Is Foras feathering its own nest whilst the language burns?

Concubhar O’Liathan is a former editor of La Nua, and now runs his own up-to-the-minute Irish language blog iGaeilge is purturbed at the news that at time of falling revenues and deepening recession, Foras na Gaeilge (the Irish language government agency is preparing to let go the last regular Irish langauge newspaper (outside An Druma Mor), even as it continues recruit new staff members. On one level of course there a recession on; and the belt-tightening has to affect all aspects of government expenditure. But this looks like a case of Foras cutting the bits that are easiest for it as cuts, without the means of being held publicly accountable for them. Several journalists have tried and failed to get any information out them, following the refusal of FOI requests both north and south of the border. Over to Concubhar:

The news of the predicament, of Foinse the Irish language weekly newspaper, reached me on Tuesday evening and is reported in today’s papers and while it was shocking it was hardly surprising. In fact it was familiar. After all, I had been here before during my time as editor of the now sadly departed Lá Nua, the Irish language daily newspaper. We, too, were dependent on Foras na Gaeilge to provide a bulk of our funding as we published a daily newspaper five days a week from 2003 to the end of 2008. When we pointed out to Foras na Gaeilge that our newspaper was losing money and in danger of folding, they told us to make do with what we had and sat back on their hands as the newspaper limped towards eventual extinction. They pooh poohed our proposal to publish on the internet as a daily PDF with a weekly printed omnibus edition and said it wasn’t allowed for in the contract. And that was that.

The situation with Foinse is slightly different. The weekly newspaper located in An Cheathrú Rua received grant aid which was substantially more than that received by Lá Nua (Foinse received €320,000 per year – Lá Nua’s grant was in the region of €240,000) but also generated a large chunk of change in advertising revenue, the vast majority of it from the public service and government departments and agencies in the south. In fact, according to figures filed by the newspaper, Foinse generated a profit of €192,000 in 2006 and €99,000 in 2007. Figures for 2008 aren’t yet available but their projections for 2009 are a loss of staggering proportions in their own terms, approximately €300,000. This profit to loss situation came about as the economic crisis hit the public service last year and public servants scrambled hither and thither to cut unnecessary spending. A yet to be closed loophole in the Official Languages Act 2003 means that public sector advertising isn’t required to be bilingual in the south and this loophole was seized upon by those in charge of the public purse, with disastrous consequences for Foinse. Public sector advertising was never a significant factor in the funding of Lá Nua as it received so little because of its location north of the border (and the partitionist mentality of the public sector in the south) that this cutback had little or no effect.

So why should we care about the departure of a lossmaking newspaper? Well there are a number of reasons. Foinse, Lá Nua and other Irish language organisations, other projects in, for instance, the arts and community work, all form part of the social fabric of Irish society. The first resort of the bureaucrats appears to be to shred this social fabric rather than, for instance, apply the cutting knife closer to home with significant cutbacks on their own benefits. This warped sense of priorities is exemplified in the behaviour of Foras na Gaeilge, the main funding body for the Irish language on this island. While overseeing a situation in which one Irish language newspaper, which was established in 1984, was lost and the other is in danger of going the same way, the Foras has been busily augmenting its staff and increasing the bureaucratic burden. Sometime back in the early years of the millennium, when times were better and public money flowed more freely, the Foras applied for additional staff from the North South Ministerial Council and were told they could increase their complement of staff from 39 to 65. At the end of 2008, the Foras had 49 staff on its books. In February 2009, it advertised for five additional staff. The combined salaries for this new intake was about €200,000, approximately the same amount of money saved by the closure of Lá Nua at the end of December. Theoretically at least, because the Foras was operating in February on the basis of the same budget as it had in 2008 for 2009 as it had not been cut in the emergency budget announced in October last year. (The cut did come in the April Emergency Budget) But rather than making the savings available to Foinse to augment that newspaper’s services, the money was spent on recruiting adminstrators, a receptionist for the Foras’ cavernously empty offices at Westgate House on the corner of Castle Street and Queen Street in central Belfast, and a translator.

