Sinn Féin’s Manifesto Promises On Irish Rights

Sinn Féin has launched its bilingual 2016 election manifesto, to predictable scepticism from the right-wing press, and I’m sure most of you have seen analyses of its contents over the last few days. So I thought I’d focus here on the party’s Irish language policies, contained on page twenty-six of the fifty-six page document.

“The government parties have done immense damage to the Irish language as a living language. Their policies and approach are hostile and their time in office has been synonymous with a lack of stewardship, leadership or support for the language.

The government’s failure to support the Office of An Coimisinéir Teanga forced him to resign and Dearg le Fearg saw tens of thousands take to the streets in support of Irish language rights. The government parties’ hostility to the language was further evidenced by their ill-fated use of Google Translate on the official 1916 Commemorative website in November 2014. They also made severe cuts to the budgets of Údarás na Gaeltachta and Foras na Gaeilge at a time of crisis in the Gaeltacht in terms of falling numbers of Irish language speakers living there. They failed to implement the Irish Language 20 Years Strategy and maintained a derogation of the status of the Irish Language in the EU.

Sinn Féin, by contrast, is dedicated to the restoration of the Irish language as the spoken language among the majority of the people in Ireland and its prominence in a multilingual society.”

The above charges against the Fine Gael and Labour coalition are entirely – and demonstrably – true. The five year administration of Kenny and Gilmore/Burton has been the most antipathetic government to our national language that we have witnessed in decades, and its renewal simply promises more of the same. However, aside from the fine sentiments, what are the actual details of SF’s policies on Irish rights?

Governance

We will ensure a senior cabinet minister has responsibility for Gaeltacht Affairs and the Irish Language and a permanent Joint Oireachtas Committee for Gaeltacht Affairs and the Irish Language to ensure vital political will, which has been absent to date, is injected into the State’s promotion of the language.

We will reinstate elections to the board of Údarás na Gaeltachta.

Funding

We will increase capital funds for Údarás na Gaeltachta, which can be targeted to create new jobs in Gaeltacht communities throughout the State.

We will set up a €2 million capital fund for Irish language centres similar to a fund operating in the Six Counties called An Ciste Infheistíochta Gaeilge, which has helped set up 20 Irish language centres across the north. The fund would allow communities to access money to set up Irish language centres across the 26 Counties.

We will increase funding for Irish language community schemes to support the promotion of the language via community-based projects.

We will provide funding so that every local authority can offer Irish language classes to their employees.

We will examine the cuts made to Mná Tí with a view to reversing them.

Outreach & integration

We will support the GAA in its rollout of Líofa in the 26 Counties to get as many people as possible to speak Irish in as many locations as possible across the State. Líofa is a programme operating in the north, originally set up by Minister Carál Ní Chuilinn, that seeks to increase the number of learners working towards fluency and which includes courses that are free to attend, a monthly newsletter and bursary opportunities.

We will support outreach assistance for parents in Gaeltacht areas and in Irish-medium school catchment areas to encourage parents to use Irish with their children.

We will invest in support mechanisms for Irish language community radio stations commencing with a one-stop-shop offering advice to volunteers engaged in the running of or thinking of setting up a station.

We will proactively pursue the implementation of an increased target of 20% of civil servants being proficient in Irish.

We will support the implementation of the Road Traffic (Amendment) (No. 2) Bill 2015, which provides for parity of the application of Irish on road signage, whereby the font applied as Gaeilge is of equal size to that applied as Béarla.

Education

We will introduce Irish language-medium assistants for second level schools throughout the State.

We will ensure that an Chomhairle um Oideachas Gaeltachta agus Gaelscolaíochta is sufficiently resourced to fulfil its remit to develop primary and secondary school textbooks and resources in Irish.

We will address affordability for working families and the sustainability of the Gaeltacht regions by providing a 20% tax credit, on expenditure incurred of up to €950, by parents for Gaeltacht courses. For children whose parents are not working, Sinn Féin would grant a deduction at source of 20% of fees for those with medical cards.”

While these are quite laudable objectives one wonders where is the long demanded reform of the Official Languages Act of 2003? Where is the ending of the ridiculous “language schemes”, a bureaucratic mechanism to delay or circumvent linguistic equality in the public services? Where is the removal of the artificial restrictions placed on the use of Irish by various government departments? Where is the pledge to bring all state or semi-state bodies under the remit of the legislation – and the Language Commissioner – and to end the exemptions assumed by various anglophone bastions of civil service opposition? Where is the commitment to update the 2003 act so that the Irish language is given primary position in the implementation and use of all publications and all websites by all government departments or agencies? Where is the aim of favouring Irish language forms, documents, names, titles and general nomenclature by the state where practical or possible, and the minimising of English language usage?

From what one can see the only substantial amendments to the legislation proposed by Sinn Féin relate to the font sizes of Irish and anglicised or English names on road and traffic signs (technically a different bill). Of course, if we were like Québec or Catalonia, the English text would be made smaller, indicating that Irish is our national and indigenous tongue, not a foreign speech as shown through its existing minuscule and italicised nature. So what is the proposal on font sizes then but simply another example of isolated cultural tokenism?

