Seanad debates

Wednesday, 9 October 2013

11:50 am

Photo of Martin ConwayMartin Conway (Fine Gael) | Oireachtas source

I move:

“That Seanad Éireann:
- recognises unequivocally Irish Sign Language as the preferred sign language of the deaf community in the State;
- recognises Irish Sign Language as an expression of culture and an instrument for access to education and equal opportunities;
- notes and commends the work of the many State and non-governmental organisations to support and promote the use of Irish Sign Language in the State;
- calls on the Government in partnership with the representatives of the deaf community to develop ideas for improving access to public services by users of Irish Sign Language; and
- calls on the Government to target initiatives which would enhance the effective availability of interpreters and interpretation solutions such as using technology for remote access to services.”.
Tá fáilte roimh an Aire Stáit. It is great to see the Minister of State, Deputy Kathleen Lynch, back among us. She is heartily welcome. I agree with the sentiments the Acting Chairman has just expressed. It is great to welcome members of the Irish deaf community to the Gallery. It is appropriate that the House has organised sign interpretation for this important debate. This is an equality issue. It is about access to information and it is important in terms of how we define ourselves as a nation. Irish Sign Language is a unique language. It is the mechanism used by thousands of deaf people in this country to communicate. It is their language and they are proud of it.

Commitments have been made on the recognition of Irish Sign Language as far back as the Good Friday Agreement. Irish Sign Language was seen as the language of a united Ireland and a language of equality where people from different traditions had a common thread and language that broke down barriers. It was identified by peacemakers in Northern Ireland as a symbol of what could be achieved and the type of country and society to which the people who crafted the Good Friday Agreement aspired. It was a beacon of hope, light, connectivity, equality and inclusiveness and that was the reason Irish Sign Language was part of the Good Friday Agreement. In recent years there have been many campaigns for the recognition of Irish Sign Language. Its promotion and advancement is in the programme for Government.

We have a unique opportunity in Seanad Éireann to unanimously support a motion recognising the importance of Irish Sign Language. That is a crucial and important step in the right direction towards eventual recognition. As an individual and politician I am fully committed to the full recognition of Irish Sign Language.

Other countries have done it successfully and we can learn from their experience. If it is something that will take time then let us start the process. I see this evening as the beginning of a process where a House of the Oireachtas unanimously recognises the importance of Irish Sign Language. Everybody has a right to full access to information. People need to be able to go about their daily lives and communicate with comfort and ease, and with the knowledge that information is not being suppressed in any way and that they have full access to it. Many people speak as Gaeilge and their rights are recognised by the Official Languages Act, which is absolutely appropriate and correct. Irish Sign Language is the method of communication for thousands of deaf people and I firmly believe we need to aspire to its full recognition in Irish legislation.

I commend some of my colleagues who have campaigned on this issue. Senator Mark Daly has prepared an Irish Sign Language Bill and I sincerely hope we can work together in the interests of Irish Sign Language, because while it is a political issue it is not a party political issue. I also commend other colleagues, including Senator Cáit Keane, who has done enormous work with the deaf community over the years. One of her first motions on the Adjournment was on Irish Sign Language.

There is a huge amount of political support for this; we just need to identify the correct mechanism to implement it. If it needs to be done incrementally then so be it. Those campaigning for recognition of Irish Sign Language are, like myself, reasonable. They know the old cliché that Rome was not built in a day, and what they want to see is a pathway to recognition. If there are issues or challenges, or the Civil Service - what we like to call the permanent government - has concerns, let us hear them and let us engage so we can smooth them out and alleviate them.

Today I informed the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Justice, Defence and Equality that this motion, which I sincerely hope will be agreed unanimously, was before Seanad Éireann. I suggested in the event the motion was agreed that the committee would hold a module on the possibility of introducing legislation to facilitate recognition of Irish Sign Language, and that the committee would seek submissions and hold oral hearings with a view to writing a report of recommendations to the Minister on how best to go about it. I hope the committee will examine best international practice and examine where sign language is officially recognised and make recommendations to the Government accordingly.

This country has achieved much with regard to disability, access and equality but this is an area in which we have significantly underachieved. With the capacity legislation which the Minister of State, Deputy Lynch, is bringing through the Houses, Ireland will ratify the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. In advance of ratification I would like to see the spirit of the UN convention being embraced and Irish Sign Language is a fundamental part of the spirit of the UN convention. As a country we should not be looking for best practice internationally when it comes to equality of access to information; we should be setting the standard and this is why the motion is important. With the mandate the Seanad received from the Irish people in the referendum last week, where the people overwhelmingly decided to retain it, it can champion issues such as this, and I certainly intend to do so. This evening's debate will be important with regard to the future of Irish Sign Language and achieving what many in the Gallery want, namely, official recognition. It is my pleasure to propose the motion and I look forward to hearing the debate and the contributions from my colleagues on all sides of the House.


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