The process of making a decision on whether to publish a report on Education Reform Proposals by an Irish language Working Group in Irish as well as English serves as one illustration of how opinion varied within the civil service back in 1989 and how ministers could frustrate civil servants’ attempts to take sensible (and potentially even progressive) steps. [Ed – Good to know that history never repeats itself!]
Many memos and entries appear in the CENT/1/17/18A file (partial scans) marked ‘Irish Language Issues’ that has now been released under the 20 Year Rule and can be viewed at the Public Records Office in Titanic Quarter.
The working group’s chair Michael Martin wrote to the Minister in June 1989 “seeking approval to group’s report being published in bilingual form”. A previous bilingual request from a cultural heritage group was “refused on the grounds that Northern Ireland is not officially bilingual and that all reports commissioned and published by the Government must, therefore, be in English”.
While conscious of setting a precedent, officials realised that “proceedings of the Irish language group are being conducted in Irish (so ‘any artificiality’ will lie in the fact that the group will have to produce an English version of its report)”. However the question remained whether to publish two separate versions of the report or print one bilingual version.
“The important decision was made when DENI recognised Irish medium schools. The provision of the compulsory study programme and attainment targets in the same language in which the schools conduct their day to day business seems natural enough and only fair to the teachers, pupils and parents.”
However, he continued:
“Given the small and gossipy world of serious Irish language enthusiasts in Northern Ireland, I think we could assume that a refusal to publish this report in Irish would leak sooner or later.”
The Constitutional and Political Division weighed in with their assessment of how people on “both sides of the community” might “wish to make political capital” out of the publication in Irish or their refusal. D C Kirk was conscious of government desire to “depoliticise the Irish language” and suggested that they should not be “furtive or secretive about agreeing to publish this paper in Irish”
The issue of bilingual “back-to-back” printing rumbled on long after a general consensus was reached around the need for an Irish language version. A civil servant expressed a preference for two separate versions to be published with both copies sent to Irish medium schools (“they are at liberty to dispose of the [English copy] if the [sic] wish”) and just the English version sent to all other schools.
“In effect, the [Irish Language Working] Group (or, to be more precise, a small number within it) would regard publication in a single document as something of a political prize. This was apparent in a recent meeting officials had with the chairman and one member of the Group: the latter was quite evidently the spokesman for a hardline minority faction within the Group.”
Press reports “perpetrated, we suspect, by the aforementioned member of the Group” suggested that the group might withhold its report in protest, through the “embarrassed” chairman had been in contact to assure the Department that the report would reach them on schedule.
The Constitutional and Political Division’s D C Kirk wrote again, noting that “these small matters assume great symbolic importance to some” expressing the view that “I am unclear why this [political] ‘prize’ should not be awarded” and that it is “an entirely tenable position to argue that the report of the Irish Language Working Group is a ‘special case’”. He continued:
“Is it really perhaps the position that we are concerned that publication of a bi-lingual version would lead to (more) criticism from unionists/protestants? Would that be reasonable criticism? I think not. If we see advantage in publishing the report both in Irish and in English, as we do, why should we not go about it in such a way that there is no risk that those we are trying to impress to not criticize us for half measures.”
“Ours is not to conduct a post-mortem on the original decision … The position has been discussed with the Minister, and I can assure that issues such as those mentioned in your [16 October] minute [not part of the file] were reflected in the discussion. The firm and final conclusion was reached that we should not shift our position. Arguably, any political goodwill which may have flowed from acceding to the working group’s original request is now irretrievable: a concession at this point would be seen as grudging and Government would not get much thanks for it.”
Other papers in the inch-thick CENT/1/17/18A file deal with correspondence around the use of Irish in official business, the necessity to reply to people using their ‘English’ address, and how the RUC identify people who give a name in Irish, and why a bilingual Nuclear Free Zone sign could not be erected in Omagh.
Alan Meban. Tweets as @alaninbelfast. Blogs about cinema and theatre over at Alan in Belfast. A freelancer who writes about and reports from civic, academic and political events, reviews cultural performances, chairs discussions, and live-tweets, streams and records lectures and conferences. He delivers social media training, coaching and consultancy, produces podcasts, is a member of Ofcom’s Advisory Committee for Northern Ireland, FactCheckNI board member, and is a member of the Corrymeela Community.