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

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Department: Northern Ireland Office
Lord Morrow Portrait Lord Morrow (DUP)
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My Lords, I wish to make some comments in the gap. At the outset, I would just like to come alongside what the noble Lord, Lord Caine, has said in relation to the McAreavey and Harte family. I visited the Harte family at the time of that great tragedy, along with three of my colleagues Peter Robinson, Arlene Foster and Nelson McCausland. We wanted to assure them of our support. The Harte family come from the same village where I lived the first 16 years of my life, Ballygawley. I also want to assure the Minister that he was not alone in singing the national anthem many times over recent times. I too had a hoarse throat and I am putting it down to my rendering of the national anthem on many occasions.

I have many questions for the Government about the Bill before us today, but in the limited time available I will be able to touch only on one or two of them. New Section 78H(1)(d) refers to the following principal aim:

“to support, and promote the celebration of, the cultural and linguistic heritage of all people living in Northern Ireland.”

However, there is not one reference in the entire Bill to any languages other than Irish Gaelic and Ulster Scots, apart from a passing reference to English. Is this credible? Does the remit of the Ulster Scots commissioner refer only to Ulster Scots, or does it include Hiberno-English as spoken in Northern Ireland?

The provision of two commissioners—one to have regard to the interests of the unionist community as they relate to Ulster Scots, the other having regard to the interests of the nationalist community as they relate to Irish—seems like a balanced expression of commitment to parity of esteem. But it seems to me that they have been designed very differently such that they will be destined to have very inequitable impact. The Irish commissioner has a clear function in terms of facilitating the use of Irish in public service provision, while the role of the Ulster Scots commissioner is far more opaque both in terms of what the commissioner will do and who will be engaged by them. Whereas all public authorities which provide public services can obviously be engaged in terms of the languages in which they provide their services, it is completely unclear that the development of the Ulster Scots language art and literature will engage anything more than a tiny number of public authorities.

In this context, while the Irish language commissioner looks to have a very big impact on Northern Ireland, the Ulster Scots commissioner looks destined to have a much more limited impact. The latter does not even have any monitoring or enforcement powers—how does this demonstrate parity of esteem? In addition, the drafting of the Bill seems to suggest a blatant inequality: the Ulster Scots commissioner for the unionist community is given a role that engages various international legal conventions because Ulster Scots is a minority language, whereas the nationalist community is afforded a commissioner whose language is apparently not deemed a minority language. Put another way, the Bill lays the foundation for normalising the sense in which the concerns of unionists should be legitimately regarded as a minority interest, whereas the concerns of nationalists should not be. As such, this feels like a Bill drafted not by the UK Government but, indeed, by the Irish Republic Government, set on breaking up the United Kingdom and placing Northern Ireland in a nationalist state. I think this is an attempt to assimilate Northern Ireland with the Irish Republic. We are always told that the status of Northern Ireland will not change without the consent of the people—in other words, without a referendum—and the Bill goes far past that.

The protocol has been mentioned and I will finish on this matter. The protocol has driven a horse and coach through the Belfast agreement. Sadly, however, I do not hear from the opposite Benches the cry to deal with this issue. I plead with your Lordships’ House today that the protocol must be dealt with; it is stymying devolution and its return.