I agree with the Minister of State that it is important to cherish Constable Peadar Heffron, a Gaelic-speaking member of the PSNI who is currently recovering from injuries he suffered as a result of an attack by paramilitary elements.
I support amendment No. 2 because it draws attention to what I believe to be a defect in the Bill. There are aspects of the legislation which relate to the Anglo-Irish Agreement, the human rights of those who speak minority languages and a number of international treaties which the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade and his predecessors negotiated on behalf of the country. I have received more correspondence in respect of the Bill than I have on any other issue since becoming a Member of the House. In that context, there is an amount of concern with regard to the removal of voting rights from people who live in Gaeltacht areas. On Second Stage, the Minister of State said that, as a result of the decision of the then Government in May 2001 to retain the existing status of Údarás na Gaeltachta, a regulatory impact assessment is not needed in respect of the legislation. I am of the view that the Bill changes things so fundamentally that such an assessment is required.
The Good Friday Agreement protects the rights of Irish speakers in Northern Ireland, including the good constable to whom both the Minister of State and I referred. If we remove language rights from Gaelic-speaking people in this State, will we be infringing the sections of the Agreement which relate to economic, social and cultural issues? The Good Friday Agreement states:
All participants recognise the importance of respect, understanding and tolerance in relation to linguistic diversity, including in Northern Ireland, the Irish language, Ulster-Scots and the languages of the various ethnic communities, all of which are part of the cultural wealth of the island of Ireland.
We all agree with this and it must be noted that we will welcome a member of the Orange Order to the House next week. I think I am No. 71 in the order of succession of those who have represented Trinity College at parliamentary level. The second person in that order, Bishop William Bedell, translated the Bible into Irish in the 1600s in the hope that people would be persuaded to join the Protestant churches. We will check with our guest from the Orange Order but I do not believe the bishop's exercise has been very successful. We have a long tradition of cherishing the Irish language. Will this be put at risk if the voting rights of people in Gaeltacht areas who speak the language are removed?
Another aspect of what was agreed in the Good Friday Agreement is that:
In the context of active consideration currently being given to the UK signing the Council of Europe Charter for Regional or Minority Languages, the British Government will in particular in relation to the Irish language, where appropriate and where people so desire it . . . take resolute action to promote the language . . . make provision for liaising with the Irish language community, representing their views to public authorities and investigating complaints . . . [and] encourage the parties to secure agreement that this commitment will be sustained by a new Assembly in a way which takes account of the desires and sensitivities of the community.
The British and Irish Government are guarantors of those language rights. I am delighted the Minister of State discussed the vindication of those rights with his opposite number last week. Had the decision to abandon the regulatory impact assessment not been made, this matter would have formed part of that assessment. Approximately 96,000 people living in Gaeltacht areas speak the Irish language. How will not carrying out such an assessment protect freedoms we sought to protect, encourage and promote within the terms of the Good Friday Agreement?
There are international dimensions to this. I am of the view that the Bill should have been submitted to the Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Shatter, who addressed the issue of human rights in Geneva last October. The Minister did not cover language rights but he gave a speech on human rights that has been widely praised. Those who speak minority languages have very strong human rights. They are protected on this island by the Good Friday Agreement and in international terms they are protected by the Council of Europe, UNESCO, the United Nations and so on. I would have welcomed it if a regulatory impact assessment had been carried out. This could have taken cognisance of views of the authorities in Northern Ireland, the Department of Justice and Equality — which is the vindicator of human rights in this country — and the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, particularly in the context of how Ireland interprets international agreements. We cannot just sign up to agreements to protect the Basques and so forth and presume these do not have relevance in the context of protecting minority languages in this country.
There will be a need, prior to Report Stage, to obtain an assessment from the Departments of Justice and Equality and Foreign Affairs and Trade in respect of this matter. Does the Tánaiste, for example, see the withdrawal of voting rights from those who speak minority languages as having any implications in respect of agreements to which we might sign up at Geneva or elsewhere? What will the Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Shatter, say on the next occasion on which he discusses Ireland's human rights record?
A formal view from the other parties to the Good Friday Agreement in respect of the human rights of Irish speakers in this country would be of value. Senator Ó Clochartaigh has raised a most important point. It was probably a mistake to decide that a regulatory impact assessment was not needed in respect of this most important legislation. Some 168 amendments have been tabled because people are so concerned with regard to this matter. The Minister of State is on record as saying the Bill would be passed quickly and with all-party agreement. Once people realised what it contained, the latter was never a possibility. We should now take the opposite route and consider the legislation on a line-by-line basis. In addition, we should seek the views of as many people as possible. I refer in this regard to the authorities in Northern Ireland, international human rights organisations and others.