Thursday, February 19, 2015

The Government's decision - derogation or degradation?

"In all honesty there is not much to laud in the heads of the new Act as published!" (Coimisinéir Teanga)

The International Language Rights Conference, organised by Conradh na Gaeilge, was recently held in Dublin. The large audience was told that the amendments that are planned for the Official Languages Act 2003 now imminent and also the opportunity this year to end the derogation of the use Irish Language as a working language of the European Union. This was little reported in the English language media although well covered in the Irish language media notably by Tweets on the event (mostly but not exclusively in Irish) may be found using the hashtag #CeartaAnois. The meeting was served with a full interpretation service - Irish English and vice versa.
Part of the attendance
Among those speaking were the Ombudsman of Catalonia, Rafael Ribó i Massó, who spoke of the language rights in his own country and also in the other linguistic territories of Spain,  Rónán Ó Domhnail, the Coimiséir Teanga here in Ireland, Dr Pádraigh Ó Laighin, the expert on European Language Rights and politicians MEP Liadh Ní Riada, TDs Éamon Ó Cuív, Seán Kyne and Lucinda Creighton and Senator Trevor Ó Clochartaigh. Also on the panel of speakers were former Presidents of Conradh na Gaeilge, Cóilín Ó Cearbhaill and former presidents Barrister Daithí Mac Carthaigh and Íte Ní Cionnath, former lecture in communications in DIT.

Sessions were chaired efficiently by Eimear Ní Chonaola, Principal News Presenter with TG4 and Máirín Ní Ghadhra the presenter of the Midday News (Nuacht ar a hAon) on Raidío na Gaeltachta (Irish).

In opening the conference Cóilín Ó Cearbhaill pointed out that there were three opportunities for the Governments of Ireland, North and South, to support the Irish people during the current year (2015). He enumereated these as follows:
  1. Strengthen the Official Languages Act and provide state services to the public at the same standard in Irish as in English. (Oireachtas Éireann)
  2. Enact and activate a strong Language Act  (Stormont Assembly). (a meeting in Belfast to discuss this is scheduled for 25th February in  Culturlann McAdam Ó Fiaich)
  3. End the derogation of the status of Irish as an official working language throughout the European Union. (Irish Government)
"I hope that the Governments will take our suggestions on board!" he concluded
Speakers LtoR: Rafael Ribó i Massó, Rónán Ó Domhnail, Máirín Ní Ghadhra (Chair), Éamon Ó Cuív TD, Seanadóir Trevor Ó Clochartaigh agus Seán Kyne TD.

Strengthening the Official Languages Act.
In his contribution early in the conference Coimisinéir Teanga Rónán Ó Domhnaill said, "If there are to be amendments to theis Act they ought to give us an appropriate workable Act which compliments the Language rights of the citizen.
"In all honesty there is not much to laud in the heads of the new Act as published. I welcome of course those aspects which add to the rights of the citizen, the right to use the Irish form of a name and address, and a mechanism ensuring new public companies are automatically covered under the Act.
"However apart from these and a small technical changes there is nothing in the heads which strengthen Language rights.!

The Catalonian Ombudsman, Rafael Ribó in his presentation said "No policeman, or no other public authority has no right to request, 'In English please!' We, all of us, have the right of choice. That is a basic human right!" He also warned against making the language a political football.

As might be expected the three politicians said what politicians usually say. The two Opposition representatives broadly supported the words of the Coimisnéir Teanga and the sole representative of the Government while accepting that there was some merit in some of the changes advocated by the Conradh broadly supported the Government published heads, including the extension of the widely condemned Language Schemes from a period of three years to seven, "Three years is too short but maybe seven years is too long!" All agreed that the number of civil servants who can interact with the citizens is inadequate and sometimes non-existent.

Íta Ní Cionnath, who was a former President of Conradh na Gaeilge and former Senior Lecturer in Communications at DIT, made a presentation where she made a strong plea for the abolition of these schemes which she maintained were a complete failure. The should be replaced by legally enforceable responsibilities. In effect "We are second class citizens at present!" she declared. She made a case for a strengthening the Act by looking at the equivalent and stronger legislation in Wales, which is in part based on what was learned from the system, its flaws and benefits, in Ireland.

