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

Full Debate: Read Full Debate
Department: Northern Ireland Office
Lord Murphy of Torfaen Portrait Lord Murphy of Torfaen (Lab)
- Hansard - -

My Lords, it has been an interesting debate. I sometimes wonder how we ever passed the Good Friday agreement, but we did. We had similar arguments about issues perhaps much more significant than the language 25 years ago. Comparing this with what has occurred in Wales, where I was a Member of Parliament for many years, the Welsh language has been treated in a way which I never thought would happen as an English-speaking Welshman. I am deeply proud of the fact that I am an English-speaking Welshman from the Welsh valleys, but I am also deeply proud of the fact that perhaps 20% to 25% of the people in Wales regard Welsh as their first language, and the vast majority of them regard themselves as being as British as anybody in this Chamber.

In many ways, over the last 20 to 30 years there has been a revolution, but it has taken away the politicisation of the Welsh language—which has been touched on in the debate as far as Irish is concerned—and made it much more acceptable. My former constituency, which is the most anglicised constituency in Wales, has three Welsh-medium schools, everybody is taught Welsh, and the vote for Plaid Cymru is minimal. That does not mean to say that there are no problems, because there still are.

Of course, you have to deal with the enormous sensitivity around language issues—I will take the example of Wales before I come on to the Bill itself, because it is a good comparison. You have to ensure that you tailor the language to wherever the majority of Welsh language speakers might be, and do it in a slightly different way where there are English speakers—but you do it in a way that suggests there is nothing unusual about it any more.

I was never taught Welsh, because I was in Monmouthshire, a county which in my day was actually English, although its loyalties were Welsh. I just feel that everybody ought to calm down a bit and realise that things can happen that will not be so difficult that they will mean something which a weaponization of the language would imply. It is not like that. It can be like that, but if you deal with it properly and sensitively, it need not be.

Of course, it is about identity. The language we speak is part of our identity. In 1860, my great-grandparents came from County Cork as Irish speakers. They arrived in a village which was Welsh speaking and the priests who dealt with their religion were Italian Franciscans, so they all had to speak in English. But that did not mean that, somehow or other, their identities were unaffected. What always struck me when I was in Northern Ireland was that, when I talked to people such as Ian Adamson and others from the unionist community, they reminded me of the huge presbyterian Irish language history in Northern Ireland and southern Ireland which goes back hundreds of years, to when language was not an issue of sectarian differences.

A number of noble Lords talked about the Good Friday agreement of 1998; on page 19, there is a section titled “Rights, Safeguards and Equality of Opportunity: Economic, Social and Cultural Issues”. Obviously, there is reference to Ulster Scots—and, incidentally, to the languages of the various ethnic communities in Northern Ireland, whom we must not forget—and quite large reference to the Irish language. It is not that it was not dealt with in 1998—it was; in fact, I wrote most of that page—the issue is that, as far as the peace process is concerned, the Irish language issue has not gone away over the last 20 years. It started in 1998 and it is still there. The St Andrews agreement talked about the Irish language, and New Decade, New Approach, on which this Bill is based, dealt with it too.

It is quite interesting that the noble Lord, Lord McCrea, talked about “the package”; just as you cannot take bits out of New Decade, New Approach, the whole point of the Good Friday agreement is that you have to accept it as a package. That package includes having an Assembly up and running and an Executive operating to deal with all these difficult issues. You cannot pick and choose which bits you like. You have to ensure that the whole package is dealt with, and that includes making laws and running the country. Those things are vital. It is an international treaty. The guarantors of the Good Friday agreement are the Irish Government and the British Government. That is why, although of course I have differences with the British Government, on this issue they are absolutely right to honour the pledge they made when the New Decade, New Approach agreement was reached.

There are difficult issues. That is why we have Committee stages in making legislation. We will table amendments, as I am sure other Members of your Lordships’ House will, on the independence of the commissioners, public bodies and other communities—all of which have been raised today. Of course, those things will be raised, as is right and proper. However, the principle of this legislation is that both communities, and those who regard themselves as being in neither, are protected. That is why, although I do not at all like the idea of the Secretary of State coming in and intervening in devolution—even though I was one many years ago—it is a good idea, as in the legislation, that both the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister will have to agree on both commissioners and on the office, and the Secretary of State will have a role only if that breaks down and people start vetoing each other all the time. That is not the principle behind New Decade, New Approach, so I agree with the Government on that.

But where I think the comparison to the protocol is not right comes back to the package that we were talking about. Of course the protocol has to be addressed. I understand completely what the unionist community feels about it, and I understand the point that we must have consent across the nationalist and unionist communities on issues as major as that—but why did we not get it? Part of the reason was that there was no Assembly and no Executive meeting when all these things were discussed when we were dealing with Brexit. In that case it was Sinn Féin that decided that the Assembly and the Executive should not be up and running. Now we have the DUP saying that they should not be up and running, but of course they should. If noble Lords disagree with a policy in the House of Lords, we do not suddenly dissolve Parliament —we have to deal with it in the ways that we can as a Parliament.

The protocol has to be addressed, and it has to be addressed on its own. Of course, it has to be addressed in the context of the Good Friday agreement, in terms of the consent that is required for it to happen, but you cannot do it by flying over to Belfast for 24 hours and coming back again. It has to be dealt with by a proper negotiating protocol and procedure. I am sure that members of the DUP and other parties in Northern Ireland understand that intensive negotiation is the only real answer to all this.

We need our institutions in Northern Ireland. We need them to deal with issues like this. I feel deeply uncomfortable that the British Parliament should be dealing with these matters, whether it is abortion, this issue, legacy, or whatever it might be. We should not be doing that. This should be a matter for the devolved parliament in Northern Ireland. Why have devolution if we do not use it? On the other hand, if those politicians in Northern Ireland suddenly bring it down and we have no institutions, what else do we do? We cannot have an ungoverned Northern Ireland; it still has to work. I suppose my message, or my plea, to politicians in Northern Ireland—some of whom are in this Chamber today—is to restore the institutions and to start talking seriously amongst yourselves about the protocol, the Irish language and Ulster Scots so that there will be no real reason in this world why the House of Lords should discuss legislation which is really none of our business.