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Talking whose language?

I gather negotiations are taking place tonight to try to head off a potential embarrassing disagreement in the Assembly chamber for Plaid Cymru tomorrow as one of the party’s longest awaited moments arrives.

AMs are voting on the Welsh Language measure which would impose new obligations on public bodies, big companies, utility suppliers and train and rail operators to provide services in Welsh to those who want them or face punishments including fines.

The measure would also create a language commissioner to fight for and enforce the freedoms of Welsh speakers.

It’s the culmination of many years’ effort by Plaid Cymru and delivering language legislation was one of the main reasons the party went into coalition with Labour nearly four years ago.

But language campaigners inside and outside Plaid are divided on whether or not what’s on offer tomorrow fulfils those long-cherished hopes or represents an opportunity missed.

The sticking point is the status of Welsh – ministers say what they’re proposing enshrines its position and guarantees the freedom to speak it without involving costly court cases to define the boundaries of that freedom.

Campaigners talk about rights rather than freedom and are demanding that the language is given official status alongside English.

Plaid AM Bethan Jenkins has tabled an amendment which she and other language activists say effectively does that.

Her obviously strongly-held conviction and the fact that she’s tabled the amendment at all means that she’s unlikely to withdraw it and Plaid’s leaders know that.

But they also know she speaks for a large swathe of party supporters and don’t want to risk a damaging split.

That’s why they’ll be talking tonight and tomorrow. What nobody knows is how many – if any – Plaid AMs will join Ms Jenkins and vote for the amendment. The Conservatives and Liberal Democrats will probably back it.

It’s unlikely to be a defeat for the Assembly government but could expose a rift ahead of legislation which ministers say is truly historic for the language and which introduces ‘the most comprehensive measure we’ve ever brought forward.’

And talking of amendments, there are 71 of them tabled for discussion tomorrow which means AMs are expecting the debate to take between four and six hours.

It’ll be a marathon session but as an incentive for them to crack on, they’ve all been invited to the Wales Yearbook Welsh Political Awards which is being held in Cardiff’s City Hall tomorrow night.

You can see the ceremony for yourself Friday night at 11.05 on ITV1 Wales but I’ll tweet the results as they’re announced. You can follow my twitter feed @adrianmasters84.

UPDATE – 16:05 GMT 06 December:

Senior figures within Plaid have this afternoon sought to draw the lines more clearly and to set out exactly the protection they believe the measure provides in a statement quoting not just the Heritage minister but Helen Mary Jones AM, who’s often seen as the voice of the grassroots,  says:

“It would be dangerous for there to be a weakness in the measure that would allow the very status of the language to be left in the hands of a judicial interpretation, which on any given day, could be completely indifferent to the needs of Welsh language speakers.

“The measure, as it has been presented, takes that risk off the table and ensures that this is as far reaching as it could possibly be.”

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About Adrian Masters

By day, Political Editor at ITV Wales. By night, obsessed with music and books.

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