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.

  • Blissett

    Níl dóigh liom go bhfuil léamh cruinn deánta agat ar cás Iníon Ní Caoimh. Pé eagóir an dóigh leat go rinne an bhForas ar na heagraisí agus a fostaithe, ní léir dom go bhfuil an Coinbhinsiún Cearta Daonna briste acu.

    Tá míthuiscint ann sílim, ní fuair an Cúirt i gcoinne an stát ar bonn Dlí Tort, ní fuaireadar go raibh dlíteanas ionadach ann, ach go raibh freagracht ar an stáit, dá mbeadh iachall ar daoine freastal ar bunscoil, cinnte a dhéanamh dé go bhfeadfá é sin a dhéanamh go éifeachtiúil agus go sábhailte. Ní dóigh liom go bhfuil aon rud ansin a bheadh aon úsáid ann sa chás seo. Sílim

  • Blissett, a chara,
    I will answer you in English as the thread is in English. I raised the issue because the Foras on this and other occasions has said that it bears no responsibility for workers in organisations it funds, if that organisation ceases to be funded by Foras and consequently gives workers notice, in some cases with no redundancy provision. I think that’s a wrong on those people. I think the Louise O’Keeffe case established, inter alia, that the State cannot abdicate its responsibility for its workers and although there are substantial differences between the cases, there are similarities also on the issue of responsiibility. Whatever my contention, I do believe those people affected should seek professional legal advice. Má tá suim agat na ceisteanna seo a phlé i nGaeilge, is féidir é a dhéanamh ag

  • Banjaxed

    I have been attached/unattached/life-long-interest-in the Gaelic language for almost 50 years. In my early years, Gaelic was almost completely marginalised and, in Belfast, was left to the care of organisations like the Ard Scoil and An Cumann Chluain Ard – both run on a completely voluntary basis and, more importantly, unaligned to any political party whatsoever. In the late 60s, a decision was made to form a Gaelic speaking community which, as a co-operative, built houses on Shaw’s Road, Belfast. Subsequently, Gaelic language schools followed and Irish went from strength to strength despite the jeers and mockery of, mainly, the DUP with their ‘leprechaun language’ taunts, etc. Bottom line then, Gaelic survived and grew in Belfast and farther afield, thanks mainly to those hard-working people who freely gave their lives and time for the love and advancement of their native tongue.

    So also, but inevitably, came the various organisations which, regrettably, turned into, IMO, an Irish Language Industry (ILI) which appeared to have quite a lot of overlap in their prime objectives, ie, duplication. Quite a lot of money was paid out over the years but, on closer inspection, there was not an awful lot to show for it once the microscope was turned on.

    As far as I am aware, several of the organisations were asked by DCAL, up to two years ago, to provide action plans which have not yet been produced. And again, AFAIK, these are the ones who have lost the funding. One has a CEO, paid £50K pa, with a staff of two. To what end, is the fairest question, and with what results?

    If, at the end of the day, the furtherance of the language is the main – and only – plank, I feel obliged to ask: in how many ways do these organisations wish to skin a single cat? But if their raison d’etre is mainly to keep their jobs/salaries/pensions then I have to say fair play to the bean counters. Why shouldn’t the ILI be called to account and be asked to justify their receipt and spending of tax-payers’ money?

    One would hope the next piercing gaze pauses and lingers at the cash cow of the Ulster Scots Industry also.

