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  • Writer's pictureFriends of Sinn Féin USA

EXPLAINER - Why is an Irish Language Act (ACHT) Important?

Sinn Féin Deputy President Michelle O'Neill

Irish Language Act Protest at the Stormont Parliament

For hundreds of years, there was a concerted effort by British governments to wipe out and replace the Irish Identity in Ireland. The suppression of the Irish Language was central to this policy, with laws enacted to ban its use in public life.

With the imposition of partition one hundred years ago, the new Unionist government in the North set about eradicating the language, removing funding for the teaching of Irish in schools, banning street signs, and removing a question on Irish from the census. Irish Language speakers were to be unseen and unheard in public life.

The language was kept alive by activists, who hosted classes, build schools, and challenged the government at every stage.

The political campaign for the recognition of the rights of Irish speakers in the north of Ireland intensified.

Language rights were recognized in the 1998 Good Friday Agreement,

“recognise the importance of respect, understanding, and tolerance in relation to linguistic diversity…including the Irish language”

In 2006 as part of the St. Andrews Agreement the British Government agreed to legislate in Westminister for an Irish Language Act to safeguard the rights of Irish Speakers, promising,

“The Government will introduce an Irish Language Act reflecting on the experience of Wales and Ireland and work with the incoming Executive to enhance and protect the development of the Irish language.”

There were also commitments to bring forward a strategy to promote the Irish Language.

The British Government failed to legislate for an Irish Language Act. The unionist continued to block an Irish Language strategy, denigrating the language and removing funding for disadvantaged kids to attend Irish language summer school. These actions would contribute to the resignation of Martin McGuiness and the collapse of the institutions for three years.

The Institutions were only re-established in January 2020 when the unionist political leaders agreed to enact an Irish Language Act by April 2020 as part of a series of commitments. This agreement was made by the two governments and the parties.

The new leader, Edwin Poots of the largest unionist party, has refused to set out a timetable for the legislation which is already over a year behind schedule.

Sinn Féin has been engaged with the DUP leader who has made clear that he is not enacting the legislation in this term and breaking the agreement.

So what next, the change in leadership of the DUP means that a new first minister must be appointed in the government in the North. This will require the support of Sinn Féin. If the appointment does not happen within the next 7 days an election will be called.

Sinn Féin President Mary Lou McDonald

Last night Sinn Féin President Mary Lou McDonald said,

“This evening we met with the British government and told them that they need to move the Irish language legislation through Westminster. A number of weeks ago the British government offered to legislate for Acht Gaeilge (Irish Language Act) in this way."

“At that time we said our preference was that Irish language legislation would be delivered through the Assembly and Executive as was agreed in New Decade New Approach. We have pursued that option vigorously over the last number of weeks."

“We have engaged intensively with the DUP and with party leader Edwin Poots. He has told us that they will not be delivering Acht in this mandate."

“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.”

The Irish Language Act is bigger than the legislation it is about undoing exclusion and discrimination and building an equal, welcoming, and respectful society. It is about honoring agreements and demonstrating that politics works.

Please share with all those you know who are proud Irish Americans.

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