Yesterday in Parliament, I contributed to the debate on the Identity and Language (Northern Ireland) Bill, in my shadow Northern Ireland minister role.
This Bill aims to make provision about the national and cultural identity and language in Northern Ireland.
My full speech is available to read here.
I thank colleagues from across the House for their contributions to this interesting and lively debate. It is perhaps unusual to say that discussing a matter in Parliament should serve to depoliticise it, but that is what the Bill rightly aims to do, by creating structures and legal protections for these languages—not simply preserving them but promoting them to and for everyone in Northern Ireland. Protections for national and cultural identity principles should be welcomed, ensuring that the Irish language and the language, art and literature of the Ulster Scots and the Ulster British tradition are recognised not as the property of one section of the community or one political outlook, but as an important part of Northern Ireland’s rich and diverse cultural heritage.
I note some of the conversations that have been had in the debate about language and growing up with a language. My father’s parents were first-language Italian speakers, but they never spoke Italian to him, and my mother did not speak Welsh because it was not the done thing. We have heard people talk about Polish, Chinese and sign language in Northern Ireland—those are all very important.
Before coming to this place, I spent 20 years of my life as a modern foreign languages teacher who grew up in Wales and did not learn Welsh. I am very proud of my Welsh culture and heritage and am very embarrassed to say that I did not embrace learning the language as a child because I had the opportunity to do other things. However, as a language teacher in Wales, I embraced Welsh because it brings communities together. As a teacher, you look at the language, your history and all the links of multilingualism and bring them together to create a positive community; that is what needs to be done here. Open your eyes to the opportunities and celebrate languages and your history together. I emphasise that because it is so important in these times.
As a Member for a Welsh constituency, I cannot help but compare the Bill to the radical changes that we have seen over the past decade with regard to the Welsh language. Within my lifetime, what was an issue of fierce political division has become a normal part of day-to-day life. The words used by the hon. Member for Arfon (Hywel Williams) were, “It is now unremarkable.” Is not that how it should be?
Every child learns Welsh in school. It is my great regret that my son never went to a Welsh-medium school, because that opportunity to be bilingual is a genuine gift. The ability to access public services in Welsh is enshrined in law. Legislation is brought and debated bilingually in the Senedd. You will hear Welsh in the city centre of Swansea or the smallest village in north Wales. It is unremarkable. There is, of course, still debate around the language today.
Earlier we heard it said that finances could be used elsewhere. That argument should not be weaponised against language. We want to remove that aspect, because language is so very important. Will the Minister, with the Secretary of State, commit to a timescale for the Bill? I would be grateful if he also addressed the questions about resourcing for the sector that have been asked by the Ulster-Scots Agency.
As colleagues have said, the Bill was born from drafts that were due to be taken forward in the Northern Ireland Assembly. It is regrettable that this legislation is being debated here, rather than in Stormont, but the Government are to be commended for bringing it forward and ensuring that commitments made in the NDNA agreement are honoured.
The bringing forward of this long called-for legislation is, along with a marked change in attitude regarding renegotiation of the protocol, a welcome change in tone and action. I hope it represents an end to the culture of missed deadlines and broken promises that has characterised much of the Government’s approach to Northern Ireland —an approach that has only added to political instability and uncertainty.
Colleagues have spoken of the Bill’s foundations being rooted in the principles of the Belfast/Good Friday agreement but, as Lord Murphy of Torfaen astutely noted in his contribution to the discussion in the other place, the Belfast/Good Friday agreement is not something one can pick and choose from; it is a package. And the key part of that package is a functioning Assembly and Executive. Those are the institutions where this debate, and the scrutiny of this legislation, should be taking place, but as that is not possible, the Government are right to uphold commitments made to people in Northern Ireland, and the Labour party supports this legislation’s swift passage.