I hold no brief for Foinse but my concern here is the state of Irish language print journalism and, by extension, Irish language literature as the two are linked. People who read Irish language newspapers are more likely to read Irish language books. And who’s responsible for the funding of Irish language books – you’ve guessed it – Foras na Gaeilge. A few thousand people per day read Lá Nua, more again on the internet. Foinse is claiming sales of between 4,000 and and 6,000 copies weekly. And they distribute the newspaper in PDF format (a practice pioneered by Lá Nua in Ireland) on the internet on a subscription basis. A publisher told me that the average sale of an Irish language book is under 200 copies! All this isn’t surprising – neither Lá Nua, Foinse or Irish language books had access to a reasonable marketing budget. They eked out an existence and depended on their loyal readers to spread the good word. Their priority was production and publication and they paid the price in the case of Lá/Lá Nua – and look like they will pay the price in the case of Foinse.

Still you may ask – why should I care about the loss of another loss making Irish language newspaper? After all they didn’t do marketing, so they died the death. Indeed. You should care. Instead of spending public money on the provision of literature and journalism in Irish which people were actually reading, vast amounts of public money is actually being spent on translating public documents from English to Irish which nobody will read in either language – or more accurately significantly fewer people will read in either language. Recently, for instance, in a display of Kafkaesque extravagance in a time of tightening belts, the Minister for Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs, Éamon Ó Cuív announced that he was establishing a second translation unit within his own department. This would be headed by a Director of Translations on a salary of up to €130,000 per year. The task to be undertaken by this person would be to organise the translation of almost 50,000 pages of statutory instruments from English to Irish and, also, as an after thought, to revise the Official Standard of Irish. The cost of this project has been estimated, conservatively, at between €3m and €5m and could be a lot more than that.

Apparently the Government has allowed this to go ahead because it follows on a Supreme Court judgement. Whatever about the wisdom of such a judgement at the best of times, the timing of it and the consequences seem particularly perverse in the light of the most recent developments.

If Foinse is to publish its last edition this weekend, that will be sad indeed, not least for the ten people working at the newspaper but for its readers and for the Irish language community throughout the world. It will be all the more infuriating as it comes hot in the heels of the loss of Lá Nua – to borrow a phrase, to lose one Irish language newspaper could be considered to be unfortunate, to lose two (in the space of six months) is careless indeed of the all island body charged with the promotion of Irish.

There appears to be some political support for Foinse. Senator Joe O’Toole was heard on Nuacht TG4 last night calling for urgent action while Senator Piaras Ó Dochartaigh of Sinn Féin raised a rumpus in the Seanad yesterday which led to his ejection from the chamber. In light of my own experiences with Sinn Féin and its on-off commitment to the Irish language, I might remind the Senator from Gaoth Dobhair, who recently admitted on Raidio na Gaeltachta that Cumann meetings of his party are run through English in the Gaeltacht, that he could lift the phone to his four party colleagues who sit on the board of Foras na Gaeilge and who, theoretically, have some interest in the matter to get their fingers out and do something practical. But then again I’m not sure that Sinn Féin is interested in doing any more than rattling their broken commitments in their empty of meaning manifestos.

WIll this be sufficient to sway Foras na Gaeilge. It seems unlikely at this stage. As Foinse’s proprietor, Pádraig Ó Céidigh, is projecting losses of €300,000 to the end of the year and Foinse is only being offered an additional €35,000 per year, that sum being conditional on a signficant upgrading of their interent service and the production of more pages etc, the gap seems to wide to be bridged by the Foras unless they are hit be a Road to Damascus conversion and suddenly see the light.

What will the Minister do? After all he is currently nursing a soon to be published plan to revitalise the Irish language in Ireland and to produce, within 20 years, at least 250,000 daily speakers of Irish, the critical mass which will save the language for future generations. How does the demise of Irish language print journalism and literature, on his watch, sit with that plan, whenever it is to be published? There is also the more politically pressing matter – Foinse is located in his own Galway West constituency and in the recent local elections, the Fianna Fáil representation from the electoral area from which he derives most support was halved from four to two councillors. I will leave it with the readers to decide how he will resolve this conundrum. I might add, however, that he does have at his disposal a fund, Ciste na Gaeilge, amounting to €6m. This was hit by controversy last year when it emerged that Comhalas Ceoltóirí Éireann, a great organisation for the promotion of Irish traditional music but not renowned particularly for its efforts to promote An Ghaeilge, was awarded €3m from Ciste na Gaeilge. This award was despite the fact that Comhaltas had only applied for €50,000 and the fact that Comhaltas is headed by Fianna Fáil senator, Labhas Ó Murchú, had nothing to do with the generosity of the award, the Minister was at pains to stress when it came to light. (The matter has since been resolved as the money was transferred from Ciste na Gaeilge to the Department of Arts, Sport and Tourism and onwards to Comhaltas ).

