Dáil debates

Thursday, 8 October 2020

Bille na dTeangacha Oifigiúla (Leasú), 2019: An Dara Céim - Official Languages (Amendment) Bill 2019: Second Stage


3:15 pm

Matt Shanahan (Waterford, Independent) | Oireachtas source

B'fhearr liom caint as Béarla. I recently shared a post on social media not because this debate was coming up but, rather, because it struck a chord with me. The post in question was probably not written with Ireland in mind but it speaks to a hard truth and the responsibility on present and future Irish generations to act. The post I circulated states:

Speak your native language to your children or watch it die within the next 20 years! Looking down on your relatives or friends who speak your native tongue because you speak perfect English is stupid - it is like being proud of borrowed clothes!

As we contemplate Brexit and the need for our exporters to look to new market opportunities on the European mainland and beyond, we rarely consider language to be a significant barrier. We have come to expect that customers in those countries will have a reasonable proficiency in speaking English. It rarely impacts on our thought processes that English is not their mother tongue but, rather, was taught to them as part of their early school learning. How is it that so many people from Finland, Germany, Holland and Sweden to name but a few can engage in conversation in English, often flawlessly, despite it being a second language for them? Many of them also speak a third language with equal ability. How is it that even though our children begin learning Irish from national school age and on into secondary school, so many pupils graduate without the ability to carry on even an informal conversation in Irish after 14 years of education? Many students who decide to opt for another language in secondary school, such as French, German or Spanish, leave school with far greater proficiency in that language after five or six years of study than they have in Irish, which they have been taught for 14 years. As part of new technology sector developments, Irish students are being encouraged to learn Chinese. It is a sad fact that many of those who do so will develop greater ability to communicate in that language than in their cultural mother tongue.

I accept that the aspiration of the Bill is to increase access for those who wish to engage with public sector services through the medium of Irish. I acknowledge that implementation of the steps contained in the Bill may be a positive development in improving frequency and some fluency in Irish-language usage in public service communications, but those steps alone will not be enough to secure Gaeilge as a contemporary used language in Ireland into the future. In our current battle with Covid, there may be consideration of a circuit breaker announcement, that being a deliberate step-change initiated by the Government and designed to completely reset the parameters of dealing with Covid transmission in this country. If we are serious about preserving this mother tongue, such an action is now required to reset and redefine our national attitude and the value we place on our national language.

As Irish people, we often take pride in the international recognition of our venerated names, our culture and our traditions, yet we often fail to associate that cultural development with the Irish language or acknowledge that it was largely communicated and facilitated through the medium of our Gaelic language. Our inability to secure Irish as a working requisite language in this country is because of its deliberate downgrading within the outlines of what constitutes national identity and its modern dissociation with brand Ireland. In the Ireland of 2020, a large proportion of citizens speak English as their mother tongue. We consider ourselves intrinsically different from the rest of Europe even though many of us cannot carry on a conversation in the language of our forebears. Such a situation would be laughed at in France, Germany, Finland, Sweden and many other countries I could mention. Our country requires an Irish language circuit breaker moment. Although the Bill is welcome, it will not provide such a moment.

To preserve Irish as a working language, we need a new national debate on how we value the language, the way in which it is taught in our schools and how we can integrate it into daily use so as to defend our Gaelic culture and traditions and so that we can message widely that we continue to retain a unique history, perspective and identity. In truth, to achieve such a goal, the Government might need to announce legislation outlawing and custodial sentences penalising the teaching or speaking of Irish, in light of the fact that throughout our long history it has often been the case that we only value something when there is a threat that others may take it away.

As an interim step in securing the use of our native language, I welcome the Bill. I see it as a bulwark to the erosion and loss of our ability to converse in our mother tongue. The Bill provides for an objective of 20% of recruits to the public service being competent in Irish, which I welcome. It also provides for the introduction of language standards in place of language schemes, a national plan for the provision of Irish language services and the adaption of public bodies' ICT systems to accommodate the representation of a person's name as Gaeilge. I welcome the proposed establishment of an Irish language services advisory committee to oversee the drafting of a national plan for the provision of public services through Irish, which will set strategies for public bodies to increase the provision of services through Irish and increase the number of staff who are competent in Irish. However, I question the fact that there is to be only one member nominated by the Minister as a representative of the Gaeltacht area. That is hardly the level of representation our Irish language speakers need and it does not convey to me the appropriate level of engagement or commitment by the Government to the issue of Irish people being able to communicate effectively as Gaeilge with public institutions and with one another.

As Ireland moves to being a more multicultural society, we must embrace the challenges that brings, but also capitalise on the opportunities. We have a unique and proud history, unparalleled impact on world affairs given our small size and a diaspora that spans the globe and is counted in millions. Our Irish language is a natural resource unique in the world, a resource that we have cultivated like our landscape. We must honour and protect it but in order to do so, we must use it. In using it, we must emphasise that it is the unique characteristic that an Irish person can carry abroad as a beacon of nationality and use at home as an anchor to a proud and cultured tradition. Tír gan teanga, tír gan anam.


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