The 2011 Census reports that over 95% of Northern Ireland’s population use English as their primary language. However, Northern Ireland lays claim to several linguistic minorities, namely, Irish (Gaelic) and Ulster-Scots.
The 1998 Good Friday/Belfast Agreement acknowledges the importance of “respect, understanding, and tolerance in relation to language diversity”. It recognises that linguistic diversity helps to enrich the cultural and historical depth of the island of Ireland. As such, the Agreement commits Northern Ireland to promoting and preserving minority languages. As a product of this, the North-South Language body — comprised of Foras na Gaeilge (Irish Language Agency) and the Ulster-Scots Agency (Tha Boord o Ulstèr-Scotch) — was established. These bodies seek to promote and facilitate awareness of the respective languages on an all-island basis.
The United Kingdom is also committed to the preservation of regional minority languages, including Irish and Scots, under Part II of the Europe Charter for Regional and Minority Languages.
Although Irish was still widely spoken in a few Northern Ireland communities like Counties Antrim and Down, by the time of partition in 1921, “organic Irish-speaking communities had all but disappeared (Camille O’Reilly, The Irish Language in Northern Ireland, p. 19). Today, the Irish-speaking community in Northern Ireland predominantly consists of those who learnt Irish as a second language in secondary school, university, or at night classes.
The 2011 census reported that about 11% of respondents claimed to have some ability in the Irish language (compared to 10% recorded in the 2001 census). Furthermore, the census reported that the age group most likely to have some ability in the Irish language is between those aged 12-15.
The Ulster-Scots dialect comes from Scottish immigrants, typically from the Lowlands. The Ulster-Scots dialect has an affinity with both Scots and English. As Scots and English are Germanic languages, they often sound similar.
The language is spoken principally in the Ards peninsula; northern County Down, County Antrim, and County Londonderry; and in east Donegal. The 2011 census indicates that approximately 8.1% of respondents claim to have some ability in Ulster-Scots.
Languages from ethnic communities
Various other language minorities reside in Northern Ireland. The most common of these are Polish, Lithuanian, Portuguese, Slovak, and Chinese. According to the 2011 census, this collectively encompasses 3% of the population or approximately 55,000 residents.
The census statistics presented above reveal that a significant number of the population in Northern Ireland have pursued an awareness and understanding of its minority languages. Since the signing of the Good Friday Agreement, important strides have been taken to promote and preserve Northern Ireland’s unique linguistic heritage.
In 2015, the Economic and Social Research Institute released a report, Attitudes towards the Irish Language on the Island of Ireland. The report stated that since 2001, public attitudes to Irish have become more positive but that while attitudes to Irish are largely positive, widespread use of the language is still uncommon.
Respondents were asked if they felt positively about the Irish language. Over two-thirds of respondents in the Republic of Ireland and almost half of respondents in Northern Ireland reported feeling positively about the Irish language. Thirty-four per cent of respondents in Northern Ireland expressed support for Northern Ireland to be bilingual, with English as the majority language.
In 2012, the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure’s (DCAL) Research and Statistics Branch produced a report on people’s attitudes to the Irish language in Northern Ireland. When asked if they were in favour or against Irish language usage in Northern Ireland, 35% said they were in favour, 29% said they were against, and 35% said they were neither in favour nor against. Just under a half of all respondents, 49%, agreed that Irish is important to Northern Irish culture, significantly more than those who did not agree, 32%, and around a fifth of respondents, 19%, said it was neither important nor unimportant. When asked if they agreed or disagreed with the statement: “Irish is not relevant for Northern Ireland today”, 32% of respondents agreed, 46% disagreed, and 21% responded as neither agreeing or disagreeing.
A similar report in 2010 measured people’s attitude towards the Ulster-Scots culture, heritage and language in Northern Ireland. There were 1,212 people who participated in the survey and out of those, 43% of respondents agreed with the statement, ‘Ulster-Scots is a valuable part of the culture of Northern Ireland’ while only 16% disagreed. Almost half, 48%, of respondents agreed with the statement “Learning about Ulster-Scots traditions in the school curriculum has educational benefits for children at school in Northern Ireland”. A little over a fifth, 21%, of respondents disagreed with this claim.
Promotion of Irish language
The Belfast/Good Friday Agreement states that it will (amongst other pledges):
- take resolute action to promote the Irish language
- facilitate and encourage the use of the Irish language in speech and writing in public and private life where there is appropriate demand
- seek to remove, where possible, restrictions which would discourage or work against the maintenance or development of the Irish language
The Agreement also places a statutory duty on the Department of Education to encourage and facilitate Irish medium education, in line with current provision for integrated education. Since the Agreement, Northern Ireland has seen an increasing number of children from English-speaking homes being educated in Irish-medium schools. There are currently two types of Irish-medium schools in Northern Ireland: (1) 29 stand-alone schools (28 primary; 1 post-primary); and (2) 10 Irish-medium units attached to English-medium host schools (7 primary; 3 post-primary). In addition, Gaelscoil na Daróige is an independent Irish-medium school in Derry/Londonderry.
