Thursday, March 28, 2013

Voices silenced!

Is the future of Irish what we think or expect?

I never heard of James McCloskey until the week before last when somebody mentioned that I should read a book by him. This person said that they would look it up for me and did so and bravely lent it to me. I must remember to return it!

This is a book, or perhaps one could call it a pamphlet, the author calls it an essay, for it tells its story in a mere 50 pages in either Irish or English. It is called "Voices Silenced - Has Irish a future?" and the note on the fly-leaf calls it "A timely examination of the current state of the Irish Language. The author's appreciation of Irish as a world language, of its linguistic and ecological importance, makes for challenging read." And so it is! (A Kindle version is available through Amazon!)

"..the mysterious and magical ability of a
child to make a language out of nothing..."
Having read it through I must say I found it strangely liberating for it put forward views on language and linguistics that I, as a layman who has thought about the "language question" a lot, certainly hadn't known before.  The incredible linguistic ingenuity of pre-teen children was something I hadn't realised. He talks about the responsibility of those who, like me, have the ability to use this language, to encourage and enrich it not for our "nation" but for mankind.

Both sides of the argument so-called "Irish Language enthusiasts" and those opposed to them have essentially a superficial appearance of profound disagreement, based he maintains based on insular indeed arrogant arguments. Fundamentally "behind the surface acrimony lurks a silent consensus...largely taken for granted and hidden from critical scrutiny," and, says the author, "largely mistaken!"

He starts off by talking of the appalling situation in the world of the 21st century, of the estimated 6,800 distinguishable languages in the world in 2001 and estimated 50% are now moribund - spoken by a relatively small number of adults and not being learned by children. If this statistic is correct than half of the languages will be extinct in the very near future. (Here is one of them which expired in February 2013.) This can happen quite suddenly and he cites examples where this has happened in a space of twenty years.

He discusses the inimical effect of the great world languages of European conquest, Spanish, English, French and the use of their languages in suppression of the languages of the conquered. This results in a frightening impoverishment of the world experience for when a language goes so does an "encyclopedia of histories, mythologies, jokes, songs, philosophies, riddles, superstitions, games, sciences, hagiographies - the whole cumulitive effort of a people over centuries to understand the circumstances of its own existance!" He goes on to say that "the corresponding narrowness of the world-views that remain is equally frightening!"

The fact that this is happening is not contested anywhere though the reasons, the speed with which it is happening, and what should be done about it, are all argued about. Yet there is more of a fuss created over the possible extinction of certain species of animal than there is about this uniquely human gift, the gift of language and what it contains. He discusses why this should be.

Let's celebrate!
Having frightened the life out of us he then goes on to look at the situation here. He is by no means pessimistic although he does recognise that there is a "problem." Looking at the facts he says that there is little chance of Irish becoming moribund in the technical sense in the next 100 years. Furthermore he says that "Claims occasionally and casually made that Irish is already dead border on the irrational."

He then proceeds to examine what is in fact happening, in the Gaeltacht areas, the new Gaeltacht in Belfast, and what I suppose one could call "occasional" Gaeltacht communities in other cities and the Irish medium schools and colleges and come up with refreshing views. Looking back at what has happened since Conradh na Gaeilge was founded in 1893 he says that what has been achieved is very substantial, very unusual and indeed unique. It is something to be celebrated, albeit soberly as it is constructed on a delicate and shifting foundation.

I would love to give this book to several bêtes noires of the "Irish Language lobby." Notably certain contributors to Independent Newspapers and the entire staff of Prime Time would, I feel, benefit from a perusal of these 50 pages provided they looked at them with an open mind. But also many people in this same "Irish Language Lobby" would benefit from it. It might perhaps help them change the focus of what they are aiming for and to look at the language, and all languages spoken in Ireland, from a different viewpoint, a viewpoint that looks at language as a world treasure, a unique repository of humanity's experience and invention. It would, I feel, lead perhaps to a less virulent and more fruitful discussion.

I would like every Government Minister, especially the Ministers for the Gaeltacht and Education, every TD and Senator to beg borrow or steal a copy of this book. It gives a different, and for this reader, an exciting way of looking at our language, our children, the ecology and our civilisation.

This book is an easy way for us to better understand what is happening and also to decide what is important and what is not as our language progresses into the future.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Handcuffed for speaking Irish!