  • I think that the bean counters are busy counting everybody’s beans but their own.
    You call it an Irish Language Industry – I call it an Irish Language Infrastructure, which had been in place way in advance of the advent of the beancounters and had been alive on a shoe string.
    However your point is well made, it’s not so much about the people and their liveliehoods but about the promotion of Irish on the ground. This was being done, in my view, very constructively by the affected organisations – at the same time there is always room for improvement. I’m not aware of DCAL’s call for action plans which you claim were not produced but at the same time DCAL itself is most remiss in not producing an Irish language strategy which has been in the works for several years and any action plan would have to take account of that – so that may explain the delay. On top of that DCAL has also been sharply criticised as a result of an inspection visit by the Council of Europe Monitoring Team wrt the implementation of the European Charter of Regional and Minority Languages in respect of Irish. Based on an analysis by Pobal of the NIE’s failures, the monitoring team delivered a damning indictment of the Executive’s failure to implement the Charter and report on its implementation. The next day, coincidentally, the announcement is made that Pobal’s funding is to be axed. Problem solved. As for accountability, you seem to be unconcerned over Foras na Gaeilge whose accounts are way behind and whose website fails to detail the membership of its own board…. And the Ulster Scots Boord will come into focus too, don’t worry….

  • SDLP supporter

    Conchubar, I believe your argument is untenable and I think any competent employment lawyer will quickly tell you so. The logic of your argument is that the employees of every grant-aided organisation in the arts, “community” , etc. are by extension permanent and pensionable public servants. That is completely untenable. Even Foras itself is an arm’s length body, that is set up to be separate and distinct from the civil service in order to achieve certain specified objectives.

    Heavens above, there are a reputed 30,000 “community” workers in the North, a lot of them not doing very much IMHO and many if them in my own experience aligned to a certain political party. Frankly, it would stick in my craw to see a lot of those people going on the payroll of an already bloated public sector and my taxes paying for them,

    Ta an ceart ag Banjaxed. Ni dheanfaidh maorlachas ach dochar don teanga sa deire thiar thall,

  • Well, let’s see the logic tested in the courts in the light of the O’Keeffe judgement, especially in respect of the employees of Iontaobhas ULTACH. that body was nominated in leglislation as a body which would be core funded.
    Apart from that, it’s not just your taxes paying for them. It’s my taxes too. As for Foras being an arms length body to achieve certain objectives, if its objectives were to devastate the Irish language infrastructure of the North, it’s achieving that. As for promoting the Irish language, it’s open to question and very debatable. I agree with you, however, maorláthas/bureaucracy is damaging the language.

  • Banjaxed

    Conchubar, I accept the veracity of the EU’s indictment of DCAL who stand guilty in my eyes for their inaction.

    However, if, in the ‘Strictly Executive Dancing Duo’, it takes two to tango but one of the parties doesn’t want to dance, it’s not difficult to ascertain where the main blame lies – and more especially when heed has to be paid to a lot of Chitty-Chitty Headbangers out there with votes.

  • The DUP is what it is. It never pretended to be a pro Irish language party, or even pro diversity. Sinn Féin needs to do more than just patronise the Irish language community with lip service. It’s merely fulfilliing the DUP’s agenda at present in relation to the Irish language – and the DUP itself is out of step with the many Protestants, Unionists and Loyalists who think that Irish is part of their identity too and attending classes with Linda Ervine. That would not have been possible were it not for the good work of the Iontaobhas ULTACH. Eaten bread is soon forgotten, no doubt. Sinn Féin should remember that it isn’t only the DUP’s disaffected voters who have the vote…

  • Rapunsell

    Conchubar and sdlp supporter

    I think there may be some requirement on the funding body in respect of statutory redundancy. I recall a few years back seupb trying to say that organisations where staff salaries were 100% funded from eu funds could not use eu grant aid to pay redundancy. This was around the time the law on redundancy changed. A hasty retreat was made and redundancy was covered within grant. It is surely beyond argument that any organisation funded and employing staff on otger tban fixed term has to make provision for future recundancy payments abd that such provision is eligible expenditure of grant. If that has not been the case then imho the argument that the funder meets the costs of statutory redundacy is strong. I dont however know about the finer legalities

  • Raymonds Back

    There’s a question over the remit of some of these head organisations to act on an all-island basis. Specifically Gaelscoileanna and Gael Linn being ‘head organisations’ in relation to Irish-medium education and promoting Irish within the non-Irish-medium sector respectively. Given that both DENI and Comhairle na Gaelscolaíochta have statutory responsibilities in these areas, where does that leave the ‘head’ organisations? In a subsidiary position I would presume, an odd place for a head to be in.

