Showdown at the Cultúrlann

More heat than light was produced at a special broadcast of the leading Irish language current affairs radio programme, RTÉ Raidió na Gaeltachta’s Cormac ag a Cúig, at the Cultúrlann on Tuesday evening when Foras na Gaeilge deputy chief executive, Seán Ó Coinn, faced an audience embittered by the recent decision by the cross border body to award the contracts for promoting Irish on an all island basis to six bodies with their head quarters in the south. The contracts were for six thematic areas including youth work, organisation to establish Irish speaking networks, advocacy and representation, community and business development, promoting Irish in English medium schools and the Irish medium education sector.

Northerners are angered and disappointed over the devastation of the Irish language infrastructure in the six counties built up since well before the Good Friday Agreement in response to failure of the same southern headquartered organisations to adequately represent northern views.

Four of the successful ‘lead’ organisations were represented on the panel alongside Ó Coinn, whose participation was only confirmed shortly before the broadcast began after the cross border body initially indicated they would not be participating. Former Lord Mayor, Niall Ó Donnghaile, represented Sinn Féin, who had to defend Culture Minister Carál Ní Chuilinn, against accusations from the audience of having been asleep at the wheel as the destruction of Irish language infrastructure took place under the guise of a ‘ré úr/new era’ being heralded for the language.

Also empanelled was the sole standard bearer for the organisations facing the brunt of the cuts was Iontaobhas ULTACH director, Aodán Mac Poilín. Although the standard bearers for the ‘ré úr’ were announced a couple of weeks ago, the process leading to the announcement stretches back to 2008 and involved intricate bureaucratic wrangling and dealings. The Samhail Nua Maoinithe/New Funding Model has already been sent back to the drawing board once, in 2012, by the North South Ministerial Council. The accusation was made at last night’s meeting that all that had happened between the model’s first incarnation and its second was that the same formula had been transcribed on the back of the first version and retitled Samhail 2.

At the same time as the programme was being broadcast, the Minister was on her feet in Stormont answering a question from SDLP MLA, Dominic Bradley, on the potential impact of the funding model on the Northern Irish language infrastructure. After giving some background, the Minister said this:

To ensure that there is Northern-based representation in the delivery organisations, Foras na Gaeilge, in accordance with the approved business case, will agree criteria with the lead organisations to ensure that up to 25% of staff will be based in the North. They will also have to demonstrate that their boards include members from the North.

One of the most enlightening contributions from the panel came from Gael Linn’s NI based representative, one of only two based north of the border currently from the entire cohort of nominated organisations. Réamann Ó Ciaráin said, as he looked around the auditorium and saw many who would lose their liveliehoods as a result of the process, that he wondered if there was a third way even at this late stage so as to ensure that no-one’s liveliehood was adversely/unfairly affected and that the work of the northern organisations could carry on as before. While he contended that his organisation was the most suitable to continue the work of promoting Irish within the English medium education sector and among adult learners, north and south, he was the only representative from the successful organisations present to recognise that there are different circumstances for the language in the north as opposed to the south.

The door appears to be closed on a third way, if the Minister’s Assembly contribution is to be taken as the final word. This is unlikely to satisfy the Northern organisations who face the axe on 30 June. They may have other avenues of appeal, however, as many have questioned the transparency and equality aspects of the latest decision by Foras na Gaeilge, particularly in light of a meeting held between the Foras and the chief executives of seven organisations, six of whom won the contracts in the subsequent competition, in September 2012. It has never been denied by the Foras that they asked at this meeting whether the organisations would be prepared to take on the responsibility of lead organisation.

The size of the panel militated against a more indepth questioning of Ó Coinn who passionately defended the Foras position, stating, for instance, that the Irish language resurgence in Northern Ireland wasn’t organisation led but arose from the work of grass roots activists and that many of the Foras staff lived and worked in the north and were activists too in their own right.

It’s not an easily defended position when the liveliehoods of people are at stake at a time when jobs for Irish language activists aren’t likely to become more plentiful anytime soon. While there will be jobs available in the new lead organisations, they will be filled by open competition, one assumes. It’s worth contrasting this with the situation when Foras’ predecessor, Bórd na Gaeilge, became an all Ireland body in 1999. The staff of Bórd were coaxed over a five year period by the two governments to take up roles in Foras. Foras in turn, however, have washed their hands of responsibility for the workers in the affected organisations, saying that redundancy payments etc are the responsibility of the organisations and not of the funding body. That’s a position that may very well have to be revisited in the light of the Louise O’Keeffe judgement in the ECHR last week. Ms. O’Keeffe had brought an action against the Irish State seeking damages for sexual abuse inflicted by a school principal. The State had successfully argued in the High Court and in the Supreme Court that the State didn’t have any responsibility as the teacher was employed by the school’s Board of Management though the State did pay the salary. Louise O’ Keeffe kept on with her case and eventually won in the ECHR and was awarded damages. It could be argued by a senior counsel that the situation viz a viz the Foras and the organisations facing the axe is similar given that there was a similar relationship between the workers and the Foras and that some of the organisations to be axed were mentioned in the Foras’ founding legislation as requiring to be core funded. Thus the workers for those organisations could be said to have a legitimate expectation of employment.

While the Foras professes its desire for transparency and accountability among its client organisations, it’s not too willing to front up itself. THere is no current list of board member on its website. In the context of Minister Ní Chuilinn’s insistence on northern representation on the boards of the new lead organisations, it’s worth noting that her own party, on the basis of its membership of the Northern Ireland Executive, has four nominees on the board of Foras. One of these is based in Northern Ireland. Another is from Northern Ireland but based in Galway while two more are prospective election candidates in Mayo and Cork respectively. Is it right and proper that membership of the boards of public bodies be used in this way, to fund the political careers of up and coming candidates.

Mystery also surrounds the process of appointment to the board. If boards north and south of the border are open for application by members of the public through public jobs competitions, why can’t the board of a cross border body be similarly open for applications by members of the public?

And trying to find out the budget for 2014 of Foras na Gaeilge is like trying to uncover the Third Mystery of Fatima. While the cross border body proclaims that its budget is constantly being reduced, year on year, there’s no clear indication from year to year what its budget actually is. It may not be until 2017 when we find out the budget for 2014 as the Foras, joined at the hip as it is with the Ulster Scots Agency, is way behind in the publication of accounts.

In the final analysis, while the Foras is talking of a new era for everyone else in the Irish language movement, it has yet to lead by example. It has yet to convince activists, who have spent years working in the Irish language sector without expectation of profit or even any reward but the sound of the language being spoken by the next generation as enthusiastically as its spoken by themselves, that this new funding model will be better than that which preceded it, not just slightly better but significantly better, so as to justify the current painful process. While there is an appetite for change and the status quo is not an option, and the North’s Irish language activists have lived by that maxim, considerable unresolved doubts remain over the viability of the soon to be implemented funding model. There was no evidence at Tuesday night’s meeting that these issues have been resolved and that embittered Irish language activists will go away. That’s something to be borne in mind by certain political parties as elections loom.