If you told me ten or five years ago that the only Irish language newspaper of any description would be provided by the Irish Independent, I would have ended up spending the rest of the day in intensive care. Independent News and Media have long been regarded as one of the arch enemies of the Irish language, and not without cause. Derision of the Irish language has been a default position, it seems, of nearly all the columnists – with some honourable exceptions.
Not three weeks after the announcement that Foinse, the Irish language newspaper which had been distributed with the Independent since November 2009, would not be returning after a Summer hiatus, Seachtain (Week) made its first appearance yesterday. An eight page news tabloid featuring columnists such as Dáithí O Sé and Mícheál O Muircheartaigh, Seachtain is actually produced in Belfast by a team which features Gearóid O Muilleoir, the former Daily Mirror Northern Ireland editor as well as experienced Irish language journalists like Tomaí O Conghaile(ex deputy editor of Lá Nua) and Ciaran Dunbar (former editor of Gaelscéal, whose contract with Foras na Gaeilge was abruptly and unilaterally terminated in February this year.
Apparently the Irish Independent circulation bosses noticed a fall off in sales on the Wednesday when Foinse would have been distributed with the paper and with a degree of alacrity and speed not widely associated with Irish language bureaucracy set about filling the gap. According to my informed source, the entire process of getting Seachtain up and running took a week.
Contrast that with the painfully slow process in which Foras na Gaeilge are currently embroiled as it seeks to replace Gaelscéal. The announcement was made in February that the newspaper’s contract was being ended early because of a failure to meet sales targets. The entire episode could have been handled better by all concerned but by the Foras in particular. While the Foras had grounds for claiming that sales targets were not being met, the sales targets themselves were inflated and should have been more modest in the first place.
The board of Foras na Gaeilge meets on Friday this week to decide what to do next. A consultation process was carried out during the Summer with an online survey and focus groups. My own experience of both the online survey and the focus groups is that they were a poor substitute for the real thing. I attended a focus group in Baile Mhúirne in County Cork following a last minute invitation and while the attendance should have featured a wide range of people from throughout Munster, there were only locals and one or two from Kerry present. My understanding is that this was one of best attended focus groups.
The decision by Foras na Gaeilge placed the UK Government in a sticky position. As a condition of the Good Friday Agreement, London signed up to the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages in respect of Irish. Part III of ECRML allows particpati9ng governments to select a number of conditions to adhere to and among the boxes ticked by the UK Government was this condition:
to encourage and/or facilitate the creation and/or maintenance of at least one newspaper in the regional or minority language.
While that condition was being met when the Charter was signed, it was breached in 2008 with the withdrawal by Foras na Gaeilge of funding for Lá Nua and, subsequently, by the unilateral termination of the Gaelscéal contract in February. While Gaelscéal was published in Conamara, the UK Government could maintain it was the fulfillment of the above condition as it was being partially funded by them through Foras na Gaeilge.
In August the failure by the UK Government to meet its ECRML obligations came under the spotlight as it came to light that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in London had criticised the Northern Ireland Executive for failing to provide a report on the implementation of the Charter in respect of Irish in Northern Ireland. The NI Executive failed to do so, I understand, because of the failure to meet conditions which had been met hitherto and the apparent reversals in Executive support for the Irish language following the return of power-sharing.
It’s not clear that this week’s Foras na Gaeilge meeting will result in an announcement of a new Irish language newspaper being produced. The online survey featured a number of options, including a hybrid of an online news service with a monthly print edition (this was an option first suggested myself in 2008 when Lá Nua was undergoing its death-throes with no apparent concern by the Foras for the survival of its disappearing investment of public funds).
INM have put the cat among the pigeons with its publication this week and its intervention will surely focus the minds of the Foras na Gaeilge executives and board members. As it stands the Foras is not equipped to go into the newspaper business, an industry which is facing increasing challenges. My own proposal to Foras na Gaeilge is to take a new approach – the old, traditional ways having been tried unsuccessfully. While the advent of Seachtain has to be welcomed, the focus should be on growing the readership of Irish among Irish speakers. A survey carried out in the Donegal Gaeltacht several years ago by Raidio na Gaeltachta found that the most popular newspapers in Gaeltacht shops were British imports and the Irish language newspaper sales were far behind these. As galling it was for me and my ilk working to the pin of our collar trying to produce as good an Irish language newspaper as we could on our always meagre resources, this was a fact of life then and it’s ever more a fact of life now as online media has put the tradition media in the halfpenny place.
It would take a massive investment now to get a newspaper of sufficient quality that it would catch the imagination of Irish speakers and Foras na Gaeilge doesn’t have that kind of money at present. I’m not sure even if its desirable that the Foras should be involved in funding a newspaper as that title then would be faced with the unenviable conflict of interests – investigate the Foras itself for its many failures and risk losing your funding or be a a Foras propoganda sheet and risk losing readers.
My conclusion is to focus the limited resources – the €400,000 saved by the Foras this year by not funding Gaelscéal has apparently been swallowedup by other projects – on supporting regional newspapers in Gaeltacht areas publishing more Irish through subsidising the salaries of trainee journalists, providing a proof reading service and also an accreditation system for Irish language journalists. In non Gaeltacht areas such as Cork City, local groups could be supported in providing high quality newsletters. Additional funding should be provided for the likes of nós*, Meon Eile and Nuacht 24, An tUltach, Feasta and Comhar and the possibility of a merger to create a Irish language online hub should be considered proactively.
As for an online news service, RTÉ carried out a consultation last year on its Irish language provision and an online news service has been mooted as an outcome of negotiations regarding a merger between Nuacht TG4 and Nuacht Raidió na Gaeltachta. A report on that consultation plus a plan of action is yet to be forthcoming. A lack of agreement between the two services has delayed progress on the provision of an online news service but given the bull in a china shop approach by RTÉ Management wrt the journalists in Nuacht TG4/RnaG, that’s understandable enough. My own proposal is that RTÉ should be obliged, under its public service remit, to use its existing resources to provide a bilingual online news site of high quality. As it stands its online news service in English is way below what I would expect from a publicly funded broadcaster. If the BBC can produce a high quality online news service in Scots Gaelic and Welsh, RTÉ should be able to do so as Gaeilge and if that means taking a few O’s off the salaries of their ‘star’ presenters and managers, so be it.
I have been critical of Foras na Gaeilge in the past. There’s little point in recycling those criticisms here. The simple fact is that the mistakes of the past need not be repeated. Expecting a different result by adapting the same approach (with even more limited resources) is a recipe for further disaster. Let’s not go down that road again.