HC Deb 20 January 1999 vol 323 cc893-5
3. Mr. Andrew Dismore (Hendon)

If she will make a statement on developments in promoting the Irish language. [64856]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mr. John McFall)

In June last year, the Government announced their intention to sign the Council of Europe charter for regional or minority languages, and to specify Irish for the purposes of part III of the charter at an early date. In July, the Education (Northern Ireland) Order 1998 was enacted, placing a statutory duty on the Department of Education in Northern Ireland to encourage and facilitate Irish-medium education. A new branch within the Northern Ireland civil service is being established to develop policy on linguistic diversity, including the Irish language. The agreement of 18 December 1998 determined that there should be a cross-border implementation body with responsibility for promoting the Irish language.

Mr. Dismore

Will my hon. Friend tell us what progress has been made with the cross-border language implementation body? Will he confirm that he is considering not just the Irish but the Ulster-Scots? Perhaps he can also tell us whether Irish will be permitted to be used in the new Northern Ireland Assembly.

Mr. McFall

In answer to the question about the cross-border body, I can say that the 18 December statement from the office of the First and Deputy First Ministers announced agreement on matters for north-south co-operation and implementation by Departments. Among the six implementation bodies is one dealing with language. It will have a number of functions, including promoting the Irish language and facilitating and encouraging its use. As for the Ulster-Scots, £108,000 has been spent on a study.

Mr. Jonathan Sayeed (Mid-Bedfordshire)

Can the Minister say how much all that will cost the British taxpayer?

Mr. McFall

What I can say is that it is money well spent. If the hon. Gentleman had been in Northern Ireland when the comprehensive spending review was announced, he would have noted that there were bumper solutions for education and health. Following many years of not receiving the help that they should have received for special problems, the people of Northern Ireland, like the Government, are celebrating.

Ms Margaret Moran (Luton, South)

I am sure that Labour Members recognise the commitment to encouraging the Irish language in Northern Ireland. May I ask the Minister to pass on our thanks to the Secretary of State for Education and Employment, who also recognises the Irish language, it being part of the curriculum on this side of the pond?

Does the Minister remember the reply to a question that I raised on 28 October about promotion of the Irish language in Derry, which referred to a grant of £120,000 to Meanscoil Dhoire, the Irish language school in Derry? Is he aware that only £60,000 of the grant has been made available to the school and that there are serious difficulties in promoting the Irish language in the city? Will he undertake to investigate, so that we truly promote the Irish language throughout the Province?

Mr. McFall

I thank my hon. Friend for her positive comments on the Government's measures to assist Irish-medium education. She will know—it is of great interest to her—that 200 places have been funded in Irish-medium pre-school settings from September 1998 under a pre-school expansion programme.

My hon. Friend mentions Meanscoil Dhoire, the independent Irish-medium school in Derry. Unfortunately, it does not meet current viability thresholds, so cannot be grant-aided. However, negotiations are taking place—I have been involved in them personally—to establish the school as a grant-aided Irish-medium unit at a neighbouring school. In the meantime, as she says, it receives recurrent funding of £120,000 from the European Union peace package, but I will look into the specific point that she mentions about funding not being fully spent.

Mr. Roy Beggs (East Antrim)

Does the Minister agree that the promotion of Irish language study in Northern Ireland would be easier if it were not for the perception that the Irish language has been hijacked by extreme republican elements in Northern Ireland? Does he also agree that expertise and qualifications in subject areas that are sought by employers help to promote those subject areas? Where will young people with a qualification in Irish language have career prospects in Northern Ireland? Should not every effort be made to raise the standard of skill and qualification in the use of English language? Should that not be promoted above the Irish language and, indeed, Ulster-Scots?

Mr. McFall

Those are not exclusive. The Belfast agreement points not only to the Irish language, but to Ulster-Scots. Activities in relation to that have amounted to expenditure by the Government of £108,000. Only last week, I was in training centres and further education establishments in Springfield road and off Shankill road, where I took great delight in talking to people from a traditionally loyalist area, who told me that they were taking part in courses in Irish history. They had a proud tradition. They wanted to celebrate that proud tradition and, in doing so, they were emphasising the importance of two cultures getting along.