The European Charter is an international convention designed to protect and promote regional and minority languages. The Charter does not establish any individual or collective rights for the speakers of regional or minority languages. The Charter’s overriding purpose is cultural. It is designed to protect and promote regional or minority languages as a threatened aspect of Europe’s cultural heritage.
The UK Government signed the Charter on 2 March 2000 and it was ratified on 27 March 2001. The Charter came into force on 1 July 2001.
The Charter is binding upon each of the ratifying states. It therefore has implications for all Northern Ireland departments and associated bodies, Whitehall departments operating in Northern Ireland and for Local Government.
In Northern Ireland the Charter applies to Irish and Ulster-Scots but does not cover sign languages or the languages of minority ethnic communities.
The UK Government must provide periodic reports to the Council of Europe Committee of Experts (COMEX) who report on each state’s compliance with its Charter obligations.
Inter-departmental Charter Implementation Group
Since signing the Charter, an Inter-departmental Charter Implementation Group (ICIG), hosted by DfC, has been working to help the public administration in Northern Ireland meet its Charter obligations. The ICIG has representatives from all Northern Ireland Departments, and also from all Whitehall departments that operate in Northern Ireland.
The ICIG has taken the following action:
- In July 2001 published interim Guidance on meeting the UK Government's commitments to the Charter for public servants (dealing with Irish). Further Guidance (which also deals with Ulster-Scots) came into effect in August 2005. The Guidance is subject to periodical review.
- Hosted visits from the Council of Europe Committee of Experts (COMEX), and responded to the COMEX reports (published in early 2004 and September 2006). The reports have praised the willingness of the Northern Ireland administration to support Irish and Ulster-Scots and have made particular recommendations about the use of Ulster-Scots in the public realm, and the development of a comprehensive Irish Language Policy. A response to the 2006 report was made in December 2006 by Northern Ireland Departments and returned to the Council of Europe for consideration by its Committee of Ministers.
- Set up a subgroup (the ‘Article 9 subgroup’, run by the Court Service) to consider how Irish might be used in the legal system in Northern Ireland.
- Worked with the Department to set up a quality controlled Irish language translation service.
- Set up an Irish and an Ulster-Scots voicemail service to allow users of these languages to contact the civil service in their language of choice.
- Set up a subgroup to plan how staff training requirements will be met, that the Charter may create.
- Acts as a forum to share experience, ideas and best practice about encouraging Irish and Ulster-Scots in the public realm in Northern Ireland.