Thursday, 8 October 2020
Bille na dTeangacha Oifigiúla (Leasú), 2019: An Dara Céim - Official Languages (Amendment) Bill 2019: Second Stage
Tá brón orm nach bhfuil mé ábalta an Ghaeilge a labhairt i rith an contribution seo. I welcome the opportunity to contribute to this debate. We have waited far too long for these proposals to come to the House. The Bill amends the 2003 Act, which has not been fit for purpose for a long time, and attempts to ensure that the Irish-speaking population can engage with the State through Irish.
It is useful to consider how we got here. In 2011, the programme for Government set out the intention of the then Government to review the 2003 Act with a view to ensuring that expenditure in this area was best targeted towards the development of the language and that obligations would be imposed appropriately in response to demands from citizens. In 2014, a public consultation took place on the review of the Act. It identified a significant demand for services through the medium of the Irish language on a par with services provided through the medium of the English language. There was an attempt in 2014 to amend the legislation but it did not come to anything. We recognised then that the existing Act was no good. More than nine years later, in 2020, we are finally amending that outdated legislation. As well as taking a long time to get here, it has been a hard battle to do so. It is welcome that legislative action is being taken at last but it must be implemented with urgency.
Unfortunately, the Bill does not go far enough. I am happy that the Government intends to introduce amendments, but we have not had sight of them. Based on what the Minister said, they still do not go far enough because they do not reflect the emergency that exists in Gaeltacht areas. Once again, the Government is not listening to the people who are directly affected by the legislation in question. The Government has not even listened to the Comhchoiste na Gaeilge, na Gaeltachta agus na nOileán. The members of that committee, during the previous Dáil, travelled around the country to every Gaeltacht area and listened to the people living there, who have a deep understanding of the emergency facing their population. The committee also heard from the Coimisinéir Teanga and all interested stakeholders. On foot of these consultations, it published a unanimous cross-party report in May 2018 that contained 20 practical recommendations. In the report, the Chairman of the committee expressed concerns in regard to the lack of recognition of the emergency in the Gaeltacht and among the Irish-speaking community. That concern is not addressed at all in the Bill and it is clear that the Government did not take account of what the committee had to say. People in Gaeltacht areas relayed to the committee that, unless supported, the Irish-speaking population will be wiped out. We know that the numbers of native Irish speakers are at a critical level. We must start with the recognition that there is an emergency. There should be a strong statement in the Bill that we are in an emergency, just as the climate change and biodiversity emergency is acknowledged in the climate change legislation. An urgent action plan to address this emergency is needed.
Native Irish speakers or people who choose to speak Irish cannot engage or interact with the State in Irish, notwithstanding the recognition in the Constitution that Irish is our first official language. The provision in the Bill of a requirement that, by 2030, 20% of public service employees must be bilingual is to be welcomed as partly addressing that issue. However, it is a cause for alarm that the provision also states that whichever Minister is in charge in 2030 may extend the timeframe for meeting that target. The deadline of 2030 is already too far out but the Minister of the day is to be given the option to push it out further. It seems this Government is going to act on climate change but not on the Irish language emergency. The reality is that people cannot access services through Irish, whether online, by telephone or in person. This was laid bare in the summer during the public consultation process on the mess that is the Forestry (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill 2020. In that case, legislative proposals that will have an impact on great swathes of the Irish-speaking population were not available through Irish.
Another section of the Bill that needs to be addressed is that dealing with the powers of the Coimisinéir Teanga. As it stands, he or she is permitted to act only within the confines of the Official Languages Act. The powers of the Coimisinéir Teanga must be extended beyond that Act to enable him or her to examine other legislation. It is vitally important in this day and age that the Coimisinéir Teanga would be able to examine other legislation enacted by the Oireachtas to see whether it is benefiting the Irish language. After all, Irish is the official language of the State. One would not see a similar situation in any other country. Similar to the way in which we poverty-proof and gender-proof legislation, the Coimisinéir Teanga must have the power to ensure legislation recognises the Irish language emergency that exists and either helps to address it or at least does no further harm. That is the least that is required.
I welcome the introduction of this Bill but the reality is that it simply does not go far enough. I look forward to further discussions on Committee Stage when we will put forward amendments to make the Bill work effectively.