“2012 was not a vintage year for the promotion of the Irish language in the public sector, and for every one step forward there appeared to have been two steps backwards,” 

In the annual report for 2012 of Seán Ó Cuirreáin, An Coimisinéir Teanga, published this morning (and available here on the wbsite),  we learn of an incredible event in Dublin city where a citizen in his own country was detained by force, handcuffed and escorted to a station for nothing less than exercising his constitutional right to be dealt with in his own language.  The Coimisinéir states, "The person detained in the case was not involved in an accident nor were there any allegations made concerning speeding or driving under the influence of alcohol." Apparently the driver, who was stopped by the Guards in relation to a road traffic matter, found him/herself arrested and escorted in handcuffs to a Garda station and was detained until a Garda was found who could deal with him through Irish. 

The Comisinéir's report says:
    The complainant said that the experience left him “shamed and insulted and I was told several times that I did not have a right to conduct business through Irish, that I should desist and that I would not have been arrested if I hadn’t spoken in Irish. It was approximately one hour from the time of my arrest to my release but I felt under threat and nervous all the time. I am convinced that I was arrested for speaking Irish and for that reason alone. Their excuse was that I was refusing to give them my licence but that was not true at all. I am very disappointed, angry and upset about what happened and about the lack of respect and the infringement of my rights…” (trans.)
Irish is a foreign language!
As a result of the intervention by the Coimsinéir Teanga  Senior management at An Garda Síochána are organising an overhaul of procedures for dealing with the public through Irish. He noted that notwithstanding the constitutional status of Irish, it was clear that Irish speakers were dealt with as if they were speakers of a foreign language. The discourse during the investigation placed “using Irish” and “dealing with foreign nationals” in the same space, he said.

He was struck during the investigation by the fact that Gardaí who had received their education within this country’s schools system and had finished their training in Templemore some short years previously had insufficient command of Irish to ask a driver when stopped at the roadside “Cad is ainm duit?” or seek his address through Irish.  Additionally, there was no adequate support system in place to facilitate their interaction with a member of the public who sought in this situation to conduct his business through Irish. (See also paragraph "Competance in Irish" below!)

The Findings:
    The investigation made a finding of fact that the driver would not have been arrested under section 107 of the Road Traffic Acts 1961-2011:
  • if he had spoken English;
  • if either of the two Gardaí had sufficient Irish to establish the driver’s identity at the roadside; and
  • that the Garda Síochána authorities had provided insufficient information to make members of the force aware of the language duties in their language scheme so as to ensure that members who stopped a driver in these circumstances would know how to manage the situation;
  • that, notwithstanding the language duty that was contained in their language scheme, the Garda Síochána authorities had not put in place any clear protocol to cater for a situation where a member of the public, who was stopped on the roadside but had not been arrested, sought to make the legitimate choice of conducting his business with An Garda Síochána in Irish.
Positive management
“The positive attitude of the Garda Commissioner and senior management to the implementation of the recommendations I made on foot of this investigation is a matter of some satisfaction to me and it appears that they sought to introduce systematic change in order to avoid a repetition of similar incidents. This involves promoting language awareness and training as well as the development of new practices and a protocol in this area,” he said. 

It is interesting to note that the Garda Síochána also featured in the 2011 report of the Coimisinéir Teanga published last year. 

One step forward two steps back!
The report from the Comisinéir, who runs a very impressive and efficient office, is for the year 2012. Interestingly enough the efficiency in this office in presenting timely annual reports contrasts markedly with that of Foras na Gaeilge, whose last annual report is for 2009. 

Complaints to the office in An Spidéal were up by some 3% and the Coimisinéir instigated some 13 formal investigations during the year. Breaches in the law were found not only on the Garda Síochána but also the Departments of Justice, Public Expendature & Reform, Environment & Local Government, OSI, HSE, Central Bank, NRA, University of Limerick and local authorities in Ennis, Kildare and Donegal.

“2012 was not a vintage year for the promotion of the Irish language in the public sector, and for every one step forward there appeared to have been two steps backwards,” according to An Coimisinéir Teanga.

While statistics from the most recent Census showed a positive trend from the previous one, with a 7% increase in the number of people who have Irish and those who use it daily, there was considerable concern among Irish speakers about the future of the Irish language and serious apprehension about the State’s efforts in its protection and promotion.

Language schemes
Three quarters of language schemes (statutory language plans) agreed for state bodies under the Official Languages Act had expired without renewal by the end of  2012 with a quarter of them out of date for three years or more.

“Only 9 language schemes were agreed or renewed during 2012, and at that annual rate of renewal the current schemes might not be fully replaced for twelve years,” said An Coimisinéir Teanga.

