Friday, December 30, 2011

But past is all his fame....

"....And still they gazed, and still the wonder grew
That one small head could carry all he knew.
But past is all his fame. The very spot
Where many a time he triumphed is forgot...."

The truth seems to be sinking in of the impact of the Government's anti-rural (and anti-Gaeltacht if not anti-Irish) policies. The implications of our last piece on the eminent closure of an historic Gaeltacht school in Donegal is beginning to be reflected in the English speaking press at last.

Yesterday's Connaught Tribune paper highlights the impact in an article which points out that half the county's schools are earmarked for closure.

The list of schools in our small remaining Gaeltacht areas perhaps show the devastation - not to say cost - this short-sighted and ill-considered policy will cause!
Múscraí in Cork will close two out of six.
The Kerry Gaeltacht will loose 13 of 14 schools
Galway Gaeltacht (Conamara)  is to loose 22 out of 41.
The Mayo Gaeltacht will loose 21 out of 24.
The Donegal Gaeltacht 28 schools are in danger while in Rinn (Ring) 2 of their 3 schools will close.
Almost 50% of all Gaeltacht Schools with their rich heritage and influence in fostering communities will be lost never to return. In a word we are talking about the death of the Gaeltacht, a policy which 800 years of conquest failed to complete and which now our own government hastens towards!
 In an article in yesterday's Irish Times, Seán Cottrel tries to understand the policy of the Department of Education in this regard, "It is regrettable that the Department of Education and Skills considers our network of rural schools superfluous and financially unviable." It goes on to say that  "recent research by Jim Spinks, research fellow at Melbourne University on behalf of the Irish Primary Principals’ Network, shows that schools with four teachers or fewer are as financially viable as medium-sized schools with between eight and 15 teachers."

More frighteningly the author states "More importantly, there is no educational argument to back up the Government’s case to close small schools." 

The argument continues along the lines that we have read in the Irish Language media about Gaeltacht Schools. "This goes to the heart of our identity as a nation and a community and to the high standards we have set ourselves as educators and parents."

Even from an economic viewpoint it does not appear to make much sense as the expansion of the larger schools will require larger facilities while the often excellent facilities in the small local schools financed in many cases by the community albeit supported by state funding.

He concludes the argument more clearly and more sharply than perhaps I have seen in the Irish media. "The blunt instrument of pupil numbers as the sole measure for determining the continued existence of a school is clearly limited. In my view, good policy and savings are more likely to emerge from the evidence provided by good practice than a knee-jerk reaction to the clamour for austerity measures."

Perhaps we need another Goldsmith to visit and chronicle many new Auburns! Or will we despite the hostility of the powers that be "Reprieve the tottering mansion from its fall?"

Monday, December 12, 2011

90% of Gaeltacht schools to close!

Schools with one to four teachers with less than 86 pupils are to be reviewed, according to new guidelines from the Minister for Education, Ruairí Quinn. These schools are being asked to look at their amalgamation options also.

Senator Fidelma Healy Eames is asking questions of the Education Minister: Some small rural schools are being put in immediate jeopardy by staffing cuts (Irish Times 26/1/2011)
There is little if any real indication of any consideration, still less consultation on the part of government of the importance that these small schools in the community or of the standard of education and learning the impart.

"This could mean that up to 90% of Gaeltacht schools could be amalgamated or closed. In the Gaeltacht areas that is 26 schools from 41 in Galway, 21 out of 24 in Mayo, in Donegal 31 from 42, in Waterford 2 from 3, 13 out of 14 in Kerry and three out of six in Cork. That is 96 0ut of 110 Gaeltacht schools in total", according to Senator Trevor Ó Clochartaigh.

School closed by Government: "Parents are devastated!"
An example of this is the 100 year old school near Loch an Iubhair in the Donegal Gaeltacht despite the fact that the Junior Minister for the Gaeltacht, Dinny McGinley in attending the celebrations at the end of October could see no reason why the school coild not continues its good work for another 100 years. An Irish Times report quotes one of the parents as saying “He was full of praise for the school and spoke very favourably about its ethos and said he hoped it will remain open for another 100 years. And now we are told by the Department of Education that we are to close at the end of this school year.” To add insult to injury the principal of this Gaeltacht school was informed by the Department by letter in English. The school principal according to a local newspaper said: "Parents are devastated! This is a great small school and our ambition was to grow it rather than to close it." This particular school had the eminent writer Seamus Ó Grianna (Máire).

