A report by the Council of Europe, a civil and legal rights body, has accused the UK of failing to support minority languages in schools, specifically minority languages of Cornish, Irish and Ulster Scots, in the media, public life and in government, despite signing the European Charter on regional or minority languages.
The report by its committee of ministers was particularly critical of the failure by the Northern Ireland Executive and the UK to resolve a long-standing conflict between Unionists and nationalists over the status of Irish, which should be promoted under the Good Friday peace agreement.
The report sets out 20 recommendations for action, reading that it was “essential [to] free the promotion of Irish from political tensions” by introducing an Irish-language act at Stormont.
We already know that speaking Irish in court in Northern Ireland remains illegal under colonial legislation from 1737 and that there are a very few legal texts in Irish, no translation available for Irish speakers in Stormont and also no broadcasting of Irish-language programmes.
Disputes over the status of Irish in Northern Ireland played a significant part in the collapse of the power-sharing executive in Stormont in 2017; unionist parties argue that Ulster-Scots, a dialect brought to the north by Scots settlers in the 1600s, should also be promoted and protected.
However, the Northern Irish government has not responded to the Council of Europe yet.
The Council of Europe said it agreed on the fact that more work was needed to promote Ulster-Scots in the education system and the media, but made only recommendations for action.
The Council of Europe was also very critical of the UK government’s inaction on Cornish, a language related to Breton undergoing a cultural revival after dying out in the 1700s, and the body called for responsibility and funding to promote the language to be devolved to Cornwall.
It added that the study and promotion of Cornish in public life should be prioritised, with Cornwall council given full membership of the British Irish Council, the body founded under the Good Friday agreement to promote cooperation among all the governments of the UK, Ireland and the Channel Islands.
The UK government responded to Europe saying that it had already given Cornish legally protected status under the charter, giving it parity with Scotland’s Gaels speakers, as well as Irish and Welsh speakers and promoted its interests within the British Irish council. The council’s rules only allowed devolved administrations to join, a spokesman declared.
The report added that Scots, which is spoken in the Scottish Lowlands, was not being adequately taught, studied or promoted, while Gaelic still required greater funding and programming from commercial broadcasters.
In response to the report’s calls for greater action on Gaelic, a Scottish government spokeswoman responded to Brussels saying that its recommendations would be considered.
On the other hand, the Council valued the “impressive and enthusiastic” revival of Manx Gaelic on the Isle of Man, while in Wales, it recommended greater use of Welsh in hospitals and care homes, vocational education and government.