Less heat, more light needed on Acht na Gaeilge coverage

It never fails to amuse me, when a news report highlights what a political leader WILL say later that day or night.   What someone WILL say in a speech, to my mind, has no place in a news report.   Most speeches released early to newsdesks  carry a warning in bold print:  Check Against Delivery.   So much can be conveyed by tone and eye contact and other physical tells, reporting in advance what a political leader WILL say in a speech is a waste of airtime in my opinion. 

This is only part of the reason I feel we’re being poorly served by local broadcasters – BBC Radio Ulster/NI, UTV, local radio stations, RTÉ – who only have a very rudimentary fingerhold on the issues involved, who refuse/fail to inform themselves and, as a last resort, set two opposing spokespeople, Nelson McCausland and a SF/republican representative, at each other’s throats while they sit back and act as ‘neutral’ referees.   It’s the broadcasting equivalent of a bloodsport and it couldn’t in any circumstance be described a public service.   I understand, in a way, as heat generates ratings.  Light is regarded as infotainment.  TV and Radio, even the so called public service variety, is ratings driven.

The failure of local broadcasters to ensure their presenters correctly pronounce names of programme participants in Irish is an indicator of their lack of professionalism.   It also denotes a lack of common courtesy.  How easy it would be to get a producer to ask in advance how do you pronounce ‘Concubhar’ or any other name in Irish you care to mention?  Would they be as cavalier with a name in Arabic or Cantonese?

I can’t recall any in depth report by any broadcaster, interrogating experts and informed people, about what an Irish Language Act would entail.   

Nevertheless I listened this morning when I heard the BBC/RTÉ report that Arlene Foster WILL tell a party meeting tonight that the party never signed up to an Irish Language Act back at the St Andrew’s Agreement. 

In one sense, she is right.   There was a side deal done by Tony Blair with Sinn Féin guaranteeing that the British Government would introduce an Irish Language Act.    There was also a side deal done, it seems, with the DUP by Tony Blair saying the British Government would ensure that the Irish Language Act would be devolved back to Belfast where the DUP and other unionists could have a veto. Perfidious Albion strikes again. 

Except, back in 2006, there was no secrecy about the deal made regarding the introduction of an Irish Language Act.   Irish speakers in the north were ecstatic that it had been agreed.  I was at an event at Belfast City Hall where the then City Sheriff, Ruth Patterson, then a member of the DUP, actually spoke a few words in Irish and a mood of elation spread through the hall when the news filtered through from Scotland.

There followed months of inaction followed eventually by the introduction of a document by then Direct Rule Minister Maria Eagle outlining the scope of a possible act.  I was at the briefing session in Stormont House and can recall being disappointed that it followed the southern model of schemes plus a commissioner – even then recognised as failing.   I would have been happier with a model based on public bodies – especially public facing bodies – having to conform to a very low standard of courtesy in Irish.    That there would be a central agency, perhaps, who would provide Irish speakers to deal with queries from Irish speakers on a range of topics known to be of concern to the public. 

There were two consultations carried out as a result of that paper, one of which was carried out partially during tenure of Maria Eagle but also during Edwin Poots ministry.  The second consultation was carried out when a DUP minister was in charge – I can’t recall if it was Nelson, Edwin or Gregory.  There was a period when they were revolving the ministries and it was all a blur. One of the reasons, perhaps, for the revolving of ministers!  No one can pin it on them as they weren’t there long enough!

A third consultation was carried out during Caral Ní Chuilinn’s tenure – and this concerned a minority languages strategy, including an Irish language strategy and an Ulster Scots strategy.  This wasn’t even discussed at the Executive because the DUP refused to discuss it.  So next time a DUP spokesperson talks on the radio about equality for Ulster Scots, I expect the presenter to challenge him or her on why the party refused even to have a discussion on the issue when the Minority Languages Strategy was presented to the Executive. 

It’s also important to challenge the DUP on this stance of theirs claiming they did not sign up to the Irish Language Act pledged by Tony Blair at St Andrews.   They may not have at the time of the Agreement.  My recollection is there was no formal signing of the St Andrew’s Agreement like there was for the Good Friday Agreement.  But when the Executive was restarted in 2007, the DUP took up ministries based on the agreement reached at St Andrews.  They carried on consultations.   They took ministerial salaries.   It’s a confidence trick to pretend they were not on board.

I’ve seen a tweet from Edwin Poots claiming the party never signed up to the GFA – we know they didn’t.  Yet here they are, almost 20 years later, in and out of the powersharing Executive established as a result of the GFA, taking a benefit from it.   You can’t take a benefit from the GFA and NOT be signed up to it.    It’s not logical.

I’ve challenged SF in the past and will do so again on issues such as that party’s failure to ensure an Irish Language Act was included explicitly in the last Programme for Government which covers the current period.    The party, full as it is with people who feel passionately about the Irish language and streets ahead of other parties in the south on the issues involved, has failed in some respects in its overall commitment to the language.  For instance the Irish version of its website front page is almost totally in English.    This from a party whose Gaeltacht spokesman called the Bank of Ireland the Bank of Mandatory English because it plans to withdraw an Irish language option on some of its ATMs.   The bailed out bank has made a mistake and will shortly rectify it, I’m confident.

About the Irish Language Act, the notion that it is a sop to nationalists and a step towards dismantling British culture in NI is a myth.  In ‘mainland UK’, the Welsh language is protected by legislation as is the Gaidhlig language.  Is Irish in Northern Ireland not as much a part of British culture as they are?   Are Irish speakers in NI equal citizens of the UK alongside their Welsh and Gaidhlig speaking fellow citizens?   Because if we’re not, there’s something wrong with the Union of which we’re a part.   But if we make this right, if we repair the inequality, doesn’t that mean that we’re more content within the Union? 

Irrespective of peaceful aspirations of many in NI to a United Ireland, recognised as legitimate by the GFA, isn’t it right that we make NI as it is today as warm a house as possible for all those living here, the minority as well as the majority?

And isn’t £4-5m per year, as set out in the Conradh na Gaeilge document, a reasonable cost for this?   It’s a fiver each.   It’s much less than the £56 per schoolchild removed by the Department of Education as part of their cutbacks forced upon NI by the DUP backed Tory Government in London or future cuts to the health service driven by the Conservative/DUP austerity agenda.   It’s a bit rich getting lectured on financial/economic prudence by the parties of RHI and Trident and spending millions to drain the moats around their castles but setting that aside, do those who want to preserve the union of Great Britain and Northern Ireland put such a meagre value as £5m per year that they would not ensure that an equal union continued by stumping up that amount (which is paid for by all of us, the growing numbers of Irish speakers included) to continue the Union?  Or do they think, along the lines of John Taylor/Laird Kilclooney, that Irish speakers, alongside nationalists, are unequal citizens of the Union?

What is required as a minimum is set down in the Conradh na Gaeilge document – the projected cost is £4-5 per year.   Why doesn’t the DUP say: ‘Fine, let’s grab this opportunity.  Let’s set aside £4-5m per year to fund the act but, because budgets are pared back, the funding of Acht na Gaeilge measures can’t exceed that funding envelope.  Once say £5m is spent, well, that’s it until next year.  No overspend will be allowed.

It’s that simple.   

As for the broadcasters, they can’t continue with their attitude of blissful ignorance.  The issues have been set out for them.  The people with expert knowledge are available.  They can’t continue stirring the pot, as they are.  Those that are charged with a public service remit owe it to us to treat these issues with more care and professionalism.