Thursday, 8 October 2020
Bille na dTeangacha Oifigiúla (Leasú), 2019: An Dara Céim - Official Languages (Amendment) Bill 2019: Second Stage
The Irish language has been spoken on this island since some time in the first millennium BC. It was the primary vernacular until the late 18th century but then experienced a collapse in its population of native speakers, particularly in the second half of the 19th century. Support for the use of the Irish language has consistently been a stated aim of the State since its establishment.
However, the most recent research makes it clear that on current trends, use of the Irish language as the primary community language, that is, the normal language of discourse in the range of everyday interaction settings in the Gaeltacht, will not continue beyond 2025. By contrast, there has been a consistent growth in the number of Irish speakers in the State overall. However, despite this growth, the population of active speakers, daily and weekly speakers outside the education system and outside the Gaeltacht, has not reached what might be regarded as a relatively significant population density, being less than 5% in all but a small number of electoral districts.
Based on a range of surveys conducted over recent years, support for the Irish language retains broad public support. It also enjoys significant constitutional protection as the national and first official language, as well as having become a working language in the European Union in 2007. The United Nations has recognised language rights as a component of human rights. Finally, evidence of the potential benefits of bilingualism have been growing since the 1960s. An increasing body of research suggests that bilingual populations may enjoy significant cognitive and health advantages over monolingual ones.
I welcome the fact that this Bill is finally coming before the Dáil. It is long overdue. The Official Languages (Amendment) Bill is an important element of development and sustaining a stronger and more fit-for-purpose language Act.
Three areas must be delivered as part of this Bill. The fragile state of Irish in Gaeltacht areas is evident in the census results and in various pieces of research in recent years. It is, therefore, vital that the provisions of public services through Irish in the Gaeltacht is placed on a statutory footing and that the language rights of the Gaeltacht community should be underpinned by the legislation. Unfortunately, at this stage, the Bill appears to contain no firm provisions placing a duty upon the State to ensure that the Gaeltacht community is served in its native language. This is a point which has been highlighted repeatedly by the Irish Language Commissioner.
I support the recommendation that a national statutory plan for the provision of public services through Irish be prepared and that new recruitment policies and practices should be an integral part of this plan. However, I am concerned that external experts and the public are not adequately represented on the advisory committee to be established under the amended Act to prepare the implementation plan. I am also concerned that there is no stated deadline for the publication of the plan and that there is no statutory obligation to implement any agreed plan.
One of the main provisions of the Bill is the proposal to replace the language schemes system with a system of language standards. This is a worthwhile proposal, but it is difficult to judge the possible impact of this change without sight of the draft standards. I believe that the timely production of these draft standards would greatly benefit the process of assessing the Bill. Can the Minister of State clarify today whether these draft standards have, in fact, been published, as I have been unable to obtain them to date?
It would be remiss of me not to mention Cape Clear Island, one of the eight islands in my constituency in west Cork. They have been speaking fluent Irish and promoting the Irish language on the island for many years. I commend each and every person on Cape Clear who, I suppose, has gone against the trend. It has been a massive promotion for tourism in the area, with people attending courses and whatever there. In fairness to the people of Cape Clear, they have made such a Trojan effort to keep the Irish language alive. It is an eye-opener for the rest of the constituency in Cork South-West and something that I commend greatly. I commend each and every person on that island for doing so.