In the 2006 St Andrews Agreement, the British Government made the following commitment: “The Government will introduce an Irish Language Act reflecting on the experience of Wales and Ireland and work with the incoming Executive to enhance and protect the development of the Irish Language.” Attempts to pass an Irish Language Act have been deeply contentious and as of October 2018, has yet to be passed.
Meanwhile a Gaeltacht Quarter, a place where the Irish language and culture is exhibited, has been proposed by the Joint West Belfast/Greater Shankill Task Force Report. The quarter has been defined as a corridor connecting Belfast City Centre to Andersonstown. Along with the promotion of the Irish language, one of the principal aims of the Quarter is to secure wealth creation by maximising the economic opportunities provided by a growing cluster of Irish language and cultural based enterprises and activities which additionally have significant tourist potential.
Promotion of Ulster Scots
The British Government also made the following commitment in the St Andrews Agreement: “The Government firmly believes in the need to enhance and develop the Ulster Scots language, heritage and culture and will support the incoming Executive in taking this forward.”
With the aim of promoting the culture, heritage and language of Ulster Scots, the Ulster-Scots Agency funds various events, community projects and educational workshops across Northern Ireland.
Furthermore, in April 2003, a Joint Declaration from the British and Irish Governments gave a commitment that the British Government would take steps to encourage the establishment of an Ulster-Scots academy (not to be confused with an existing organisation of the same name, established in 1994). This was satisfied through the establishment by the Northern Ireland Executive of a Ministerial Advisory Group on March 2011, which has published a report on its “Activities and Achievements 2011-2015”. This includes the establishment of a physical base — the Ulster-Scots Hub and Discover Ulster-Scots Centre — which was officially opened in November 2014. The building houses the Ulster-Scots Agency, the Ulster-Scots Community Network, the MAG — Ulster-Scots Academy Secretariat and the archive of the Ulster-Scots Language Society.
Irish language legislation
In 2015, DCAL produced a report analysing 12,911 responses to proposals for Irish language legislation. It also notified Irish language organisations, MLAs, and local political parties of the consultation and provided a form for feedback online. It found that 94.7% of the responses received indicated support.
The 5.3% of respondents expressing opposition to an Irish language legislation articulated their objection to the “whole concept” of Irish language legislation rather than specific proposals. Their concerns included the ability of nationalist parties to politicise the Irish language; the cost of implementing legislation when financial pressures on public services (healthcare, education) are already strained; the prevailing protection from Part III status in the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages, which arguably renders new legislation irrelevant; and finally, the argument that Irish is a “dead language”.
Respondents expressing support for Irish language legislation focused on how the proposals could be improved upon. Some called for a “more joined-up” approach, in that the Bill should explicitly define the roles of departments and public bodies, whilst others pointed to the duty of public authorities to promote “mutual understanding”. Others saw a need to meet international obligations for minority languages and human rights standards, with some responses arguing the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages is not being properly implemented. Another suggestion advocated the need for a strong link between the Irish language duties of political institutions and those services provided by public institutions like schools.
New Decade, New Approach Deal
In January 2020, after three years without a functioning government, the Northern Ireland Executive was re-formed, based on the New Decade, New Approach Deal negotiated between the British and Irish governments. Central to the disputes that led to the collapse of the power-sharing Executive had been the status of any Irish language legislation. Previously, Sinn Fein had stated they would not re-enter government without a stand-alone Irish Language Act, arguing that it was “essential” for any deal.
The New Decade, New Approach Deal made a number of provisions for government, including:
- the establishment of a new Office of Identity and Cultural Expression, which would include serving to “support all aspects of Northern Ireland’s rich cultural and linguistic heritage”
- the introduction of legislation to create a Commissioner for the Irish language, and a further Commissioner for Ulster Scots
- the establishment of a central ‘Translation Hub’
- the introduction of provision for any person to conduct business in the Northern Ireland Assembly through Irish or Ulster Scots.
Instead of operating as a stand-alone Irish Language Act, these provisions would be enacted through amendments to the Northern Ireland Act 1998.
The New Decade, New Approach Deal was agreed by the five major parties in January 2020.
Previously, the Alliance Party, Green Party, Sinn Féin, Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP), and the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) supported the provision of an Irish Language Act; the DUP vocally opposed this.
The following are political party positions on the relevant provisions in the New Decade, New Approach Deal.