There are also ‘noises off’ about the future of Foras na Gaeilge, a body which is becoming an ever more significant presence on the radar of English language newspapers, especially those it hasn’t bought off with marketing wheezes which generally net those newspapers considerable windfalls. Last year, a teach yourself Irish cd distributed with the Irish Indepenedent netted the cash strapped Gaeilgeoir, Tony O’Reilly, €65,000! Foras na Gaeilge hasn’t published annual accounts or reports for the years 2005-2008 yet. It was in February this year that it published the its annual report and accounts for 2004. It isn’t bound by the Freedom of Information legislation, north or south, being a cross border body and in all my years of experience with the Foras, it has never been proactive in proffering information. Last year it engaged a highly prestigious PR firm to draft a communications strategy – but the press release section of its very expensive website (approximately €70,000 per year according to 2004 figures) contained only fourteen press releases from the Foras.

It should survive the calculations of Bord Snip being a crossborder body set up following the Good Friday Agreement. But will it survive in its current all Ireland format as Minister Ó Cuív is reportedly considering a reconfiguration of the promotion of Irish and this includes the revamping of Údarás na Gaeltachta to take over the role for the promotion of Irish in towns outside the Gaeltacht throughout Ireland. The talk has been of Údarás na Gaeilge and whether that would change the dynamic, given that Údarás for all its faults has an elected board and is partly accountable to the electorate as well as having a go-ahead and very progressive Chief Executive, Pádraig Ó hAoln at the helm.

As can be seen from what appears above, this is a tangled web indeed. But where does it leave Foinse? Out of the ashes of L? Nua arose An Druma Mór/Nuacht 24, a web based publication of high quality. It survives on the goodwill and hardwork of its pioneering editor, Eoghan Ó Néill. and his team of volunteers. I have a subscription to the newspaper and I got my first print edition, 12 A3 photocopies pages in full colour stapled together, in the post last week. Nuacht 24 gets not one red cent from Foras na Gaeilge and it would be heartening to think that Foras might provide the newspaper with some funding if Foinse were to go under, however tainted that money might be, life does go on, but it’s unlikely in the extreme. More likely Foras will readvertise in the vainglorious expectation that there is a queue of groups out there with money to burn by producing an Irish language newspaper. If they do find one sucker prospective partner, Foras will find out, the hard way, that it is a great deal more expensive to start up a new newspaper than it is to maintain one already in existence.

While the emphasis has been on promoting Irish on a community basis in places like Belfast and Derry, the emphasis of some – not all – Irish language organisations in the south has been on the legal status of Irish, an emphasis which has led to the current situation in which investment in translation is being prioritised over investment in front line projects. That this occurs at a time of economic crisis, when bureaucrats and politicians are throwing all forms of social capital (public transport, public service broadcasting, health services) overboard as they fill the lifeboats on the SS Hibernia and leave the rest of us with barely a lifeboat to survive in the chilly depthys, represents a perfect storm for the Irish language and its community. It will survive but no thanks to Foras na Gaeilge and the Irish Government. All gratitude will go to the likes of Eoghan Ó Néill and Tomaí Ó Conghaile of nós*, another high quality Irish language magazine which is getting no grant aid, b and others who are heroically manning the helm despite everything that’s being thrown at them.

If there’s ever to be an effort on a par with Lá Nua or Foinse again, and this is not to dismiss the work of An Druma Mór etc, there needs to be an independent fund created by Gaeilgeoirí and all those who appreciate diversity in the media. I made such a proposal before and got a few takers – I wonder if there are any more takers today.

Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty