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Belfast Council language strategy plan gets thumbs up at City Hall

Alliance Party also called for a new council pilot bursary scheme for under 18’s to attend Gaeltacht courses
Belfast Council language strategy plan gets thumbs up at City Hall
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Councillors have approved a language strategy action plan for Belfast, after a “positive” public consultation, a City Hall committee has been told.

Elected members at the recent Strategic Policy and Resources Committee at City Hall at last approved a revised action plan for the Belfast City Council language strategy, which was first put to the council in 2018.

The strategy aims to address inclusivity for people of all minority languages in the city. The actions in the draft Language Strategy Action Plan are divided into five key themes: access to council services, branding, community/education/business, staff awareness/training, and engagement with the public.

**Read more:**Belfast Council to spend up to £170,000 on over 300 Irish language street signs

As well as approving the action plan, the Alliance Party also called for a new council pilot bursary scheme for under 18’s to attend Gaeltacht courses, while Sinn Féin called for a “comprehensive” council programme of Seachtain Na Gaeilge (Irish Language Week) events and promotion. The committee agreed for council officers to return a report on these requests.

The council report on the consultation states: “Repeatedly across all questions respondents commented on the potential cost of implementing the actions in the Draft Action Plan. Respondents also pointed to the increased financial pressure on the council and the current cost of living crisis and questioned the sagacity of spending money on these issues at this time.”

The report adds: “A number of respondents voiced the opinion that any services or proposed actions that aim to promote Irish should also be rolled out for Ulster Scots. One respondent felt that this would promote ‘parity of esteem’, and that any work around bilingual Irish/English branding should be replicated to create an equivalent Ulster Scots branding, or for the logo to include English, Irish and Ulster Scots.”

It added: “There was a range of comments across the various questions, often not relating to the substance of the question itself, suggesting that the Draft Language strategy Action Plan, particularly the actions aimed at the promotion of Irish and Ulster Scots, could damage good relations and was being driven by a ‘political agenda’.

“Comments referred to these proposals as ‘political point scoring’, with one respondent stating that the idea of the use of Irish in branding was little different from the erection of flags and painting of kerbstones.

“Any assertions of this nature should, however, be caveated heavily. In its response to the Education Authority’s draft Interim Policies for the Irish and Ulster Scots Languages, The Equality Commission for Northern Ireland described the use of Irish and Ulster Scots for official purposes as a ‘neutral act’ which would not be discriminatory.”

The council’s City Solicitor Nora Largey told the recent S,P & R committee: “The action plan was proposed to implement the language strategy from 2018. Unfortunately due to Covid we weren’t able to progress a detailed action plan in relation to the language strategy, but we have now been able to undertake a comprehensive review of potential access to services, how we can improve the disability of language etcetera.

“This committee previously saw the draft action plan before it went into consultation in October 2023. There were a number of engagement events with the public and with focus groups, particularly in relation to Irish, Ulster Scots and migrants forums.

“You will see from the paper, there was actually quite a strange consultation response. We got a lot of responses saying people disagreed with the action plan, but when you dug into those responses, it was because they thought the action plan hadn’t gone far enough.

“So while there was disagreement in respect of the action plan, most of the responses were positive, although (people) had asked for more to be included in it.”

She added: “The action plan was amended on foot of the consultation process. There were some things taken out because we felt they should be the focus of the action plan - they were relating to teaching and writing competitions.

“But what we have done is include new actions for example in relation to our social media commitments in Irish, and also in how we can look at including language diversity in terms of cultural tourism for everybody.”

A collection of Belfast language statistics from Census 2021 were published in September 2022, with 310,386 (93 percent) stating their main language spoken at home was English, 3843 (1.15 percent) stating their main language was Polish, 2659 (0.79 percent) stating their main language was Irish, and (2272 0.68 percent) stating their main language was Chinese Mandarin. Arabic is at number five with 2046 (0.61) and Romanian at sixth with 1460 (0.43).

17,986 people in Belfast said that they can speak, write, and read Irish Language, while 2,553 people in Belfast said that they can speak, write, and read Ulster-Scots.

Another council report on the results of the language strategy consultation states: “A number of themes appeared consistently throughout the responses: a concern over the cost of these actions, the need for the council to do more for ethnic minority communities, deaf and disabled people, and the need for more actions in relation to the promotion of Irish and Ulster Scots.

“Officers carried out significant consultation on the proposed Action Plan through its various stakeholder groups to identify actions which could improve access to council services as well as language visibility. As part of that engagement, it was recognised that there are capacity issues for some language groups/communities and that is something that officers are considering how best to address.

“Members will also note that the Action Plan commits to bringing forward an Ulster Scots Policy and work on the promotion of language initiatives for the purposes of cultural tourism. A separate report on existing support for non-verbal and neurodivergent children and adults at council facilities will be brought to the Disability and Language Strategy Working Groups in the coming months.”

Aspects of the Irish language element of the strategy, which is moving forward at a faster pace than other strands, have already received headlines, with unionist politicians objecting to proposals which will go to further public consultation, such as a bilingual logo for the council.

An amendment for the draft Irish Language Policy accepted by the full council in March states: “Belfast City Council will adopt a new bilingual (Irish/English) corporate identity and the bilingual logo will become the new, proactive, de-facto council logo to be used comprehensively across all corporate branding.

“The English-only version of the logo will be available upon request. The same typeface and font-size will be used for both languages and the Irish text will be as visible and legible as the English text.”

Another accepted amendment states: “The council will develop a list of key strategic council documents and publications to proactively be made available in Irish. The 10 most common front-facing forms (online and hard copy) will be identified and translated into Irish for immediate use.

“The council commits to publishing information leaflets, marketing and promotional materials bilingually in printed form and online. In instances where consultations are being conducted and the subject matter has the potential to impact the use of the Irish language or the Irish language community themselves, consultation questionnaires, engagement sessions and associated documents will be conducted proactively through the medium of Irish/bilingually as part of the active offer.”

Another amendment commits the council to publishing regular bilingual English/Irish content across all social media platforms, while information posts, marketing initiatives, community service announcements will take place in Irish and in English.

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