Sinn Féin had requested legislation which allows for:
- to give the Irish language an official status
- the use of Irish in courts in the Assembly and for use by state bodies including the police
- the appointment of an Irish language commissioner
- the establishment of designated Gaeltacht areas in the North
- the right for education through Irish
- bilingual signage on public buildings and road signage
Sinn Féin supported the New Decade, New Approach Deal, stating that the official recognition of the Irish language was an achievement for activists.
Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP)
The SDLP had proposed an Irish Language Act that “preserves and encourages the language” and includes the following:
- the Irish Language Act should be based on the rights for the speakers in several fields (institutions, media or system education)
- fully recognised in the Bill of Rights for the Irish language
- more funding for the development of the Irish language and more funding for the Irish language on the media
- appropriate provision for the teaching of Irish as a subject
The SDLP accepted the New Decade, New Approach Deal, stating that although it was not perfect, “It is time to get back to work.”
The Alliance Party language proposal was the most inclusive one of all, recognising protections for the Irish language, the Ulster-Scot language, and sign language. Their proposal calls for the following:
- the recognition of Irish as an official language of public and legal authorities
- the provision for public signage in Irish in line with local demand
- the establishment of a Commissioner to design and implement standards for meeting the requirements of this legislation
- the placing of a duty to respond in Irish to correspondence in Irish
Alliance also had a proposal for legislation covering languages and associated culture and heritage in general, including:
- recognition of Irish and Ulster Scots as indigenous spoken languages
- recognition of English as the common language of law and administration
- recognition of Ulster-Scots language, culture and heritage in the education system
The Alliance party recognised that the New Decade, New Approach Deal was a ‘compromise’, but also stated that it would be the legacy of the outgoing Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Julian Smith.
The DUP did not release any proposal for the provision of the Irish language. They supported the New Decade, New Approach Deal, while stating that it was “not perfect”. The Traditional Unionist Voice (TUV) presented a manifesto in opposition to an Irish Language Act and did not welcome the deal to restore devolution, arguing that the provisions for an Irish Language Commissioner represented a “threat to Unionism”. The Green Party presented a manifesto in favour of an Irish Language Act, and welcomed the New Decade, New Approach Deal as it provided “a chance to build towards and deliver accountability within the institutions”.
An Dream Dearg
An Dream Dearg — translating to English as “the red movement” — describes itself as an “open network of Irish Language activists from all corners and backgrounds” and formed in response to the Minister for Communities’ — Paul Given MLA — decision to end the £50,000 per annum Líofa Gaeltacht Scholarship Scheme. The red circle — which has replaced a number of supporters’ social media avatars — uses the fáinne (symbolising fluency in the Irish language) as its symbol. In January 2020, An Dream Dearg welcomed the ‘New Decade, New Approach’ deal, suggesting it was a historic victory for grassroots campaigns. The group further stated that they viewed the deal as a “staging post” in the campaign and made public their intention to test the new legislation.
Translating to “fluent”, the Líofa Initiative launched in September 2011, with the aim of signing up people to commit to improving and using Irish. Its target (which has been reached) is 20,000 pledges by 2020.
Language diversity in Northern Ireland can be seen by the 11% who claim to have some ability in the Irish language, the 8.1% in Ulster Scots, and the 3% in several other language minorities (such as Polish, Lithuanian, Portuguese, Slovak, and Chinese). Surveys show considerable support for the usage of Irish (35%) and appreciation of Ulster Scots (43%).
The 1998 Good Friday/Belfast Agreement recognises the importance of respecting, understanding, and tolerance of language diversity. This accord and further agreements between Northern Ireland political parties and the British Government commits the development and implementation of various public policies. While some has been delivered, an encompassing languages Act has not.
The introduction of the New Decade New Approach Deal that accompanied the restoration of the Northern Ireland Executive represents the most significant development in language policy in Northern Ireland since the 2006 St Andrew’s Agreement.
In the coming months, public debate is expected on the implementation of the legislation.
Council of Europe (1992). Europe Charter for Regional and Minority Languages.
Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure (2010). Public Views on Ulster-Scots Culture, Heritage and Language in Northern Ireland.
Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure (2012). Public attitudes towards the Irish language in Northern Ireland.
Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure (2015). Ministerial Advisory Group, Ulster-Scots Academy: Activities and Achievements 2011–2015.
Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure (2015). Proposals for an Irish Language Bill: Consultation Report.
Economic and Social Research Institute (2015). Attitudes towards the Irish Language on the Island of Ireland.
O’Reilly, Camille (2016). The Irish Language in Northern Ireland.
West Belfast and Greater Shankill Task Forces (2002). A Report of the West Belfast and Greater Shankill Task Forces.
Research by Chloe O’MALLEY, Emma O’KANE, Raquel GOMEZ, Allison LIRA, and Jason BUNTING.
Last updated: 22 July 2020