Identity and Language (Northern Ireland) Bill [Lords] Debate

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Department: Northern Ireland Office

Identity and Language (Northern Ireland) Bill [Lords]

Richard Thomson Excerpts
Richard Thomson Portrait Richard Thomson (Gordon) (SNP)
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How do I follow that word?

I begin in all seriousness by echoing the sentiments expressed on both sides of the House about the appalling events in Creeslough. I send my personal condolences to all who have lost their lives, their families and all those who have been deeply affected by that awful tragedy.

The Scottish National party welcomes this Bill, although we, like others, very much regret that the legislation is being brought forward in this place rather than through the Northern Ireland Assembly. It deals with two languages that are clearly integral to the cultural heritage of Northern Ireland. As hon. Members have mentioned, both Irish and Ulster-Scots are languages with significant usage; the latest census shows that 12.5% of people in Northern Ireland have use or some use of the Irish language and some 10% have use or some use of Ulster-Scots.

Ahead of this debate, I happened across a publication online produced by the British Council on Ulster-Scots. Obviously, I was familiar with the strong cultural links and shared vocabulary between Ulster-Scots and Scots, but I do not think I had fully taken on board how similar they were. There was such similarity that, were I to live in Northern Ireland, I think I would be able to include myself in that 10%.

We have already heard the word “scunnered” from the right hon. Member for Skipton and Ripon (Julian Smith); it is a word that frequently applies to how we feel when things in this place do not go our way. “Aye”—for yes—is a word that every hon. Member ought to be familiar with, along with blether—always more than a few of those about the place—boak, crabbit, eejit, flit, oxter and thrawn. Then of course there is “sleekit”, although, were I to apply that word specifically to any hon. Member, I am sure I would be getting my knuckles rapped from the Chair, so I will not seek to do so. There may be an occasion where I want to push my luck, but it is not this afternoon.

Eleanor Laing Portrait Madam Deputy Speaker (Dame Eleanor Laing)
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Order. For the sake of clarity, I appreciate that a great many people in the House do not understand the words the hon. Gentleman has just used, but I do, and he is absolutely right about the way in which he might apply them. I will be listening carefully.

Richard Thomson Portrait Richard Thomson
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I am grateful for that, Madam Deputy Speaker, and I shall take care to ensure that the rest of my remarks are within the parameters of normal parliamentary debate.

A language Act has been promised from the Good Friday agreement through the St Andrews agreement and, most recently, the New Decade, New Approach agreement, so in our view the Bill is long overdue. Language, culture and identity matter.

Linguistic rights are human rights, as reflected in various international conventions that seek to uphold the ability of linguistic minorities around the world to practise and use their own languages. Citizens have a fundamental right to their identity and to cultural expression. Those linguistic rights are contained in the United Nations declaration of human rights, the international covenant on civil and political rights, the European convention on human rights and the European charter for regional or minority languages.

Across these islands there is an unhappy legacy of the suppression of some of those rights. Thankfully, we have left behind the dark days of physical and cultural barbarism where children had their native tongues thrashed out of them in schools, but that is not the only reason for languages being marginalised.

Mass media produced in a dominant language has been a key driver of that as well. Indeed, the correlation between the decline in the use of Scots Gaelic in the home and the rise and availability of television in the English language is marked. Without action to rectify that, indigenous languages are often left in a parlous state, with a diminished and marginalised status. Steps can of course be taken to remedy that through schooling, broadcasting in those languages and support for cultural activities—those are just some of the more obvious examples.

Although a language might be in fairly common everyday usage—it could be a language of conversation, a language of song and poetry, or even a language of print—if it is not in daily use as a language of law, commerce or administration, any existing lack of parity of esteem is reinforced. That is deeply regrettable, because our languages are an essential part of our culture and heritage. Even if we speak more than one language, we will default to the language that is our most natural form of expression. Whether or not we speak all the languages from the places where we live, we are shaped by them and the inheritance they give as part of a cultural wealth that belongs to all. I firmly believe that, just as the promotion, support and legal recognition of Scotland’s languages—particularly Gaelic—has threatened no one, promoting the Irish and Ulster Scots languages should pose no danger to anyone’s culture or identity.

The Bill clearly gives official status to the Irish language, giving citizens in Northern Ireland the right to register births, deaths and marriages in Irish and to request court proceedings to take in place in Irish; increasing support for Irish-medium schools and more; and giving official recognition to the Ulster Scots language and culture. I recognise, as others have, the disparity in that, but the Bill would create an identifiable and recognisable policy landscape similar—at least in part—to that of Scotland, where the Gaelic Language (Scotland) Act 2005 gives Gaelic legal official status, while the Scots language, which is spoken by upwards of 1.5 million Scots, does not have the same legal status. The Scottish Government are currently consulting on ways to support the Scots language, and I hope that one of the outcomes of that consultation will be a similar language Act recognising and giving status to Scots. I would be the first to acknowledge, however, that whatever similarities there are, the issues at play in Scotland are somewhat different.

A language Act might be a necessary step towards ensuring that a language survives and thrives, but it is insufficient on its own. I fully take on board the point made by the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) about the importance of the culture, music, song, poetry and everything else that supports a language and keeps it in daily popular use.

To draw my remarks to a close, giving official status to the Irish language and recognition to the Ulster Scots language and culture is a positive step, but I cannot help but feel that to enhance mutual respect not just between languages but between communities and traditions, there should also be parity of esteem in law, not just between the English and Irish languages, but between Ulster Scots and those languages, and that the institutions being created and the powers granted by the Bill should be equal. Both commissioners should have the same status in law with the same powers behind them. That would be hugely beneficial to what I think we would all like the Bill to achieve: parity of esteem and helping to work towards mutual respect.