Northern Ireland

Embrace Irish language act, says Welsh minister Alun Davies

Alun Davies
Image caption Alun Davies said he does not need to choose between being British or Welsh - he is both

The government minister in Wales responsible for the Welsh language has said unionists should embrace the Irish language as it does not compromise their identity or politics.

An Irish language act has become one of the biggest stumbling blocks in the Stormont talks process.

Speaking to the BBC NI's The View, Alun Davies appealed to opponents of an act.

"I would say embrace the language, embrace the culture, embrace it as part of your identity," he said.

"When we have taken the politics out of the language, we have all benefited."

'Share experiences'

Mr Davies, who is a Labour assembly member in Cardiff, added: "I am a unionist and speak Welsh. It is a part of my cultural experience and it is a part of my future, my British future.

"I don't need to choose between being British or Welsh, I can have both."

In 2011, Welsh became an official language in Wales and it meant for the first time it could not be treated any less favourably than English.

The measures also introduced a new position of Welsh language commissioner, whose job was to promote the language and penalise those who failed to comply with the changes.

Image caption Meri Huws said a bilingual society must be based on mutual respect and honesty

Since 2015, all new road signs in Wales are in English and Welsh.

The measures introduced in 2011 placed requirements on government bodies to publish documents in both languages.

The Welsh Language Commissioner, Meri Huws, told BBC Northern Ireland that any discussion about creating a bilingual society must be based on mutual respect and honesty.

She said the parties in Northern Ireland need to be clear about what they want and what they think is achievable.

"Certainly mythology creates fear and I think one of the most important things is to get rid of any myths," she said.

"You are trying to create an energetic bilingual community - in order to do that you need to be able to talk to each other, share experiences and pull down the fences."

Some Irish Language campaigners want a commissioner with powers like Ms Huws.

Image caption Prof Diarmait Mac Giolla Chriost said the idea of a commissioner needs to be thought through

However, there are words of caution from Northern Ireland-born academic, Prof Diarmait Mac Giolla Chriost.

'Rules and regulations'

He is a professor of Welsh at Cardiff University and said the idea of a commissioner needs to be thought through.

"It can have certain benefits, but the office has to be created designed with the particular tasks of the office in mind," he said.

"Clarity on that is absolutely essential and I am not sure that the different actors that are engaged with the Irish language agenda in Northern Ireland at present have got that clarity as yet," he said.

Suzy Davies, a Conservative assembly member who speaks English and Welsh, also thinks the role of a commissioner needs to be examined closely.

"If you are going to have a language commissioner to oversee how policy works then focus on the promotion and the benefits of being bilingual, rather than the insistence that certain rules and regulations have to be followed," she said.

Image caption Conservative assembly member Suzy Davies says the role of a commissioner needs to be examined closely

So is enforcement the wrong approach?

Colin Nosworthy, a Welsh language campaigner with the group Cymdeithas yr Iaith, insists that cultural change must be backed by law.

He told The View: "You need legislation to guarantee rights for those people. You need basic fundamental rights guaranteed by law."

The differences between the debate in Wales and the debate in Northern Ireland about languages is stark - in Cardiff there is a political consensus but in Belfast there is a stalemate.

A potential Irish language act would guarantee Irish was given the same official status as English.

'Distinct cultures'

That would lead to measures like Irish being used used in court and the language being used in all assembly debates.

There could also be widespread use of Irish by all state bodies, including the police, and the appointment of an Irish language commissioner to ensure the language guidelines are adhered to.

The Democratic Unionist Party and the Ulster Unionist Party have both made it clear they have no issue with people speaking Irish, but they do not support an Irish language act.

Image caption Plaid Cymru's Sian Gwenllian said a compromise is possible if parties work together

Both parties say an act would be too expensive and should not be a priority.

The Alliance Party supports the creation of a comprehensive languages act.

Sinn Féin and the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) say an act would create equality for Irish speakers.

Plaid Cymru's Sian Gwenllian said a compromise is possible if parties work together.

"It is different in Northern Ireland because you have got two distinct cultures there anyway," she said. "But I think it is a matter of showing respect. Respect to each other, mutual respect."

The Welsh experience shows that over time dialogue created a political consensus.

However, as the talks at Stormont continue there is little sign that when it comes to Irish, politicians are ready to speak the same language.

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