30 March 2006

Daily Ireland Editorial: Language pledges ignored for decades

Editor: Colin O’Carroll

In his second annual report An Coimisinéar Teanga has (Commissioner for the Irish Language) exposed a serious gap between what the government promises on the promotion of Irish and what it actually delivers.
According to the report, launched yesterday in Galway, half of all government departments have, for three decades, ignored clear pledges that civil servants skilled in Irish would have their ability to conduct business in Irish given proper recognition — by the awarding of points — in any promotion process.
This concession to the first national language was made in the early ‘70s when the government of the day did away with the requirement of all civil servants to speak Irish.
“Focal mór agus drochchur leis” as the Irish has it; empty promises. In fact, the new system was never properly implemented by half of all government departments for a generation. In one department alone, it appears that the percentage of Irish speakers has plunged in 30 years from 100 per cent to three per cent.
Fortunately, Ireland is now emerging from that bleak era when flying by the seat of the pants passed for government policy on the Irish language.
An Ghaeilge now enjoys stronger legal protection — including the post of An Coimisinéar Teanga — than at any time since the foundation of the Free State. More importantly, the increasingly sophisticated official attitude to Irish is being mirrored by a rising tide of support for the language across the country.
Key to that seachange in the fortunes of the Irish language has been the exposure of Irish people to European cultures where bilingualism and multilingualism are seen as the sure sign of a successful society.
In the past five years, Ireland, north and south, has been playing catch-up with the Welsh, the Basques, the Finns, the Catalans and the Belgians who carry their bilingualism with consummate style and ease.
An Coimisinéar Teanga, as effective Ombudsman for the Irish language, has played a key role in that progression but he can only continue to do so if his reports are followed by swift remedial action by those singled out for criticism. Action by the British to introduce a language act in the benighted Six Counties would enable the Commissioner, as with the cross-border Irish language body, Foras na Gaeilge, to extend his remit to the areas where his interventions are sorley needed.
There was time, pre-TG4 and Éamon Ó Cuív’s Official Languages Act, that Irish was seen as backward and atavistic by the powers-that-be in the Irish civil service but today those adjectives would more likely to be applied to the backwoodsmen in the Department of Transport who claim that the driving test can be taken in either official language — but who haven’t published the Rules of the Road in Irish since 1993!

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