In 10 other cases, more than 6 years have elapsed since the Minister for Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht requested state bodies to prepare draft language schemes but they remain to be agreed.

Dangerous precedent
A further significant step was taken during 2012 that could prove a dangerous precedent with regard to the language scheme system: for the first time ever, a scheme was amended to cancel an obligation that had previously been confirmed when a member of the public complained that the state body in question was not in compliance with this obligation.

The language scheme was that of the Department of Justice and Equality, and the obligation involved was a fairly innocuous one that cost little and was relatively simple to implement: a requirement that the “Fit for viewing” section of video/ DVD labels supplied by the Irish Film Classification Office be produced in bilingual format.

The Department itself had identified this commitment as a priority in its language scheme, and rather than ensuring its implementation, a complaint from a member of the public resulted eventually in the removal of the commitment.

“I informed the Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht that it was unacceptable if a state body which was unhappy with a complaint or which had a finding made against it could successfully appeal to the Department to be granted the annulment of such an obligation that was previously confirmed in a language scheme. This would be a significant regression and a restriction of the principles concerning the public’s language rights as confirmed in language schemes and would be an additional blow to the credibility of the language scheme system as operated by the Department,” according to An Coimisinéir Teanga. 

Traffic signs
On foot of a series of complaints from an individual about traffic signs in English only in Ennis, Co. Clare, the Office of An Coimisinéir Teanga conducted a formal investigation during 2012. Ennis Town Council had indicated that it had intended dealing with a historic problem of traffic signs which were not in compliance with statutory language requirements in a planned programme on a gradual basis over a period of time, but a reduction in both financial and personnel resources as a result of the economic crisis left much of the issue unresolved. 

It was significant that the Council had initiated its own audit of the number of traffic signs not in compliance with the statutory language regulations, and in one half of the town alone 332 signs were identified whose validity was in doubt; on that basis, there may be up to 650 invalid public signs in Ennis town.  A significant expenditure of state resources allocated for bilingual signage was used for signage in English only in these cases, notwithstanding the statutory obligations that were being breached. 

“It is probable that Ennis is in no way unique in this regard and that other areas may also not always have complied with the legislation concerning bilingual signage, but Ennis Town Council’s own audit gives an overview of the scale of the problem. A person could be forgiven for suspecting in certain cases that it may have happened that a policy of ‘personal convenience’ might have been in conflict with the requirement to comply with long established obligations confirmed in statutory regulations. Local authorities require the public to comply with the law in regard to the payment of rent and rates, refuse and household charges, and other fees. Equally, local authorities themselves are also obliged to ensure their own compliance with the law, including regulations concerning bilingual traffic signage,” said An Coimisinéir Teanga.

Competence in Irish
An absence of staff with competence in both official languages of the State is one of the main factors restricting state bodies in their delivery of services to the public in Irish as well as in English. During 2012, the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform informed An Coimisinéir Teanga that the responsibility for the training and evaluation of competence in Irish in the Civil Service, previously vested in Gaeleagras, would be transferred to the Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht from the beginning of 2013. An Coimisinéir Teanga suggested in a report on an investigation that such a move would be merely a pretence and a waste of time if it simply reinforced again the same defective arrangements which have patently failed in over 40 years to ensure that there is an adequate number of staff with competence in Irish at various levels throughout the Civil Service.  The Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform has agreed that the transfer of services to the Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht would provide an opportunity to reform the current practices and that his own department was committed to finding the mechanisms which would ensure that departments could access or develop the skills to provide their services in a bilingual manner. 

A Government decision was announced in November 2011 to merge the functions of the Office of An Coimisinéir Teanga with the Office of the Ombudsman as part of the Public Service Reform Plan. It was re-announced in November 2012 that the merger would go ahead and that the statutory powers and functions of An Coimisinéir Teanga under the Official Languages Act 2003 would be transferred to the Ombudsman but would be delegated back to An Coimisinéir Teanga by amending legislation which was not yet published by the end of 2012. An Coimisinéir Teanga would continue to be appointed statutorily, be based in the Gaeltacht and would continue to perform the current functions of An Coimisinéir Teanga in an independent manner under the Official Languages Act. “I have formally asked the Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht to allow my Office to have sight of the draft statutory amendments and to publish the results of the public consultation process on the review of the Official Languages Act as a prelude to any discussion on the matter,” said Seán Ó Cuirreáin.