These decisions will alter the delivery of primary education in rural Ireland completely it look as if only facile and possibly pseudo economic criteria are being used rather than the the possible implications this will have on pupils, teachers, the community and on societal and true economic factors.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

We have until 31st January 2012

The rain was coming down in sheets last Friday in Galway city. The Pillo Hotel was the venue for a meeting called to discuss the policy - or apparant lack of policy - of the Irish government with regard to the Irish speaking people and the ever-shrinking districts in which Irish is the vernacular language.

Despite the inclement weather more that eighty people gathered to discuss the matter.

So who were they?
The were represented of some of the language movements as one would expect. However it also included representatives of community organisations and co-operatives from Irish speaking areas as well as un-aligned individuals. People came to this meeting from Gaeltacht areas in Ulster, Munster. Leinster and of course Connacht. 

What says the Dictionary!
merge [murj] merged, merg·ing.
verb (used with object)
1. to cause to combine or coalesce; unite.
2. to combine, blend, or unite gradually so as to blur the individuality or individual identity of: They voted to merge the two branch offices into a single unit.
Why did the gather?
Well the immediate worry of those present was the unexpected and catastrophic decision of the Government on 17th October 2011 as part of Goverenment's Public Service Reform Decision to:
"Merge functions of Language Commissioner with Ombudsman Office. To be progressed in the context of the ongoing review of the Official Languages Act 2003."

The predominent feeling of the meeting was shock, surprise, anger and frustration that a government decision like this was taken without consulation, as far as can be ascertained, with anybody who was directly concerned. The Ombusdman herself or the Coimisinéir Teanga himself were not consulted it was reported. Surprise was also expressed in the fact that this is a decision taken before the Review of the Language Act which was announced by the Junior Minister at the Department of the Gaeltacht a mere fourteen days previously. Nobody present could understand the logic of such a decision. (See also our blog: Developing language policy by hunch! 19/11/2011)

The meeting was chaired by Éamonn Mac Niallas from Guth na Gaeltachta, a recently founded organisation set up to inform  areas which still mantain Irish as the vernacular of the effect of Government thinking and policy on their lives and livelyhoods. Commenting on the decision he said "It is amazing that such a decision has been taken at the very beginning of the implementation of the Government's 20 Year Strategy for the Irish Language 2010 - 2030. This decision makes absolutely no sense at all, and the Irish language community will now be very sceptical that this Government in any way serious about strategically planning for the Irish language community. What message does this give the Civil Service, a service Irish speakers have been trying to access their rights from for years now? What this is saying to them is that this independent office is not important and as such, that it is not important to implement the Languages Act."

The Coimisinéir and the Review!
"He said that the public were being afforded an historic opportunity between now and 31 January 2012 to put proposals to the Department to ensure the provision of an Act fit for purpose which serves the wishes of the Irish language community in an appropriate manner and which gives meaning to the constitutional provision that Irish is the first official language as it is the national language."

The Secretary General of Conradh na Gaeilge, Julian de Spáinn, first made a presentation on this and other decisions which affect the operation of the Act and on the previously announced review. When the review was first announced it was welcomed by and large by the Irish language and Gaeltacht community organisations organisations as an wonderful opportunity to improve the language act. It was a chance they thought to revise those parts which were impractical and strengthen those parts which were effective. Later when they saw the survey questionnaire there was some disappointment in how negative it appeared to be. However be that as it may he pointed out that the Department did say that they would welcome additional representations independently of the questionnaire and indeed the Comisinéir himself had submitted a 15 page Commentary on the practical application and operation of provisions of that Act last July (see here!).

The change of the name of Dingle was at the behest of some of the people of the town who felt that visitor to the area were incapable of making the adaption - something that doesn't appear to have occured to those who changed names of the Indian city's of Mumbai (Bombay) or Chennai (Madras) and indeed inexplicably there appeares to have been no movement to change road-signs in Italy to Florence/Firenze
Watering down!
The Language Act has in fact already been altered since its enactment. The first change was in the relatively minor though emotional matter of the name-change of the town of Dingle-Daingin Uí Chúis from the more usual "An Daingin."