Undoubtedly SF has the strongest policies on Irish rights among the larger political parties standing for election this year. Most of its rivals don’t even mention the issue at all (as for bilingual manifestos, forget about it). Given that the rest haven’t even seen the ladder of linguistic equality let alone stepped on it, SF’s place on the bottom rung is perhaps an achievement of sorts. However there is a long way to go yet.

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24 comments

  1. Not much indeed. But if they actually implement these proposals, it would at least be a start. As I wish to live a little longer, I will not be holding my breath.

  2. The Welsh are in the process of moving away from individual bodies each having it’s own agreed Language Scheme, to something more along the lines of overall rights against public and certain other bodies. It might be worth looking at how they’re getting on and what obstacles and problems they’ve run into.

    1. That’s the very thing I had in mind. Québec and Catalonia have moved to the same joined-up policy applicable to all governmental bodies. The “schemes” are simply a ploy for foot-dragging and resistance to change.

  3. We’re (I live in Wales) currently running up against the problem that the English language has recently been declared de facto more equal than Welsh, even in Welsh speaking communities. That was proved by the Cynwyd fiasco recently, which was excellently covered by this blog. Essentially the system seems to be that Welsh speakers can use Welsh to the greatest extent possible depending on the language demographics of the area, provided that the inherent rights of monoglot English speakers to never have to deal with Welsh to the slightest degree are respected. Of course, the idea that the same rights might be extended to Welsh speakers in the Anglicised parts of the country is apparently laughable…

      1. I haven’t given any thought to the wording of a potential referendum question. I suppose at a minimum a referendum would guarantee equality of service for both Irish and English speakers in dealing with state services. After this you would be looking at the same for major public contracts engaged by the State. You may go to guaranteeing a right to education, health, policing in Gaeltacht regions in Irish, or for the whole Country. There would need to be a major educational drive in the media to make even the most basic rights winnable in a referendum.
        As I mentioned above, I haven’t considered a wording or much detail but the concept is interesting in terms of potentially establishing a base line of rights.

        1. The only people who can provide those services in Irish are Irish speakers themselves. If no one wants to speak the language then some cargo-cult laws will not change anything.

          I can’t see how any of those proposals could force ME to learn the Irish language.

          1. You can’t have Irish language rights without forcing English speakers to learn Irish.

            We recognised that in Latvia and that’s why the Russian speakers have no language rights whatsoever and they’re forced to learn the 1st and only state language in order to deal with the state or private businesses.

        2. You think it’s going to be simple but once you begin to try to do this bureaucratically it’s amazing how complicated it quickly becomes. As an example, just dip into this document anywhere from around p.8 onwards …

          http://www.assembly.wales/laid%20documents/sub-ld10115%20-%20the%20welsh%20language%20standards%20%20%28no.%201%29%20regulations%202015%20rheoliadau%20safonau%E2%80%99r%20gymraeg%20%28rhif%201%29%202015/sub-ld10115-e.pdf

          I see from some other blogs that the enforcement notices or whatever they’re called are just starting to go out to some local authorities. I don’t envy the language commissioner, it’s going to be like pulling teeth or getting blood from a stone to get the bureaucrats to change their ingrained habits. Could be quite fun though if and when the excrement finally arrives at the ventilation device 😉

        3. Derek, my suggestion would be the dropping of the existing Official Languages Act of 2003 and using the constitution Article 8. The present wording reads:

          “Article 8:

          8.1 The Irish language as the national language is the first official language.

          8.2 The English language is recognised as a second official language.

          8.3 Provision may, however, be made by law for the exclusive use of either of the said languages for any one or more official purposes, either throughout the State or in any part thereof.”

          The clause in “8.3” is why English is the default language of government, etc. and why the Official Languages Act was brought in. It flatly contradicts the words and intent of “8.1” making Irish the first language.

          So I propose an amendment along the below lines:

          “Article 8:

          “8.1 The Irish language as the national language is the first official language.

          8.2 The English language is recognised as a second official language.

          8.3 Exclusive use shall be made of the national language for all official purposes by the State. However, excluding designated Irish-speaking regions, the State may legislate for the simultaneous use of both official languages for certain defined purposes, though the primacy of the national language must be demonstrated at all times.

          8.4 No citizen may be prevented or inhibited in learning, speaking or conducting their private or public business through the national language anywhere in the State.”

          1. I seem to recall that the Gaeilge text of article 8.2, which is supposed to be definitive, uses the word “eile” which means ‘other’ or ‘additional’ or in this case perhaps ‘auxillary’ rather than ‘second’ (Irish speakers please confirm). This to me implies a considerably lower status for English, that it was simply added in as a (temporary?) convenience rather than as an equal-status alternative.

