DUP rail against Irish language Bill

Plans for an Irish Language Act will outrage the "vast majority" of people in the North, Democratic Unionists warned the British prime minister Tony Blair today.

Mr Blair said the proposals were only at consultation stage and insisted that nobody would be forced to speak Irish under any such legislation.

The exchanges in the British parliament came after Blair's government published a document setting out possible approaches to the legislation.

An Irish Language Act was part of the deal agreed at the St Andrews talks and would put the language on an equal footing with English.

The British government is consulting on the plans - which reflect on the experience of the Republic and also Wales - until March 2.

However, the DUP's Iris Robinson said the measures would "outrage the vast majority of people in Northern Ireland".

She asked Blair: "Would you confirm that in the event of devolution it would be entirely for the Assembly to determined whether such a Bill would proceed and in what terms?"

Mr Blair replied: "I can assure that nobody is going to be forced under the provisions of any such Bill to speak the Irish language. Of course not."

He added: "In relation to the consultation document that has been put out, we will obviously wait for responses.

"But the sooner it is possible, of course, to get devolution up and running again the easier it will be for these decision to be taken where, I am sure, the people of Northern Ireland would wish them to be taken."

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