Spreading the word in the Irish language requires a new beginning

I thought I’d tiptoe into the minefield of the “Irish Language Act”, an area where the massed ranks of persuadables risk getting wasted by the zealots, but here goes. Concubhar is right, there should be a mature discussion. I’m one of those who shrugged off Gregory Campbell’s leaden humour and hoped that most language supporters felt secure enough to do likewise. I can be as mildly irritated by Sinn Fein’s little chants of  Irish phrases as I am  at one with President MaAleese’s “wow” at the Queen’s intro in Irish. So cards on the table. The further spread of Irish would be culturally and socially enriching but it needs a radical rethink. The political cases for the Celtic languages in all four  jurisdictions of these islands reached a dead end long ago.

The aim of the Council of Europe’s Charter of Minority Languages are stated is “to protect and promote regional and minority languages as a threatened aspect of Europe’s cultural heritage and on the other hand to enable speakers of a regional or minority language to use it in private and public life. Its overriding purpose is cultural.”

The Charter  offers a choice of “68 concrete undertakings in 7 areas of public life”,  which seems pretty wide to me, far wider that the current non-debate allows.  Is it not obvious that furthering the use of Irish in the courts and official documents can conflict with the Charter’s  “overriding purpose ” which is cultural?

I take no pleasure in the tales of decline and poor return on investment. I assume the following  information is more or less accurate but I’m resigned  to challenge on the balanced interpretation.

I note that in the Republic, while Irish was dropped as a qualification for wider public service decades ago, it remains a university qualification for admission. Despite this according to the 2011 census 94,000 people reported using Irish as a daily language outside of the education system, and 1.3 million reported using it at least occasionally in or out of school – slightly up on the census of 2006.

In 2010 the National Assembly of Wales created a new system of placing duties on bodies to provide services through the medium of Welsh and created a Welsh Language Commissioner with strong enforcement powers to protect the rights of Welsh speakers to access services through the medium of the language.

In Wales the 2011 UK Census counted 3.1 million residents of Wales. Of these, 73% (2.2 million) reported having no Welsh language skills. Of the residents of Wales, 25% of the population are not from the country. Of the residents of Wales aged three and over, 19% (562,000) reported being able to speak Welsh, and 77% of these were able to speak, read, and write the language (making 431,000 – 15% of the total population).[15] This can be compared with the 2001 Census, in which 20.8% of the population (582,000) reported being able to speak Welsh.

In Scotland where Gaelic has competition as an indigenous language, only 58,000 people identify themselves as Gaelic speakers.  The Gaelic Language (Scotland) Act of 2005 established the Gaelic development body, Bòrd na Gàidhlig, (BnG),  to secure “the status of the Gaelic language as an official language of Scotland commanding equal respect to the English language and to promote the use and understanding of Gaelic.”.

Who really believes these pieties will produce the desired results?

Language policy is rooted in long outmoded nineteenth century nationalist dogma when so called minority languages were banned or restricted by nineteenth century empires and twentieth century majoritarianism in unstable successor states. As has been obvious for nearly a century, Irish freedom was won without achieving language supremacy or even equality, the exception in Europe.  What then are the drivers of language equality other than nostalgia and unrealisable cultural  distinctiveness ? Just about the worst way to encourage the use of Irish is to try to make it a compulsory choice in official documents. People can hardly be bothered to read them in English.

In Northern Ireland,  everyone knows that a Sinn Fein sponsored Bill stands no chance if it tries to import the use of Irish into official documentation and the courts without the consent of all parties. There is no “rights” case that will railroad it through the courts. The nationalist parties must be by now inured to the fact that that Westminster will never pass such an Act round the back of the Assembly.

We need to start again. As I’m sure Irish medium schools prove every day,  modern learning methods do not need official documents as learning texts.  The use of Irish in not negligible. There is a firm foundation to work on and Protestant and unionist goodwill that should not be embarrassed or squandered. It’s  cool among the Anne Enright bourgeoisie and their northern equivalents. Dual language signage is agreeable ( dual mind you. I had to tell a Dublin driver in Glenties last year that for Dungloe in the Donegal Gaeltacht, follow the monoglot signs for an Clochan Liath).

Every immigrant knows that the best way to pick up a language is to use it practically. Immigrants embarrass  the natives with their  proficiency. I’d favour every primary school offering Irish conversation with partner schools across the divide. I can think of fewer better learning experiences than to pick up the meaning, spelling and pronunciation of place and people’s names. They would  greatly add to the general appreciation of  the environment. From there enthusiasts could progress to writing and reading – and more conversation in both languages.

An Irish language Act requires depoliticisation and cross community support. Anything else is just another ploy in the politics of grievance and deal-making that we badly need to leave behind.

Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London