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27 Jun 2019

A local Irish language development and support agency has welcomed last week’s vote by ABC Council to introduce a bi-lingual street sign policy in Armagh City, Banbridge and Craigavon Borough.

They say the new policy brings Council into line with some of its statutory and legal obligations. Strategic Development Officer with CAIRDE Teo, Mr Gearóid Ó Machail, responded to the vote, that was narrowly passed behind closed doors at Council:

“This is a long overdue, but nonetheless welcome, first step by our local authority in addressing issues of equality, good relations and cultural diversity in the ABC Council area.  As ratepayers, Irish speakers and their families deserve equal access to Council services and facilities. The previous refusal by Council to acknowledge parity of esteem for the Irish cultural identity has been a festering sore for many years in the ABC Council district and was in breach of obligations outlined under international treaties.

“A damning report published last year revealed how commitments made by the UK government in relation to the Irish language had not been implemented by Armagh City, Banbridge and Craigavon Borough Council”.

‘Local Councils, Obligations and The Irish Language: A Framework for Compliance’ was jointly produced by the Committee for the Administration of Justice (CAJ) and Conradh na Gaeilge to assess the compliance of local government with international obligations relating to the language.

Mr Ó Machail continued:

“Local councils have authority over matters such as street signage and community development, have a role in cultural and heritage activities, and through their own branding and services in local areas have significant potential to promote the Irish language. There is also a good relations duty on councils which should involve local authorities tackling prejudice and promoting understanding across a range of equality grounds”.

“In 2018, Armagh City, Banbridge and Craigavon Council responded that they had no Irish language policy in place, or provisions for the Irish language within any other wider policy. No Irish language appears in the branding, signage or logo of the council. The policy on bilingual street signage did not fulfil the obligations asset out in the ECRML.

“In response to a question on resourcing the promotion and safeguarding of the Irish language, the Council responded that it had never employed an Irish Language Officer and has never applied for funding, available from Foras na Gaeilge, in order to employ one.

“Armagh City, Banbridge and Craigavon Council also responded that they had never taken any measures to tackle prejudice against the Irish language, nor had it taken any measures to promote tolerance and understanding of the Irish language

“Armagh City, Banbridge and Craigavon Council did not provide any information on any services available through Irish or related to the Irish language. On being asked what services were provided in Irish within the framework of international obligations, Armagh City, Banbridge & Craigavon Council responded that this was not applicable to them, presumably as they had no policy and had stated in previous answers that they have taken no action in relation to the language.

“No audit of Irish language skills among current staff had been undertaken. Armagh City, Banbridge & Craigavon Council responded it was “unknown” whether current provision was less than its predecessor bodies”.

“Hopefully, last week’s vote by councillors signifies that ABC Council is at last facing up to its legal and statutory duties to its ratepayers.”

Obligations in relation to the protection of the Irish language have been enshrined into a number of treaties since the 1990s. The Good Friday Agreement 1998 contains a number of provisions for the Irish language. The Agreement affirms that all parties to it “recognise the importance of respect, understanding and tolerance in relation to linguistic diversity”. The Agreement also led to a statutory duty being placed on the Department of Education to encourage and facilitate Irish medium education (Article 89 of the Education (NI) Order 1998).

The European Charter for Regional & Minority Languages (ECRML) was ratified by the UK Government in 2001 and is binding on public authorities in the north – including departments, associated bodies and district councils. Under Annex B of the international St Andrews Agreement 2006, a further significant commitment was made by the UK Government that it would “introduce an Irish Language Act reflecting on the experience of Wales and Ireland”.

These treaty-based commitments are legally binding on local government as a matter of international law. In order to assess compliance, the report’s authors developed a framework derived from international obligations setting out the actions that can be reasonably expected of local councils in light of their specific remits and roles.

In spite of the challenges created by ABC Council’s previous non-compliance, the census and school enrolment figures show that the Irish language community in Armagh City has grown substantially in recent years. This has, in part, been driven by the continuous growth of Irish medium schools in the area (at a time when enrolment figures for schools in general are falling) but also by the active work of local cultural agencies such as CAIRDE Teo and Aonach Mhacha. Over 500 children in Armagh City alone now attend Irish medium schools.