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.

  • jporter

    As with much here, politicians and broadcasters are much more comfortable discussing the conflict than the detail.

  • mickfealty

    Just putting this down gently here: https://goo.gl/c9Sv4a. Irish has thrived in NI without tokenism. Using it to break the b******s may be fun for some, but the language will continue to grow regardless of the outcome of these shallow shenanigans.

  • William Kinmont

    If Brussels sucks up 200 translators will this have an effect here in terms of teaching/progressing the language? Will it leave a hole in resources? i am assuming that they will pay top dollar and attract the cream.
    Perhaps it starts the employement ball really rolling.

  • Concubhar O Liathain

    I don’t see the relevance of this piece. It’s a European Union matter with no impact here. After all all the costs wrt translations which may be necessary can be set down in advance and proper cash flow planning so as to avoid overruns.
    The other day, at my place of work, I took a call from someone who wanted the correct spelling of the Irish version of Merry Christmas. I was going to give it to him on the phone there and then but he asked for my email so he could get it in writing. Shortly afterwards I received an email from Belfast City Hall requesting the information and I provided him with the correct version, Nollaig Shona. This is simple stuff but could be got wrong. The councillor who proposed the motion to have trilingual Christmas lights at Belfast City Hall, who is not an Irish speaker, had been quoted in the Irish News as wishing Irish speakers an early Shona Nollaig, which is correct in terms of spelling except the wrong way around. I sent him a helpful tweet of thanks, pointing out the correct version. Actually it was I who was grateful as the Belfast City Council official had done something too many of his southern counterparts would not have done. Rather than pick up the phone to ask an Irish speaker the correct version they would have guessed at it or gone to Google Translate. The legacy of that slipshod approach is littered around the country with badly spelt or composed signs which make no sense unless you translate them to English word for word. Irish speakers don’t see the prospect of an Irish Language Act as a gravy train but as a necessary sign of respect for the Irish Language, which is part of Irish culture and, because of our intertwined histories, British culture.

  • mickfealty

    Not relevant to your piece Con, just a response to the comment above.

  • Zig70

    This is wholly about accepting the Irish in Northern Ireland. Even though they are ultimately parasitic on unionism, there is no other choice. Unionism is facing the choice of a symbiotic relationship or a slow death.
    Choose the sword, and you will join me
    Choose the ball, and you join your mother, in death
    You don’t understand my words, but you must choose
    So, come boy, choose life or death…

  • Concubhar O Liathain

    Fair enough.

  • Granni Trixie

    Point of information (from memory of newspaper account):
    the reason given by the bank for renewing ATMs without the faclity for doing so in Irish is (a) additional cost of this adaptation (b) lack of demand – only one per cent of those using the ATMS opted to do so in Irish.

    How indicative a lack of use of an Irish facility is of lack of interest generally by Irish citizens I do not know but it does show that the bank from their POV made a reasonable business decision. I.e. Not political as happens up here.

  • Mary Russell

    I understand why Unionists perceive that the Irish Language Act would lead to what they think is discriminatoon to those who do not speak Irish.

    There are a couple of things to remember. There are many within Nationalism who do not speak Irish fluently, so they too could cry discrimination. 
    Any job that requires specific language, talent or skill is in itself discriminatory to those who do not have the required language, talent or skill set. Does that mean that we do not allow these skills, talents and languages to be used or learned.

    An example: a job requiring someone to have engineering skills automatically discriminates against someone who doesn’t. A job requiring the applicant to have French discriminates against someone who does not have French.  The only way you can not be discriminated against is to learn the required skill set. So if you feel you are being discriminated against by not knowing Irish, then learn the language. Why decry discrimination when there is a solution and you are not willing to obtain that solution. 

    Jim Allister claiming that we will have to compulsary learn Irish is scaremongering. You can choose to either learn it or not. If you choose to learn it then that’s your choice and you have extended your skill set, which is always a good thing in a job market, or you can choose not to learn it. In that case you cannot claim discrimination because you do not have the skills set required.

    Regarding place names, most place names in Northern Ireland are derived from Irish, so there will not be a huge change in the signs posts. 

    The Welsh or Scottish language act is acceptable in Scotland and Wales and has proved no threat to the English language or British Culture there, so why would it be a threat to either here.

    Regarding cost, I as a tax payer pay for policing of soccer games, I never attend a soccer game. I pay for cancer treatment for smokers, I do not smoke. I pay for grants to flute bands, the clean up of bonfires and the policing  of parades, I do not take part in any of these. So you cannot decry  paying for Irish because you do not use it.

    If you imagine that financing the Irish Language is detrimental to other sectors, then that is not true. You could claim that funding pipe bands, funding the BBC, funding of the arts,  were also  funds which could be better spent in Health or education. So that argument is void,  or we choose not to fund any of these alternative sectors. 

    So what is the real resentment and resistance to Irish within the Unionists community. Do they feel threatened by equality because they were for so long  the ‘superior culture’? Do they feel threatened by a language because they are no longer so sure of their own place in Northern Ireland ?  Are they so unsure of their own Britishness and their importance within the United Kingdom that they feel thretened by an ancient language that we all can lay claim to?  A confident, strong culture and people do not fear change, in fact they welcome and share it.