply.
“It’s not like that. It can be like that. But if you deal with it properly and sensitively then indeed it needn’t be.”
He added: “The principle of this legislation is such that both communities are protected.
While agreeing the protocol had to be addressed, Lord Murphy said it underlined the need for the devolved institutions to be up and running in Northern Ireland “in order to deal with all these difficult issues”.
He said: “If you suddenly disagree with a policy in this House of Lords we don’t suddenly dissolve Parliament because we don’t agree with the policy. We have to deal with it. Intensive negotiation is the only real answer to all this.”
Responding, Northern Ireland minister Lord Caine said the issues of language and identity had served to “poison and paralyse” politics in the region.
He said: “One of the aims of this Bill, frankly, is to deal comprehensively with language and identity issues that does allow the sting to be taken out of them, allows them to be depoliticised and prevents them from paralysing politics in the way they have previously.”
Rejecting “scares” levelled by critics, Lord Caine added: “It contains provisions for all parts of the community.”