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

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Department: Northern Ireland Office
Lord Bew Portrait Lord Bew (CB)
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My Lords, I support the Bill and I thank the noble Lord, Lord Caine, for his excellent introduction. I felt his pain when he recalled the many hours and days he had spent working on this in a previous life, and I enormously respect that.

The noble Lord, Lord Caine, laid a lot of stress on this as the outgrowth of the NDNA agreement. He is quite right, but the noble Baroness, Lady Goudie, was also quite right to say that the roots of this approach lie in the Good Friday agreement. There is reference to the Irish language in the Good Friday agreement; I can recall the Thursday night before Good Friday when the special adviser to the noble Lord, Lord Kilclooney, Dr Steven King, played a key role in the negotiation of those sections. It is rooted in the Good Friday agreement and it was quite right for the noble Baroness, Lady Goudie, to remind us of that.

I will say something about what the noble Baroness, Lady Suttie, just said about trust, but I do not want it to be taken in the wrong way. Trust is a good thing if you can get it but, actually, political agreement between bitter opponents does not depend on trust. I recall very little of it in 1998—I see the noble Lord, Lord Kilclooney, nodding. That agreement did not come about because of an outburst of trust on one side or the other; it was based on narrow, hard-headed political calculations. So it will be with respect to the protocol, the EU and relations between the parties in Northern Ireland. Trust is desirable but it is not an essential feature of agreements. The essential feature is that people make a rational assessment of where their interests lie and think they could go with that particular agreement.

However, I believe very strongly, just as both speakers before me have emphasised, in the tremendous importance of the Good Friday agreement here. We tend to forget about the international agreement that accompanies the Good Friday agreement and imposes on the sovereign Government—in this case the United Kingdom Government—a responsibility to look after the economic and cultural rights of Northern Ireland. It says that this power—it is a power—should be exercised with “rigorous impartiality” and “respect” for the cultural rights of the people of Northern Ireland, and that there should be an attempt to provide

“just and equal treatment for the … aspirations of both communities”.

This what the Bill is about. It has to be admitted that enthusiasm for it is far greater in the nationalist community than in the unionist community. That is a simple fact; there is an attempt to find a degree of balance but essentially, in most cases, support for the Bill comes from the nationalist community. I make the same point about the Bill that the Government will shortly be bringing to this House and to Parliament as a whole with respect to the Northern Ireland protocol—which responds more to a demand from the unionist community. The sovereign Government have a difficult balancing act to perform. That is what we are seeing here and what we will see with the Bill on the Northern Ireland protocol.

You cannot flout these opinions. You cannot say that nationalist communities should not be so keen on the Irish language—for lots of good reasons; it just will not wash—and you cannot say about the unionist communities, as the recent American delegation did, that their concerns about the protocol are “manufactured”. You just have to accept these realities and then try to work with them. It will be an act of great subtlety and difficulty for the UK Government but this is demanded by the Good Friday agreement, the prior international agreement; this is how it says that the British Government —the Government with sovereign power in the area—should behave. They must accept that obligation under the agreement; it is the prior agreement.

This is the view not just of this Government but of the May Government. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Keen, in this House in March 2019, as well as the then Brexit Secretary, stated that the prior international agreement was the Good Friday agreement. The UK Government believed that they had a case in international law to disapply elements of the protocol to the withdrawal agreement in the unlikely event that these should conflict with the working of the Good Friday agreement. The lonely hour of that unlikely event has arrived fully and is now upon us, with the institutions down and, east-west, north-south, the strands not working at all.

Returning to the language Bill, I am sure that before the debate ends people will talk about Wales and Scotland as comparators and it is entirely correct that they should do so; but in the case of Northern Ireland the truth is that the most important comparator is language policy in the Republic of Ireland. There is a paradox here. In 1947, De Valera told the British ambassador that the Irish people, having gained their political freedom, were no longer so interested in the language. Those who fought for Irish freedom would be amazed by the low number of people in the Irish Republic who filled in their census forms in Irish; that was not what they thought it was all about. It was a central part of the cultural certainty and definition that led to Irish independence, but just not how things have actually worked out in practice.

On the other hand, one aspect did work out in practice. I refer to the words of Myles Dillon, son of the last leader of the great Irish Parliamentary Party in this Parliament, John Dillon. Myles Dillon was the greatest Irish language scholar of his generation. Like his father, he was an Irish language enthusiast. In 1958, he said, it had become an “instrument of discipline” as a means of excluding Protestants from key jobs and cultural institutions of the country. He spoke of this as arising from the Catholic nationalist tradition, and found it horrifying. He said this bluntly and clearly. He said that this factor destroyed the value of the Irish language as a means of building up an Irish national identity.

We cannot approach this problem without realising what the real history of the Irish language has been in the Irish Republic. That is not to say that there are not, for example, many people who love the language, speak it as a first language and so on—there are—but there is a darker side to the history of the Irish language in the Irish Republic. It is therefore inevitable that unionists looking at this Bill will feel somewhat wary.

One thing I would say is that, the more deeply a man or woman loves the Irish language, the less inclined they are to use it as a political instrument against others. Myles Dillon, probably the greatest Gaelic scholar of his generation, is an example. I therefore question the role of the commissioner and argue that it would be the best of all worlds if we could have a good, deep Irish language scholar who passionately loves this beautiful language. The more one gets somebody of that sort for the job—I am not drawing up the ads—the more this legislation will be progressed in the right and correct spirit.

I have one final word to say about the reference to the Ulster-Scots/Ulster-British tradition in this agreement. I note that the commissioner has a purview with respect to the media; the Explanatory Notes state this explicitly. In Northern Ireland, there is a growing danger of parochialism, particularly in the local media. For example, in the 1990s BBC Northern Ireland used to have regular coverage of this House and Northern Ireland Questions in the House of Commons; for some time, they were really quite interesting. There is no such coverage now.

In March 2019, the then Brexit Secretary, with the authority of the Attorney-General, stated a thesis that the Good Friday agreement was the prior international agreement and that, in international law, the UK Government had a case that conflicted with the protocol—although they hoped it did not. As far as I can see, that was never reported in Northern Ireland. A very significant moment in government life just passed by. Now, we have the idea that, when a position is returned to in part by the current Government, it is seen as something new. It is not new at all; British Governments of different hues have been stating it for some time.

To take another recent example, I watched BBC NI’s coverage of the local election results for three days. There were endless hours of discussion but not one of the pundits referred to the fact that, on the Thursday morning, senior London journalists had published a great deal of detail on the Government’s proposed legislative programme for Northern Ireland. Nobody referred to it. They might as well have been whispering in a box, because people in Northern Ireland do not read London journals any more. The local commentariat does not do so either.

There is a role here for the Ulster-Scots/Ulster-British commissioner with respect to the media, as is stated. The role is this: the increasingly great danger in Northern Ireland is parochialism. We know from the horrible example given in the opening remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Caine, that sectarianism has far from gone away; it is a horrible, ugly example that brings shame to everybody connected with it. I am very glad that he made that reference. We know that sectarianism is the greatest evil. I am not saying that parochialism is an equal evil—it most certainly is not—but it is one of the growing evils in Northern Ireland. It is therefore my hope that the Ulster-Scots/Ulster-British commissioner will not see this role as an attempt to be an exciting driver forth on the intricacies of the Ulster-Scots dialect, but will see it in its broader terms, which are about requiring the sort of settlement that reflects both identities: the Irish nationalist identity and the British unionist identity in Northern Ireland.