Thursday, 8 October 2020
Bille na dTeangacha Oifigiúla (Leasú), 2019: An Dara Céim - Official Languages (Amendment) Bill 2019: Second Stage
I am pleased to have the opportunity to contribute on the Bill. My one regret is that I am unable to use our first language. I envy those who can. Nonetheless, it does not in any way diminish my firm belief that strong measures need to be taken to facilitate greater use of and familiarity with our language and to guarantee our citizens that they can use the medium of Irish when availing of State services. For too long, we as a country - I include myself in this - paid a certain amount of lip service to promoting the use of our language. Legislation guaranteeing citizens a certain level of service through Irish is a positive move.
Among those who have walked the walk and not just paid lip service are the people who have established the more than 250 Gaelscoileanna throughout the country. Establishing any school is a major undertaking. The commitment and determination of those who have driven the establishment of our Gaelscoileanna is admirable. I refer to Aonad Loch Gile, which is in Mercy College, Sligo where I had the privilege of teaching for 20 years. Aonad Loch Gile was established after I left, although do not take that to mean anything. It has been a successful undertaking and contributed much to the language's use in an everyday way. It makes the language accessible to all who want to access it and normalises its use.
An increase number of people either speak the language or want to speak it. That is why we need a comprehensive policy for the teaching of Irish from preschool to third level and beyond. The language must form part of our lifelong learning. People like me who have a basic knowledge of it would then have an opportunity to improve our usage. Scéim na Pobal Gaeilge, which is run by Foras na Gaeilge, is an example of lifelong learning. It is an Irish-in-the-community scheme that involves community development through the Irish language. It reaches people whose formal educational opportunities have probably passed and puts the language at the centre of people's everyday lives. The programme needs extra supports. We also need to develop Irish language centres. They normalise the language's use in our everyday activities.
In the above context, the Bill is relevant. It is about the State providing services to its citizens inside and outside Gaeltachtaí through the medium of Irish. The Bill will help to underpin many of the voluntary and community actions that have been taken to promote the language. It will also recognise the rights of Irish speakers in Gaeltachtaí and elsewhere.
One of the Bill's most important aspects is the need to include timescales for the proposed actions. There will be a 20% recruitment target of Irish speakers in the public service and all public offices that provide public services in Gaeltachtaí will operate through the medium of Irish. The timescale for these measures is 2030. That must be our target delivery date. The Minister will appreciate that the date should be fixed at 2030 just as it is fixed for a reduction in CO2 emissions and that we are determined to reach that point. It should be the date on which all State services from public bodies will be available in Irish to Gaeltacht communities.
It is important that we include the síneadh fada. I spent many years working in Brussels. No self-respecting French speaker would tolerate the idea of the grave, circumflex or any other French accent not being part of French written words. We must ensure that the same is the case in Ireland. It is how it should be. Anything else would simply be inappropriate.
All public forms, be they applications for driver licences, passports, carer's allowance or old age pensions, should be bilingual.
A study conducted by the Coimisinéir Teanga in 2018 illustrated that only 551 out of 21,000 staff working in Departments had sufficient competence in Irish to conduct business through it. The numbers may have changed slightly since, but even if that is the case, they represented only 3% of departmental staff in 2018.
That highlights the need for the provisions in this Bill.
It is proposed that an Irish language statutory advisory committee will be set up to support the work we are discussing. That work will include the publication of a national plan for an increase in the provision of public services through the medium of Irish. This plan is hugely important because it will ensure a systemic, planned and co-ordinated approach. The process must not be open-ended and should include a timeframe for the drafting of the plan.
The Bill provides for a duty on prescribed public bodies to facilitate the use of a person's name, address or title in the Irish language. This includes the patronymic and metronymic forms of a person's name, which are of cultural significance, especially in Gaeltacht areas. The rest of us could learn something from that.
As I said, official forms are required to be published bilingually or in Irish. It is also proposed that when renewing or altering logos, public bodies should ensure that text which forms part of the new or altered logo is in the Irish language or in both Irish and English. The introduction of language standards is essential.
Once the plan that will be produced by the Irish language statutory advisory committee is in place, it should be subject to a yearly review process in this House. It is important that we, as politicians, are able to monitor its progress and implementation. I understand the Minister has proposed to introduce such a review mechanism.
I look forward to a reversal in the budget next week of some of the cuts in funding to Irish language bodies such as Foras na Gaeilge, Conradh na Gaeilge, Glór na nGael, Gael Linn and Údarás na Gaeltachta. Those organisations were seen as low-hanging fruit during the most recent crisis and the cuts imposed on them must be reversed. They have severely impacted job creation efforts in Gaeltacht areas. We know that if there are no employment opportunities in an area, people will not stay there. Increased numbers of people are working from home since the start of the Covid crisis. We do not know whether they will continue to do so or if it will be the case for most of partly working from home and partly in the office. The latter is the more likely outcome. Either way, we have a real opportunity to ensure better employment prospects in Gaeltacht areas. That in itself will have the knock-on effect of promoting the language.
This Bill is a good start in seeking to address the issues, but the most important requirement is that its provisions are actually implemented. I know from speaking to several Irish speakers in recent days that the Bill is welcomed by the Irish-speaking community. However, it must be supplemented by budgetary measures that support the language.
Before I conclude, it is important to mention the important role of TG4, not just in its promotion of the language but also the fact that much of its content is produced in Gaeltacht communities. The same applies to Raidío Rí-Rá. It is not just about using the language but also providing an opportunity for participation and involvement by different communities. It has a hugely powerful effect when people have a sense of the language belonging to them. The Bill is welcome as an indication that the State will play its part in giving legislative support to Irish speakers.