            I Googled for your constitution and got this page :

            http://www.irishstatutebook.ie/eli/cons/en/html#part2

            The page is in English only and I don’t see a link to the ‘original’ Irish version. Do you? Verily they are extracting the urine here!

            1. A good study of the Irish text and its meaning. Literally:

              “8.1 As/since (the) Irish (language) is / Irish being the national language it is the principal official language.

              8.2 The English tongue is accepted as another official language.

              8.3 But provision may be made by law for either of those two languages to be a single language for any official businesses or business throughout the whole State or in any part of.”

              The Bunreacht in bilingual form.

          2. I like your 8.3 suggestion. The last part of 8.4 relating to private business would not be implementable in the foreseeable future.

          3. Followed your link, Séamas, the do go on a bit don’t they. But as far as I can see it pretty much boils down to what I originally thought, the Irish text is stronger than the English, in that it implies that Irish has primary status with English being accepted (grudgingly, you almost sense?) as a supplementary means of communication. There’s no suggestion that the two ‘tongues’ were ever to be viewed as of equal status.

            The English text then waters this down a bit, almost as if to disguise the possible intent of the Irish.

            But now here’s a dilemma. I’ve always understood that under your legal system, the Irish text of any document took precedent over an English version. However that would I imagine derive from this section of the Constitution. Which I think leaves us chasing our own tails. I.e. Irish has precedence if the Irish text of this section has precedence, which depends … It like some of the best Irish jokes.

            It’s interesting that they suggest the next section, where it says that one or the other language could be granted exclusive use for certain types of business or in certain geographical regions, seems to have been drafted with the possible incorporation of the North into the RoI, i.e. that the official use of Irish might have prevented this.

            Nevertheless this section only applies where the government has made some specific declaration. Does anyone know if they ever did so?

            While this section could be used to establish English-only zones, it could just as well have been employed to set up an Irish-only Gaeltacht. I wonder why that was never done, e.g. back in the day when there were still viable Gaeltachtaí?

            1. You’re pretty much bang on with all those points, Marconatrix. The reason for the creation of the Official Languages Act of 2003 was the worry in government that some smart young lawyer was going to make exactly your point before the Supreme Court. That the Irish language took precedence over the English and that, absence any legislation, the national language must be accommodated in a bilingual system placing it first. Hence the rushed 2003 bill with all its language schemes, caveats and get-out clauses. Article 8.3 was a grave mistake, in retrospect, but one de Valera thought was necessary in the context of reuniting Ireland.

              That is why I favour a constitutional amendment of some sort to clear up the ambiguities between the three clauses.

              The so-called all-party constitutional review group back in the day wanted to make things more explicitly in favour of English and side-line Irish altogether.

              1. I can’t give you section, but I did notice in passing the clause that states, quite reasonably, that any legislation that goes against the constitution shall be invalid. So I don’t really see how the Language Act could fundamentally change the position. All it could do would be to confuse the issue, no doubt it’s true intention?

  4. Higher pay rates, cheaper home loans, job preference – such incentives would push resistant Irish speakers from Bearla to Gaeilge. Otherwise known as positive discrimination. Ultimately diehard anglophones would want these benefits and commence learning and speaking Gaeilge. Those anglophones caught cheating would face criminal charges of defrauding the state. A hard policy, but needed if Bearla is to be pushed out of Éire.

    1. Does anyone really want Béarla pushed out? Language is not an either/or. We can have both but I would like to see an Ireland where you can live your life with either alone if you choose. I think what most people who support the Irish language want is to see some equality and positive policies making the use of the language less prohibitive. Even first language Irish speakers will always greet strangers/shop assistants in English in Dublin because there is still a stigma. Why not use both: ‘Dia dhuit, how are you?’ Then the other can respond in whichever language they want.
      Access to cheap classes for adults would be important too, but from my experience very few people who take up Irish in adulthood succeed in progressing to fluency. It usually tales 3-5 years and costs €2,000-€5,000 in classes etc. — so the same commitment as a Third-level degree, usually without the attached economic incentive. Who, normally, with a job, mortgage/rent and/or family, can manage to do a degree at the same time?
      The real opportunity to speak Irish comes with Irish-language immersion education. The Universities have their Cumánn Gaelach which is important but the key to growing the language is developing Irish-language education and making it possible for school leavers with Irish to continue using it socially and with the State. That would see more users taking it into adulthood. At that point you need Cultúrlanna – cultural centres with cafés where all manner of events take place through Irish or bilingually. This yields connections and networks.

      1. an Ireland where you can live your life with either alone if you choose.
        ————
        That’s not possible unless you totally segregate Irish and English speakers and they don’t communicate with each other at all. Or if both Irish and English speakers use a 3rd language for communication. (Which one would that be? French? German? Spanish?)
        Both options are unrealistic so the country will end up using a common language anyway. And English, unlike Irish is the world’s lingua franca so it would be very stupid to not learn or teach it to your kids and we’re back to the square one – bilingualism in reality would mean that only Irish speakers would speak 2 languages..

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