Fight The Power!

An Ghaeilge

From Galltacht, the Hidden Ireland blog, Eoin Ó Riain brings the latest news on the campaign to defend the office of the Language Commissioner, An Coimisinéir Teanga, from the government program to roll back Irish civil rights legislation.

“The rain was coming down in sheets last Friday in Galway city. The Pillo Hotel was the venue for a meeting called to discuss the policy – or apparant lack of policy – of the Irish government with regard to the Irish speaking people and the ever-shrinking districts in which Irish is the vernacular language.

Despite the inclement weather more that eighty people gathered to discuss the matter.

So who were they?
The were representives of some of the language movements as one would expect. However it also included representatives of community organisations and co-operatives from Irish speaking areas as well as un-aligned individuals. People came to this meeting from Gaeltacht areas in Ulster, Munster. Leinster and of course Connacht.

Why did the gather?
Well the immediate worry of those present was the unexpected and catastrophic decision of the Government on 17th October 2011 as part of Goverenment’s Public Service Reform Decision to:

“Merge functions of Language Commissioner with Ombudsman Office. To be progressed in the context of the ongoing review of the Official Languages Act 2003.

The predominent feeling of the meeting was shock, surprise, anger and frustration that a government decision like this was taken without consulation, as far as can be ascertained, with anybody who was directly concerned. The Ombusdman herself or the Coimisinéir Teanga himself were not consulted it was reported. Surprise was also expressed in the fact that this is a decision taken before the Review of the Language Act which was announced by the Junior Minister at the Department of the Gaeltacht a mere fourteen days previously. Nobody present could understand the logic of such a decision. (See also our blog: Developing language policy by hunch! 19/11/2011)

The meeting was chaired by Éamonn Mac Niallas from Guth na Gaeltachta, a recently founded organisation set up to inform areas which still mantain Irish as the vernacular of the effect of Government thinking and policy on their lives and livelyhoods. Commenting on the decision he said:

“It is amazing that such a decision has been taken at the very beginning of the implementation of the Government’s 20 Year Strategy for the Irish Language 2010 – 2030. This decision makes absolutely no sense at all, and the Irish language community will now be very sceptical that this Government in any way serious about strategically planning for the Irish language community. What message does this give the Civil Service, a service Irish speakers have been trying to access their rights from for years now? What this is saying to them is that this independent office is not important and as such, that it is not important to implement the Languages Act.”

The Secretary General of Conradh na Gaeilge, Julian de Spáinn, first made a presentation on this and other decisions which affect the operation of the Act and on the previously announced review. When the review was first announced it was welcomed by and large by the Irish language and Gaeltacht community organisations organisations as an wonderful opportunity to improve the language act. It was a chance they thought to revise those parts which were impractical and strengthen those parts which were effective. Later when they saw the survey questionnaire there was some disappointment in how negative it appeared to be. However be that as it may he pointed out that the Department did say that they would welcome additional representations independently of the questionnaire and indeed the Comisinéir himself had submitted a 15 page Commentary on the practical application and operation of provisions of that Act last July (see here!).

Watering down!
The Language Act has in fact already been altered since its enactment. The first change was in the relatively minor though emotional matter of the name-change of the town of Dingle-Daingin Uí Chúis from the more usual “An Daingin.”

The second was a more serious change in that it permitted the enactment of an act of the Oireachtas in one or other of the “national languages,” instead of as the act required in both languages. This was a de facto a diminution of the status of the language, something that the Act was supposed to protect. Indeed all political parties in the Dáil and Seanad claim to wish to protect and enhance the status of Irish.

The decision to merge the office of the Coimisinéir Teanga with that of the Ombudsman diminishes that status drastically. When asked to defend this decision the Junior Minister charged with responsibility for the Gaeltacht had several interesting things to say.

Firstly he said that other ombudsman-like offices were to be merged with the Ombudsman Office. On the serface this seems true enough? However on closer examination there seem to be differences in emphasis: “Merge Commission on Public Service Appointments with Ombudsman Office” seems straightforward enough but “Merge back-office functions of the Office of the Ombudsman for Children into the Ombudsman/Information Commissioner’s Office,” seems to mantain the independance of the actual Childrens’ Ombudsman; “Office of the Data Protection Commissioner: Amalgamate with the Office of the Ombudsman,” seems a strange amalgamation in this day and age. However there seems to be no plan to merge the Garda Ombudsman Commission or the Financial Services Ombudsman although the  Pensions Ombudsman is to merge with the Financial Services Ombudsman.

Where is the logic of these different decisions?

We must bear in mind that the reform’s outlined in Howlin’s document accepted and decided at Cabinet were largly economic.

“We will relentlessly focus on delivering better value for money through the implementation of Public Service Reform.”

However in response to a question in the Dáil Junior Minister Dinny McGinley said: “Perhaps when this is finished it will cost more…” (B’fhéidir, nuair a bheadh an deireadh thart go gcosnóidh sé níos mó….).

This final comment was greeted with some incredulity by the meeting.

What to do!

One of the possible things discussed was a boycott of the Review of the Act, instigated by the Department. However it was felt that this would perhaps feed the hostile intentions aimed at watering down the powers of the Act further. The most effective means of influencing the onward progress of the language status was to engage in the process. Éamon Ó Cuív, who as Minister painstakingly steered this act through the Oireachtas, suggested that personal contact with the local representative, TD, Senator and Councillor was far more effective that sending an email. There are so many emails now being sent to these representatives as to render them practically ineffective. Trevor Ó Clochartaigh was also present at the meeting and spoke strongly in favour of maintaining the independence of the office of the Coimisinéir Teanga. We did not hear or see any representatives of the Government party though I think there were some messages apologising for not been present.

The survey itself was felt to be written is a way which suggested preferred answers perhaps aimed at weakening the act.  It seems to be aimed at people who regularly use, or have regular contact with state services. However careful consideration of each of the questions and how one might use the services in the future should help in completing it usefully. A paper was distributed at the meeting which helped in understanding how to answer the questions.

The Conradh has made some  suggestions for additional points:

• That public companies have a statutory duty to provide their services in the Gaeltacht in an equal measure as provided in English in other areas. This national demand for service in Irish should also be fostered pro-actively throughout the country as an equal choice with that service in English.

• That the complexity of the services provided through language schemes to date be eased and a new system with a standard based on statutory regulations be developed

• Statutary languge regulations be clarified with bodies employed by public bodies acting on their behalf providing services to the public.

The most important thing was however to complete the survey and also to submit any additional suggestions thought to be of importance. (You might think that some of those from the Comisinéir Teanga worth emphasising here or those suggested above by the Conradh.) The form may be completed electronically in Irish or in English.

The meeting ended almost on-time, unusual in this correspondents experience, and when we emerged from the hotel the rain was still dancing on the early evening streets of Galway reflecting  the first lights of Christmas glimmering in the pools of water on the pavements.”

I cannot emphasis how important it is that those who support the legislation protecting equal rights for Ireland’s Irish speaking citizens and communities across the state take the opportunity to fill out the questionnaire issued by the Government in relation to the Official Languages Act. Be warned though, it is clear that the questionnaire has been poorly formed, in particular with the need to fill out the “Other” options, when there should be no necessity to do so. Unless they are “ticked” the survey cannot be completed, which will surely discourage some people from finishing it.

A coincidence or something more sinister? You decide.

The survey can be found here:

Irish

English

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