In the discussions concluding this session was the absolute requirement (as mentioned in the 20 Year Strategy agreed by all parties in the Oireachtas, Dáil and Seanad) for a Senior Minister with responibility for Irish and Gaeltacht Affairs. This has not been implemented by the current Government.

Another topic raised was the absence of services for children with special needs, the responsibility of the VHI. Accounts were related of cases where medicak staff recommended that Irish speaking families (including those in the Gaeltacht) switch the family language to English to facilitate the Medical Services. Some heartbreaking cases were given.

The excuse, "The person with Irish isn't here at the moment please give your details and we'll call back!" was condemned roundly.

End to the derogation in the European Union & other opportunities for the Irish language in Europe
"I know that a decision in principle has been
made by the Government that the derogation
will not be ended by 31st December 2016 &
 that the derogation will be renewed from
the 1st January 2017." (Dr. P Ó Laighin)
Perhaps the most startling piece of information shared with those attending this service was the bald statement made by the respected expert on European Language rights, Sociology Professor Dr Pádraig B. Ó Laighin, that the Government has decided in principle to renew the derogation of Irish as a working language of the European Union. "I know that a decision in principle has been made by the Government that the derogation will not be ended by 31st December 2016 and that the derogation will be renewed from the 1st January 2017." (Writing this there has been no denial of this from Government sources - 19/2/2015!).

Under this derogation there is no requirement on the Union to provide the services provided in the other official languages.

He gave a blow by blow account of his vain efforts to secure a meeting with the Taoiseach since December 2013. Eventually he was palmed off (our words - he is far too gentlemanly a person to use such terms!) with a meeting with the Junior Minister Joe McHugh on the 11th February 2015. But the day before the meeting he was told that they would not be able to give him much detail on progress. In fact his detailed and informed questions remain unanswered.

This writer was quite shocked at the discourtesy shown a citizen as eminent as Dr Ó Laighin by the Taoiseach's office and the Government. This is especially marked when contrasted with the courteousness he was shown when the Government was in opposition.

He then asked if a decision has been made: "The Government has made no decision yet," was the response

He finally asked if a decision had been made "in principle" and received the response, "The Government has made no decision yet."

The Government has adopted a "closed secret stance on derogation in the European Union" he said. There is little reason in fact for this derogation now as he says that sufficent numbers of trained translators and interpreters are available and more being trained, if the positions were open for them.

He also said that the availabilty of terminology used in EU documents is not a problem either, indeed Irish is at the top of the list of the thirteen languages named as Official Languages from 2004 to 2013.

He pointed out that the decision IS that the Irish Govenment alone. The European Union is more than willing as a body to facilitate the language as a true working language as soon as they are advised of the Irish Government's final decision.
Lucinda Creighton addresses the assembly also at table are (ltoR), Eimear Ní Chonaola, TG4, Dr Pádraigh Ó Laighin, Liadh Ní Riada, FPE & Daithí Mac Carthaigh
Derogation in action:
A vivid account of how this works in reality was given by the Member of the European Parliament, Liadh Ní Riada FPE (Irish). She is a native of the Gaeltacht whose mother tongue is Irish, one of the official languages of the Union. "As a woman from the Gaeltacht it is a source of deep regret that I am unable to use my own language as I perform my duties.
"It disgusts me when I sit in the parliament when we are advised that translation services are available in every languge - and of course Irish is not among them."
She also announced that she is going on a "Speak only Irish" strike during the first two weeks of March and issued an invite to all public representatives to do the same. "Accompany me on my language strike!" she said. "Let us speak our own language!"

A contribution by Lucinda Creighton TD, former Minister of State for Europe gave her insights. She confirmed that she is taking refresher course in her Irish with Gaelcultur. She was misquoted in a tweet sent by an attendee during her contribution. "I am very sympathetic to the idea of ending the degradation" says @LCreighton." 

In the words worthy of The Brother "I couldn't have put it better meself!

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