The second was a more serious change in that it permitted the enactment of an act of the Oireachtas in one or other of the "national languages," instead of as the act required in both languages. This was a de facto a diminution of the status of the language, something that the Act was supposed to protect. Indeed all political parties in the Dáil and Seanad claim to wish to protect and enhance the status of Irish.

The decision to merge the office of the Coimisinéir Teanga with that of the Ombudsman diminishes that status drastically. When asked to defend this decision the Junior Minister charged with responsibility for the Gaeltacht had several interesting things to say.

The decision with regard to the Comisinéir Teanga is not the only one in this documnent to defy logic. Fintan O'Toole, the Irish Times columnist with whom this blogger does not often agree, has pointed out some of these strange decisions in several articles.
• Never mind slashed budgets: mindless mergers are the arts' big problem (3/12/2011)

See also letter response in IT 6/12/2011: Financial cutbacks in culture sector!
• Want to hear about a daft idea that deserves to be shelved? (19/11/2011)
Firstly he said that other ombudsman- like offices were to be merged with the Ombudsman Office. On the serface this seems true enough? However on closer examination there seem to be differences in emphasis: "Merge Commission on Public Service Appointments with Ombudsman Office "  seems straightforward enough but "Merge back-office functions of the Office of the Ombudsman for Children into the Ombudsman/Information Commissioner’s Office," seems to mantain the independance of the actual Childrens' Ombudsman; "Office of the Data Protection Commissioner: Amalgamate with the Office of the Ombudsman," seems a strange amalgamation in this day and age. However there seems to be no plan to merge the Garda Ombudsman Commission or the Financial Services Ombudsman although the  Pensions Ombudsman is to merge with the Financial Services Ombudsman. Where is the logic of these different decisions?

We must bear in mind that the reform's outlined in Howlin's document accepted and decided at Cabinet were largly economic. "We will relentlessly focus on delivering better value for money through the implementation of Public Service Reform," it says. However in response to a question in the Dáil Junior Minister Dinny McGinley said "Perhaps when this is finished it will cost more!..." (B’fhéidir, nuair a bheadh an deireadh thart go gcosnóidh sé níos mó....).

This final comment was greeted with some incredulity by the meeting.

What to do!

One of the possible things discussed was a boycott of the Review of the Act, instigated by the Department. However it was felt that this would perhaps feed the hostile intentions aimed at watering down the powers of the Act further. The most effective means of influencing the onward progress of the language status was to engage in the process. Éamon Ó Cuív, who as Minister painstakingly steered this act through the Oireachtas, suggested that personal contact with the local representative, TD, Senator and Councillor was far more effective that sending an email. There are so many emails now being sent to these representatives as to render them practically ineffective. Trevor Ó Clochartaigh was also present at the meeting and spoke strongly in favour of maintaining the independence of the office of the Coimisinéir Teanga. We did not hear or see any representatives of the Government party though I think there were some messages apologising for not been present.

The survey itself was felt to be written is a way which suggested preferred answers perhaps aimed at weakening the act.  It seems to be aimed at people who regularly use, or have regular contact with state services. However careful consideration of each of the questions and how one might use the services in the future should help in completing it usefully. A paper was distributed at the meeting which helped in understanding how to answer the questions.

The Conradh has made some  suggestions for additional points:

• That public companies have a statutory duty to provide their services in the Gaeltacht in an equal measure as provided in English in other areas. This national demand for service in Irish should also be fostered pro-actively throughout the country as an equal choice with that service in English.
• That the complexity of the services provided through language schemes to date be eased and a new system with a standard based on statutory regulations be developed
• Statutary languge regulations be clarified with bodies employed by public bodies acting on their behalf providing services to the public.

The most important thing was however to complete the survey and also to submit any additional suggestions thought to be of importance. (You might think that some of those from the Comisinéir Teanga worth emphasising here or those suggested above by the Conradh.) The form may be completed in Irish too. The form may be completed electronically in Irish or in English.

The meeting ended almost on-time, unusual in this correspondents experience, and when we emerged from the hotel the rain was still dancing on the early evening streets of Galway reflecting  the first lights of Christmas glimmering in the pools of water on the pavements.