  • Excellent post by Banjaxed.
    We DO have an Irish Language industry.
    SDLP Supporter is right.
    To paraphrase him, there IS a Community Worker industry.
    And I and others believe there is a Conflict R resolution industry.

    In general Sluggerites might believe in one, two or all three of these notions. And they might be defensive of one or two.
    But they seem to be mutually supportive ….
    I want the Irish language to thrive.
    I want valuable work to be done in disadvantaged communities.
    I want Peace in the lifetime of my grandchildren.

    We are going about it all in entirely the wrong way.
    The problem is not too little money swilling around.
    The problem is far too much money swilling around.
    And nobody dare confront the fact.
    We are cowards.

  • Droch_Bhuachaill

    I think Banjaxed makes a valid point a Chonchubhair. Irish thrived in the north during the period where no state support was available (although the gaeltachts of Tyrone, Antrim & Armagh disappeared during the same time), much like Catala or Euskara under Franco.

    We fall into the trap sometimes in the Irish language community that all the onus is on the State(s) to support and develop the language. I think (and I speak as a native speaker who didn’t learn English until I went to school) that the current movement for rights and funding etc is a bit misguided, like the campaign for official status for Irish in the EU. The future and survival is from the bottom up, not from state bodies down. We need to concentrate our efforts in promoting the language amongst the people, especially young people rather than lambasting the Foras and other bodies.

    I am sure the Ulster bodies did this kind of work. But instead of throwing the dummy out of the pram, maybe they should put their efforts into working within the new framework. There is nothing stopping individuals or groups from finding a place within the selected head organizations.

  • That’s great then – because, after 30 June, we’ll be back to the era when state support for Irish language promotion will be no more, 16 years after the Good Friday Agreement which promised so much but delivered only for unaccountable bureaucrats and their political dancing partners.
    I’m all for a more independent Irish language infrastructure – however, Irish speakers pay taxes too and are entitled to commensurate support, on the same basis of any other sector.
    I had to laugh at FJH above and his assertions that there’s an Irish language industry and his talk about ‘money swilling around’. Only 14 workers will lose their jobs at the end of June in the six counties yet that will devastate the Foras supported Irish language promotion sector in the north. The few that will be left, those working as development officers under Scéim an Phobail, will face the axe at the end of the year as ‘geographical profiling’ is introduced into the criterion for the next edition of the scheme. This follows the aborted competition last year, aborted because the northern entries made up 80% of the successful applicants, those who had scored highest in the competition, so now they want to run it again to ensure less northern success.
    What this is really about is dubious administration by the burreaucrats – Foras na Gaeilge and above. The money will still swill – just not in the north.

  • Banjaxed

    Go díreach, DB!
    ‘There is nothing stopping individuals or groups from finding a place within the selected head organizations’ – Nothing except for egos and empire builders.

    Concubhar, (apols for the earlier typo) forget about the jobs. I think that is a side issue as they’re all pushing the same open door. However, I wouldn’t go so far as to stop funding entirely but I feel it needs rationalising. Some of these guys don’t speak to each other, for God’s sake!

  • I know what you’re saying, Banjaxed. However, leaving those issues to one side, it’s important not to lose sight of the damage being done by the Foras bureaucracy and those who give the orders to the Irish language sector. I believe strongly if other publicly funded bodies were behaving in the way they are, they would be hauled before the PAC quicker than you could say Uisce Eireann…..and grilled not so gently by Mary Lou McDonald.

  • Banjaxed

    Concubhar, I can’t comment on ‘the damage being done by the Foras bureaucracy’ as I’m not exactly sure what you mean nor have I any knowledge of what you’re alleging. However, I entirely agree that our focus should now be concentrated on Foras to make damn sure they deliver what they promise.