In Ireland, after eight centuries of foreign colonial rule and despite nearly a century of independence, some of the population have been so thoroughly anglicised in their language, culture and thinking that an Anglophone minority continue to believe that it is their absolute right to hold undisputed sway over this country. This small but militant group within the broader English speaking community regard the resources of the Irish state as theirs and theirs alone. They look on those in Ireland who are outwardly indigenous in their language, culture and identity as little more than second-class citizens with second-class rights.
For this mongrelised oligarchy, our not-so-new Anglo-Irish elite, the Irish language is the English language; Irish culture is English culture. Anything that is “native” is rejected and reviled. If given their way the Irish language, and those who speak it, would be restricted to the “Reservations”. Forever.
How different things are amongst our Celtic neighbours in Wales. A country, ironically, that still lives in the shadow of the foreign state that we fought so long to escape; and which a minority of English-speaking Irish people are so eager to rush back to – in more ways than just language or culture. While the present Fine Gael – Labour coalition government, and a cabal of Anglophone supremacists who seem to have a grip of its policies in relation to the Irish language, works to undo the limited reforms that have been made to promote equality between the nation’s Irish and English speaking communities over the last decade, in Wales they are following a very different path. While the Fine Oibre autocracy is determined to abolish our Language Commissioner because he was simply too good at his job, too effective in wresting from the Irish state the rights of its Irish-speaking citizens so long denied, the Welsh are installing a language commissioner of their own. And based in part on our model.
From the Penny Post:
“Abi Pierce takes time out from her work at the Affordable Household Goods stall at Wrexham Butchers’ Market to wax lyrical about the Welsh language: “I see it as a wonderful gift, something to be cherished and developed.”
It’s not easy being a Welsh speaker, she admits. “I’m not always comfortable speaking it,” the 17-year-old says. “Some people take it as a bit of a joke, they think it’s a dying language and not worth saving.”
Which is why she is buoyed up by the bold attitude of the newly minted Welsh language commissioner, who is promising not only to act as an advocate for the tongue but to take action against those who do not give Welsh speakers such as Abi the freedom to express themselves.
In her first speech as commissioner, Meri Huws spoke of her vision of a Wales where speakers had the confidence to use the language and trust in the law to rectify any prejudice. Her initial focus will be to make sure that the Welsh government and public bodies fulfill their obligations to offer services both in English and Welsh.
Strikingly, Huws signalled she would step in if employees in small businesses were denied the freedom to speak Welsh at work. She gave the scenario of two hairdressers who were speaking Welsh together and a third insisting they speak English because he or she could not understand.
“In that situation the third colleague has interfered with the other two’s freedom to use the Welsh language,” said Huws. The Welsh speakers could complain to the commissioner and she could investigate.
Abi is impressed. “Anything that can be done to make Welsh speakers more comfortable and more confident has to be a good thing. Especially in a place like Wrexham, which is not a Welsh-speaking heartland, we do need someone that is going to help us fight for the language.”
The legislation that introduced the post of commissioner – and makes Welsh an official language – is the Welsh Language (Wales) 2011 Measure, the first piece of law relating to the language drafted and passed in Wales since the Act of Union in 1536.
The standards that organisations will have to meet will be shaped in the coming months during a period of public consultation. The commissioner will be able to fine bodies that do not comply with standards up to £5,000. Her powers relating to, for example, the hairdressers she mentioned are more limited though she could investigate complaints, write a report and release it to the media.
The tenor of the commissioner’s remarks is causing alarm bells to ring in business and industry.
The Federation of Small Businesses (FSB) in Wales believes that more language legislation could put more of a burden on its members.
Iestyn Davies, head of external affairs, said the FSB was “fully supportive” of Wales’s development as a bilingual country. “But I believe the best way to encourage the language is through voluntary codes. People should be encouraged to use Welsh because they want to, not because they are coerced.”
Over in the People’s Market (Wrexham has a rich variety of indoor markets) Nyeem Aslam is less diplomatic than the FSB. “I think this commissioner is talking nonsense. They always seem to be coming up with new rules to make it harder for businesses.” Aslam runs the Welsh Shop in the market, selling rugby shirts and T-shirts bearing patriotic slogans such as “Every morning I wake up, I thank the Lord I’m Welsh” but believes that in towns such as Wrexham, the Welsh language is irrelevant. “I don’t speak it and don’t do any business in Welsh.”
Huws’ role is not unique. Canada has language commissioners to protect its bilingualism and, as in Wales, immigration is seen as one of its major challenges.
Bethan Williams, chair of the pressure group Cymdeithas yr Iaith Gymraeg (Welsh Language Society), said legislation was necessary to make sure Welsh is a “central part of everyday life”.
She wants the commissioner to tackle big business, to force supermarkets to provide services in Welsh rather than just sticking up a few “tokenistic” signs in Welsh and to ensure banks offer online services in Welsh.
Williams said the new law was important for the language but also because it showed that Wales, which only gained primary law-making powers last year, could frame its own legislation.
“The new language measure was a test case of the ability of the national assembly to produce primary legislation. It was proof that legislation distinct for Wales could be fashioned in Wales and implemented by Welsh public servants. It is a symbolic sign.”
• Until the mid-1800s, more than 80% of people in Wales could speak Welsh.
• Factors such as the industrial revolution, which brought mass immigration, led to a steep decline in the number of Welsh speakers.
• According to the Welsh government, there are now 580,000 people in Wales who can speak the language – about 21% of the population.
• Language use surveys carried out between 2004 and 2006 suggested that 56% of all fluent Welsh speakers, in every age group, lived in four counties: Anglesey, Gwynedd, Ceredigion and Carmarthenshire.
• The 2001 census revealed that 40.8% of Welsh children aged between 5 and 15 could speak Welsh.
• A Federation of Small Businesses survey in 2009 found that 28% of those surveyed were able to deal with customers or each other in Welsh, and 12% were using bilingual signs or literature.”
Could you imagine the English-speaking political, business and media elite in Ireland tolerating true equality for the country’s Irish-speaking citizens along the lines spelled out in Wales? No? Well in truth, neither can I. At least, not this side of an Irish revolution.
- Contrasting Attitudes – Ireland And Wales (ansionnachfionn.com)
- More Irish Than The Irish? (ansionnachfionn.com)
- Teilifís na Life? (ansionnachfionn.com)
- Cymdeithas Yr Iaith Gymraeg At 50 (ansionnachfionn.com)
- The Empire Strike Back! (ansionnachfionn.com)
- ‘Welsh is a wonderful gift’: speakers of the language relish new support (guardian.co.uk)
- Welsh language commissioner vows to use full extent of powers (walesonline.co.uk)
- Jude Rogers: The Welsh language is too precious to be allowed to disappear (independent.co.uk)