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?
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.
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.
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.