Thursday, 8 October 2020
Bille na dTeangacha Oifigiúla (Leasú), 2019: An Dara Céim - Official Languages (Amendment) Bill 2019: Second Stage
I begin by apologising for not making my contribution in the language that we are gathered here to protect. It is an issue of which I am conscious, and I have committed to improving my Irish language ability. It will be a great honour to be able to stand up in this House and address Ministers with more confidence. I will be doing that in the weeks and months ahead.
I am going to speak about the Bill and comment on some potential issues, topics and concerns that have been raised by members of the Irish language community, with whom I have engaged, and the Social Democrats' WhatsApp group as Gaeilge, which has welcomed me into its forum in recent days. I also hope to raise various issues when we discuss amendments on Committee Stage.
It is great that 2030 has been set as the target date for increasing to 20% the proportion of recruits who are competent in Irish. The provision for a review in 2028 and the power being given to the Minister to extend the deadline beyond 2030 will have to be examined and it is likely these provisions will need to be amended.
The Minister with direct responsibility should not be able to give him or herself an extension. It should absolutely be the Dáil or an independent person or body that takes the decision.
As with the Welsh Language Commissioner and the Ombudsman for Children in Ireland, the Coimisinéir Teanga should examine all proposed legislation relating to the Irish language and any public strategy relating to the promotion of the official language, that is, the 20-year strategy for the Irish language. Further duties for the Coimisinéir Teanga need to be included in the Bill such as, for example, giving the Coimisinéir Teanga a role in examining Government Bills and policies and in making observations regarding the Irish language and Gaeltacht matters, which may head off any problems arising after the enactment of legislation or Government policy. This proposed role for the Coimisinéir Teanga reflects a similar duty to that of the Welsh Language Commissioner in Wales.
All functions delegated by public bodies in contracts to other bodies should automatically come within the ambit of the legislation, including the Dublinbikes scheme, the Go-Ahead bus services etc. The comparison that was made to me when I spoke to the Irish language community was with Irish Water. I do not know anybody who refers to it as Uisce Éireann. The idea of having a sole body's name be in the Irish language is important. Bodies such as An Post should not be able to avoid the obligations of section 9 of the current Act regarding marketing materials made available to the public because their duties under the Official Languages Act 2003 were not sufficiently clear. If a public body or Department contacts the public in any way, that contact should be made bilingually or in Irish only and current exceptions should not be allowed.
A requirement for a specific level of advertising should be included in the Bill. Deputy Duncan Smith has already raised the issue of the Covid restrictions, guidelines and warnings only appearing in the English language. It is a particular source of annoyance to the Irish language community and is something that we need to address, possibly as a matter of urgency as the pandemic continues. Anyone working in the Civil Service should have the same right to do their business with the State through Irish. For example, the promotions process, the staff assessment process, internal correspondence for staff and so on should be made available in Irish for the Civil Service. Employees should not be prohibited from using Irish in the workplace for no good reason. This is an example of effective language planning in the wrong direction which needs to be banned if we are to increase the use of Irish in society. Some issues have been raised with me about people in the hospitality industry who were reprimanded for use of the Irish language when engaging with customers, back when we had a hospitality industry. That needs to be protected and enhanced, and anybody who engages with the language in their place of work should be protected.
The commissioner and the public should be given a role relating to the enactment of the legislation, in line with the injunction mechanism under the planning Acts, given the strong public dimension relating to language legislation. In the event that a public body refuses to comply with any provision of this Bill in accordance with any provision or regulations made pursuant to this Bill, the High Court may, at the request of the commissioner or any other person, whether or not that person has a particular interest in such default or refusal, require any public body, by order, to do anything in accordance with any provision of this legislation or in accordance with any provision in regulations made pursuant to the legislation, which is not, in the opinion of the court, necessary and specified in the order.
As was already raised, the warning on alcoholic drinks should be given bilingually, as it is in other bilingual countries. When this issue was raised in the past, it was noted that this may be in contravention to a European directive. This would not actually be the case. If one looks at cigarette packaging where the warnings are bilingual, those act as a template of how we could move this forward.
As it is ensured that women and men are well-represented on State boards, there should certainly also be representation for Irish speakers on such boards.
Irish should have equal status with English on Ireland's road signs. This is done in Wales, Scotland and in other countries with more than one official language. The current Tánaiste, when he was Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, supported the recommendation. No one is talking about changing the signs overnight, only as they need to be renewed or as new ones need to be supplied. It should be taken into account that research conducted by Conradh na Gaeilge, with a report prepared by the expert, Garrett Reil, shows that the current road signage system is defective and dangerous, especially as drivers get older. This presents an opportunity to change it and make it bilingual.
Section 18B, which is inserted to the principal Act by section 6, on the Irish language services advisory committee, advises that only member is to be nominated by the Minister as a representative of a Gaeltacht area, yet the rest will represent Departments. In my opinion and the opinion of those with whom I have engaged in this regard, this proposal acts as tokenism, even by typical Irish language community expectations, and to have it at the bottom of the list shows the communities that this consideration and planning is as if it is a task that needs to be done for its own sake and not for the benefit of any community or people. Instead, there should be clear representation from at least three of the main Gaeltacht areas, including Donegal, Galway and Kerry, for example, and at least one of the four urban Gaeltacht and emerging communities. I specifically refer to Clondalkin, which has done incredible work to promote its Gaeltacht in recent years.
With regard to Gaeltacht service towns and Irish language networks, this Bill, despite its amendments, is too passive. It places little or no obligation or incentive on public bodies to improve their capacity for bilingual services unless they happen to be in already vulnerable Gaeltacht zones. To boost the language, these service towns must be encouraged further to become bilingual for the nearby Gaeltacht communities and local second language communities.
The proposed new section 19C is a derogation from language standards. It is open to abuse from bodies which may not wish to engage with any new language standards and seek instead to opt out through whichever excuse they may find. There is an equal suspicion being shared with regard to the amendment of section 12 of the Juries Act 1976, which removes references to both languages and court summonses. A question was asked about why that is being done but Deputy Chambers addressed that in his contribution. I look forward to seeing that be catered for.
I will leave my contribution there and look forward to engaging with the process as it continues.