Acht na Gaeilge: Ciall cheannaigh….bought sense better than taught sense

In welcoming the publication of proposals for an Irish Language Act for Northern Ireland, it’s important to remember the old Irish sean-fhocal, Ciall cheannaigh níos fearr ná an dá chiall a mhúintear.  Roughly translated, sense paid for (by bitter experience) is better than two attempts to teach sense.

A pre-publication of the proposals – inspired leaking – in the Irish News this morning gives us a heads up on the main proposals – and these are likely to fuel the fevered ravings of Steven Nolan and co for a couple of monrings.

From the Irish News:

  • Courts – a repeal of the 1737 Act which bans Irish in the courts, introducing the right to speak and use Irish in proceedings.
  • Assembly – equality for Irish in conduct of business in assembly and committees, simultaneous translation, publication of acts and bills in Irish.
  • Irish language commissioner – new post to promote and facilitate use of Irish, oversee and monitor implementation of act, advise public bodies and investigate complaints from the public.  The position of Irish Language Commissioner should be advertised publicly and appointed as the result of a public competition, not the result of a deal behind closed doors between the most powerful parties or OFMDFM.
  • Language schemes – onus on public bodies to to produce schemes to set out how Irish language services will be provided.
  • Gaeltacht areas – Define conditions and boundaries for recognition as a Gaeltacht area.
  • Place names – place names in Irish to be given legal and official recognition and provision for bilingual road signs for Irish to be on a par with English.
  • Education – guarantee of the right to education through the medium of Irish on a par with the English language sector.

I don’t know how these provisions as published in the Irish News will actually translate in the proposed Bill as yet.   There are some about which I would have reservations.

It’s high time the penal law prohibition on the use of Irish in the courts was repealed.  It’s not enforcing Irish in the courts. It’s offering choice to those whose preferred language is Irish.

In the Assembly, use of Irish should be encouraged and speakers who use Irish should not have to provide their own English language translation, thus halving their speaking time, as is currently the practice.   I would not be necessarily in favour of translating all Acts and Bills to Irish as this is a misuse of expertise and scarce resources.   If money is to be spent on translating documents to Irish that are barely read in English, we’re not learning the lessons so bitterly experienced in the south.

An Irish language commissioner gives the language a symbolic status – but it begs the question, given the indication that the Coimisinéir Teanga will be responsible for advising public bodies re the Irish language, what role is left for Foras na Gaeilge, the cross border body which has this role (but which seems to have failed in delivering).

The appointment of an Irish Language Commissioner should be as a result of a public merit based competition – rather than as a behind closed doors pork barrel carve up by the main parties.

The use of Language Schemes to place an onus on public bodies to set how Irish languages services would be provided is another backward step illustrating the lessons from the south have not been learned.  The language schemes are slow to devise and authorities are even slower to deliver their obligations.   Schemes sought by the Irish government from the likes of RTE, with a deadline of April 2010, are yet to be drafted/finalised.

Far better to set out bands of public service bodies with different obligations for each band.  A specific public service body which believes the obligations are too onerous would then have to set out the case why its obligations should be reduced and what services it is prepared to deliver.

While Gaeltacht communities – where Irish is a main/major language of the people – do exist in Northern Ireland as in the rest of Ireland, the idea of defining a Gaeltacht by a geographical area, rather than as a community of people, is problematic in the extreme.   The area of Gaeltachtaí in the south is continually being eroded because the demographics of the Republic are changing.  Gaeltacht families are heading for the cities where there are already thriving Irish language communities while others, whose first language is not Irish, are moving to the Gaeltacht.   Also there is a certain decline in the use of Irish by Gaeltacht families increasingly under pressure from outside influences such as the media etc.

At the very least, this provision should be looked at to ensure it supports Irish language speaking communities.   The definition of a Gaeltacht as an ‘area’ has the potential to do the reverse. The reimagining of a Gaeltacht as a community, now that might open up possibilities.

There is no reason in the wide earthly world for Irish place names NOT to be given legal and offiicial status as most if not all placenames in NI have their roots in Irish.

The right to continued education through the medium of Irish right up to third level should be guaranteed – and provision made for same.

What’s most notably absent from the snap-shot of the provisions of the Bill is any mention about the role of media in promoting the Irish language.   At the very least the provisions signed up to by the British Government in respect of the Irish language and the media in the European Charter for Regional and Minority Languages should be given the force of law.   The media is the most powerful force for the promotion of any cultural perspective and if a media body has a public service remit, based on public funding, then, as the promotion of Irish in any part of Ireland is a public benefit, the promotion of Irish should be part of that body’s public service remit.

Culture Minister Caral Uí Chuilinn has done the community some service in persisting to bring forward an Irish Language Bill, whatever shape it takes, and so we will await the formal publication of the Bill and the ensuing public consultation in the anticipation of a mature and considered debate.