The DUP and the ‘cost’ of the Irish Language Act: Fake News and alternative facts

A headline atop the latest column from former cultural minister and DUP figure Nelson McCausland made his point clear:

£2 billion over 20 years – the real cost of the Irish Language Act Gerry Adams doesn’t want to talk about

Nelson McCausland doesn’t want an Irish Language Act because, he claims, the cost could end up dwarfing the RHI debacle. Frankly, I have a suspicion that the DUP are seeking anything which might dwarf the RHI debacle!

In his article – which was based I presume on preparation he carried out for an appearance on BBC Talkback on Wednesday of last week where he was engaged in a debate with Caral Ní Chuilinn of Sinn Féin – Nelson refers to the costs incurred by Torfaen Council in the Welsh speaking communities of south Wales when it offered Welsh language services to its constituents.

We can start with local councils. Torfaen in south Wales is a small council with a population of just 91,000.

In order to meet its obligations, it  employs four Welsh language officers and estimates that the total cost per year is around £868,000.

According to Nelson, this figure, high as it is, could be rounded up to £1m per year in Northern Ireland because of the larger size of the council populations here.      And this goes some way towards making up his £100m per year running total for the Irish Language Act – 11 councils @ £1m per council = £11m per year.  £220m for 20 years.

All fine – except this is fake news, an ‘alternative fact’ or an example of ‘post truth politics’. The ‘hat-tip’ on this one should go to Maitiú Ó Coimín of the Irish language website, Tuairisc, who in this article brought the unsound nature of the DUP man’s claims to light.  in this case.  The £868,000 sum was the headline figure from a BBC Wales Week In Week Out report broadcast last year.    The £868,000 tally is inaccurate and, according to the BBC apology, their investigation was not ‘robust’.

A BBC Wales spokesman said: “We have received a number of complaints about the Week In Week Out investigation, broadcast on Tuesday, May 24, and will deal with those in line with the BBC’s complaints procedure.

“The team has a track record of delivering outstanding reports but we recognise that this particular investigation did not sufficiently explore the different viewpoints on the introduction of the new Welsh language standards.”

All of the above is easiliy accessible through Google.  Many other claims about the implications, cost and otherwise, made by Nelson in his Belfast Telegraph article and BBC Talkback appearance were also questionable, not least because the content of an Irish Language Act has not been agreed or finalised.

In his article, Nelson bounded from £11m per year to £100m without much explanation or justification.  There is a cost with relation to providing services to the public – in whatever language you speak.  However the addition of another language incurs a marginal cost.  Sometimes people like to count the marginal cost which specifically relates to the Irish language and the basic cost of providing the basic services as one sum and chalk it down to the Irish language.   That leads to cost inflation and catchy ‘fake news’ headlines like the one over Nelson’s article.

An example of this practice is the issue of bilingual signage.  If a roadsign comes to the end of its natural life, as per the stipulation of engineers, and is replaced by a bilingual sign, the cost of adding the correct Irish translations to the sign is minute.  What does incur massive costs and massive public disgrace is the practice in some quarter in the south of erecting bilingual signage with the Irish translation provided by Google Translate or the service employed by Ethiopian widows of public officials trying to scam/spam Irish speakers into parting with their bank account details to participate in some dodgy scheme.   This has resulted in hilarious/laughable translations and is a lesson for public authorities everywhere.

Other claims by Nelson include the notion that non-Irish speakers are barred from buying homes in the Gaeltacht – this is not true at all.  He refers to Údaras na Gaeltachta, the Gaeltacht Development Authority, as an ‘oversight’ body when it is in fact a job creation agency which is doing a marvellous job in creating employment in marginalised communities and would be an example for other local agencies to follow.   These are industrial jobs – not merely ‘jobs for Irish speakers’  – and they contribute to the Irish economy.

The 2015 figures indicate:

ABSEI research conducted in 2015 indicates that Údarás client companies achieved

  • €843 million total sales
  • €388 million in direct expenditure in the Irish Economy.
  • €525 million in export sales
  • €192 million payroll to Gaeltacht-based employees.
  • €85 million total tax paid to the exchequer

So the Gaeltacht is not a dependent in the southern economy – but a wealth generator and contributor. The recognition of Gaeltacht areas/communities in NI needn’t necessarily be presented as a bad thing or, indeed, a mirror image of their Republic of Ireland counterparts.   Irish language communities in the North are new relative to the traditional Gaeltacht communities  such as Waterford’s Rinn Gaeltacht, Múscraí in Cork, Uibh Rathach/Corca Dhuibhne in Kerry, Conamara in Galway, Erris in Mayo, Gaoth Dobhair and Gleann Cholmcille in Donegal and Rath Chairn in Meath.    Conferring a form of Gaeltacht status on west Belfast, Carn Tochar, Derry and other communities would not necessarily mean the creation of a totally new infrastructure.

All this talk is moot, however, as the content of any Irish Language Act is yet to be discussed properly in the cold light of day – I am on record as being against legislation which is heavy on bureaucracy and pays scant regard to practical supports for the Irish language in the community, legislative protection for existing Irish language provision and measures to enable the State to actively promote and encourage the use of Irish in public and private life, as per the Good Friday Agreement.

The £2bn tally bandied about by Nelson is one of his own imagining.   He has successfully sold this fake news nugget on BBC Radio Ulster’s flagship ‘Talkback’ show without it being fact checked by that programme’s production crew.  He has put it into print in the Belfast Telegraph.  He claims that Sinn Féin and the SDLP won’t talk about the costs, least of all the costs he has invented based on less than robust research.     It would be worth the while of the SDLP and Sinn Féin to present their proposed Irish Language Acts with estimated costs to counter this bluster.

It would also be worth the while of news programmes and newspapers such as Talkback and the Belfast Telegraph to beware of entrapment by the likes of Nelson who is keen, no doubt, to present as scary as possible a tale about the cost and danger of an Irish Language Act and his party colleagues would be delighted, no doubt, if this cost could ‘dwarf’ the scale of the RHI debacle, not to mention Red Sky, NAMA and SIF.    Don’t be conned by the fake news merchants!   Perhaps this instance can be among the first investigations of the BBC’s new unit to check Fake News, this new Permanent Reality Check Team (is this really its name).

These programmes and newspapers could also help to undo the ‘weaponising’ and ‘politicising’ of the Irish language, a claim made frequently by Nelson and his comrades, by ensuring that future discussions around the issue of the proposed Irish Language Act and the various commitments made up to now regarding the language involve Irish language activists and other experts in the sociolinguistic field who know the issues and the costs as well as political beasts with their own agendas/notions to promote.

EXTRA:

The mess gets messier as Bertie Ahern might say.  Now Meoin Eile, the Irish language off shoot of The Detail, has got a hold of documents linking Arlene Foster and her now ex SPAD, Andrew Crawford to the row over bilingual signage on St Patrick’s Trail and they’ve also uncovered that the DUP’s Paul Givan failed to do an ‘equality test’ on his decision to cut the Líofa funding in December.   More on these here and in English here.   There is something rotten in the state of the DUP.