The domino effect?

riley spence chuilin mcateer
Dr Terry Riley OBE, The Deputy Lord Mayor Alderman of Belfast City Council Guy Spence. Carál Ní Chuilín and Majella McAteer, BDA’s Community Development Manager

Just over a month after the BSL Act was passed in Scotland, Northern Ireland’s minister of culture used her speech at a reception welcoming the World Federation of the Deaf to the region to announce she will be introducing a draft BSL and ISL bill.

The British Deaf Association (BDA) is delighted to welcome a commitment from Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure, Carál Ní Chuilín, to publish and consult a Framework for promoting British and Irish Sign Language in 2016.

The Minister made this announcement to support Sign Languages and the people who use them in the Assembly on Sign Language Legislation on Tuesday 1 December 2015. She stated that she intends to change the following challenges faced by British and Irish Sign Language (both languages are used in the Northern Irish Deaf community):

• There is no statutory protection for either language

• They are not covered by the European Charter for Regional and Minority Languages

• There is no formal Executive agreed policy or strategy document for BSL and ISL

The Minister, who has listened carefully to the views of the Deaf community, stated she wanted to support the efforts of Deaf people by providing legislation to safeguard their rights as a cultural and linguistic minority and enable them to access services in their own language.

Minister Ní Chuilín announced her intention to publish and consult on this framework in 2016. She has already written to Ministerial colleagues in order to seek their support and commitments. She also announced her intention to engage in pre-consultation through the Sign Language Partnership, with some additional membership.

northern irish assembly in stormont

While Minister Ní Chuilín outlined the framework before Assembly in December, she revealed that she would be bringing in a draft bill for the recognition of both BSL and ISL at a BDA event for the World Federation of the Deaf Board in Belfast’s City Hall last November. At City Hall, Ní Chuilín cautioned the audience that the bill will not be enacted during the current term but she intends for work on the draft bill to get underway as soon as possible. It will be a slow process but this is wonderful news for the Deaf community in Northern Ireland.

Dr Terry Riley OBE, Chairman of British Deaf Association (BDA), said: “We are thrilled to hear that Minister Carál Ní Chuilín has committed to publishing a Framework which will promote Sign Language in Northern Ireland. This is fantastic news for the Deaf community and would be a huge step forward for the equal rights of Deaf people in Northern Ireland. We’re pleased to see Northern Ireland following in the footsteps of Scotland, who passed the historic BSL (Scotland) Act in September, and hope other UK governments will also follow suit.”

Carál Ní Chuilín portrait“Deaf people have had enough discrimination”

The 1997 Belfast/Good Friday Agreement, which brought an end to the Troubles, committed the Northern Irish government to “recognise the importance of respect, understanding and tolerance in relation to linguistic diversity, including … the Irish language, Ulster-Scots and the languages of the various ethnic minority communities.” And, with that, respect for different languages became an important part of the region’s
move towards peace and equality. 

When Carál Ní Chuilín became the Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure in 2011 one of the first things she did was to launch Líofa 2015, a project aimed at encouraging people in Northern Ireland to learn, teach and speak Irish. On the back of this project, 1,500 police officers learned Irish to conversational level. And now she is turning her attention to the region’s sign languages. 

Ní Chuilín’s cousins were born deaf so, while she can’t sign herself, she grew up with sign language around her. During our conversation she revealed she too has a hearing loss and wears hearing aids – which I couldn’t see as we were talking on the phone through a BSL-English interpreter. 

So she had more awareness than most about the Deaf community – and how the needs of its members “have been ignored for years”. 

As many people in the Northern Irish Deaf community use Irish Sign Language, the draft bill will cover both ISL and BSL. 

She wants the ISL/BSL draft bill to be a roadmap outlining what legislation is needed to ensure public services are obliged to provide access for deaf people. “We’ve had enough discrimination. We want to make sure deaf people of all ages have access to all services.”

She is determined to make the needs of parents of deaf children central to this bill along with those of deaf people themselves: “Parents of deaf children need support and access to sign language before their children start school – but this kind of service is not consistent, it’s very variable. So we want to work with schools to put on more classes across the region – which are free.” 

Years of social exclusion and political strife has left Northern Ireland with more awareness than most regions of the importance of language, identity and social inclusion. Ní Chuilín thinks that this is an advantage for the campaign to have ISL/BSL recognised. “In the past language was treated as a sensitive topic – people were careful with what they said around it. But now language is seen as important and positive.” 

Carál’s term in the office finishes in March and she is planning to have in place a draft bill before she leaves: “I believe the climate now is right to bring in something like this. There’s a lot of awareness over the impact of social exclusion, especially on sign language users. I’m confident whoever replaces me will support it, regardless of which political party they are in.”