The European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages is the European convention for the protection and promotion of languages used by traditional minorities. Together with the Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities it constitutes the Council of Europe's commitment to the protection of national minorities.
Regional or minority languages are part of Europe’s cultural heritage and their protection and promotion contribute to the building of a Europe based on democracy and cultural diversity.
The Charter, drawn up on the basis of a text put forward by the Standing Conference of Local and Regional Authorities of Europe, was adopted as a convention on 25 June 1992 by the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe, and was opened for signature in Strasbourg on 5 November 1992. It entered into force on 1 March 1998.
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 NI, the Charter applies to Irish and Ulster-Scots but does not cover sign languages or the languages of minority ethnic communities.
In accordance with Article 17 of the Charter, the United Kingdom is required to present a report to the Secretary General of the Council of Europe and the Council of Europe Committee of Experts every three years on the policy it has pursued and the measures it has taken in compliance with the Charter.
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.