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FactCheck: Are there really more Polish speakers than Irish speakers in Northern Ireland?

DUP leader Arlene Foster raised some eyebrows with her claim during the week. Is it true?

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AT THE LAUNCH of her party’s Assembly Election campaign, DUP leader Arlene Foster took aim at Sinn Féin’s consistent calls for an Irish Language Act, and made an attention-grabbing claim.

There are more people in Northern Ireland that speak Polish, than speak Irish.

Her comments caused a stir on Monday, with the claim featuring in headlines in the Belfast Telegraph, Irish Independent, and Irish Examiner.

But is it true?

(Send your FactCheck requests to factcheck@thejournal.ie, tweet @TJ_FactCheck, or send us a DM).

Claim: In Northern Ireland, more people speak Polish than speak Irish

What was said:

You can hear a short excerpt of Arlene Foster’s remarks at the DUP’s campaign launch, in the clip above.

For our purposes, we’re interested in these comments in particular:

We will never accede to an Irish Language Act…It amazes me that people cannot see how [Sinn Féin] are using the Irish language as a tool to beat Unionism over the head.
…And never mind that, but the cost that would be incurred, in terms of the Irish language, would be quite incredible. And all for a tiny minority of people who choose to speak the language, and of course they’re entirely entitled to do so.
But if we have an Irish Language Act, maybe we should have a Polish Language Act as well, because there are more people in Northern Ireland that speak Polish than speak Irish. (Emphasis added)

The Facts

We asked the DUP for evidence to support that claim, and they directed our attention to a particular section of the 2011 Northern Ireland Census (pg 17).

Screen Shot 2017-02-08 at 08.11.28 Source: NISRA

This shows that in 2011, the main language of 1.02% of Northern Ireland residents (17,731) over the age of three was Polish. For 0.24% (4,130) it was Irish.

However, this is not the full picture.

We dug a bit deeper into the 2011 Census, and found the following:

  • 10.7% of the population aged over 3 (184,898) had some level of knowledge of the Irish language, however minimal
  • 6% of the population aged over 3 (104,943) spoke (or could speak) Irish

(You can examine all this data for yourself by downloading a spreadsheet below).

So while relatively few residents of Northern Ireland had Irish as their main language, many more than that had some aptitude with the language, and around 6% did or could speak it.

How does that compare with Polish? Unfortunately, we can’t say for sure, because the Census does not have similarly detailed figures for Polish speakers, as it does for gaeilgeoirí.

But we do know this:

  • In 2011, some 17,739 Northern Ireland residents had Polish passports
  • 19,747 identified as “Polish” or had a related multinational identity (such as “Irish and Polish” or “British and Polish”)
  • 19,658 Northern Ireland residents were born in Poland
  • 17,731 listed Polish as their “main language”
  • Of those who identified as Polish (whether exclusively or in combination with another national identity), only 4.4% said their main language was not Polish.

The Census has detailed (and fascinating) data on the levels of skill and knowledge in the Irish language – whether reading, writing, speaking, or understanding.

But it does not have similar data for the Polish language, so we can’t say for sure how many Northern Ireland residents, in 2011, could speak or read or understand Polish, in addition to those who listed it as their main language.

And unfortunately, there has been no separate research into this that we could use as evidence.

However, we know that it is highly unlikely – implausible, even – that that number would even approach the equivalent figure for Irish, which 184,898 had some knowledge of, and 104,943 could speak.

Some 19,747 people identified solely, or in part, as Polish in Northern Ireland in 2011 – a greater number than had Polish passports or were born in Poland.

The number of Polish speakers would therefore have to be more than five times the number that identified as Polish, to match the number of Irish speakers.

While we don’t have the figures to confirm it, FactCheck is willing to rule that out as a plausible scenario. Some of the reasons for that are explored in the next section.

What happened since 2011?

Renewable Heat Initiative allegations Source: Niall Carson/PA

Unfortunately, the most recent official figures on language usage date back six years – to the 2011 census.

Obviously, a lot could have happened since then to bring about a change in the language dynamics at play in Northern Ireland, so we’ll have to use other, more recent statistics and extrapolate from them.

Immigration from Poland to Northern Ireland appears, on the whole, to have slightly increased since 2011.

The annual reports of the Registrar General show that the number of people coming to live in Northern Ireland, whose last country of residence was Poland, fell slightly (by 5%) from 2,000 between Mid-2011 and Mid 2012, to 1,900 between Mid-2014 and Mid-2015.

Medical card registrations by Polish nationals rose by 4% from 1,795 in 2011 to 1,872 in 2015, and National Insurance Number applications and registrations also increased, by 19% and 27%, respectively.

Primary school pupils whose first language was registered as Polish have gone from 1,684 to 3,151. That’s an 87% increase, but remember in real terms it amounts to only an additional 1,467.

The number of secondary school students listing Polish as their first language has fallen from 919 to 794.

It should be noted that this relates to students whose first language is Polish, and not all students who can speak Polish, for which we lack figures.

And finally, there has been an increase in the number of instances where a Polish translator was requested by someone engaging with the Northern Ireland health and social care services – from 20,410 in 2011 to 30,465 in 2015.

So while there are certainly some signs of an increase in Polish immigration to Northern Ireland since the 2011 Census, none of these indicators are of a magnitude that would make it plausible that the number of Polish speakers has exploded to the point of rivalling the number of Irish speakers.

Jerome Mullen, Honorary Consul of Poland in Northern Ireland, told FactCheck he estimates that the current Polish population there is around 30,000 or more.

However, Polish language skills do not tend to spread beyond that core community, for several reasons. Mullen says there may be “100 or 200 people at the most” who can speak or read some Polish, but are not themselves Polish.

The reason for that almost certainly lies in the fact that Polish, as a language, is a difficult language to learn. It’s much more difficult for an Irish or English person to learn Polish than for a Polish person to learn English.

Mullen says that there can be some Polish language acquisition by non-Polish nationals where marriage across nationalities takes place, but that this occurs at only a “small level”.

The absence of Polish as a subject being offered to non-Polish school students also contributes to the very low level of uptake outside the Polish community itself.

Conclusion

Northern Ireland Assembly election 2017 campaign DUP leader Arlene Foster at the party's Assembly election campaign launch on Monday. Source: Niall Carson/PA

Remember that the number of Northern Ireland residents in 2011 who described themselves as being able to speak Irish was 104,943.

Even if we allow for a generous estimate of 30,000-35,000 people of Polish identity currently living in Northern Ireland, it is simply implausible that the number of people with the ability to speak some Polish would even approach 104,943.

“There’s absolutely no way that that would be the case,” says Honorary Consul Jerome Mullen.

Despite the absence of clear, official data on the number of people in Northern Ireland with the ability to speak Polish, we do have a significant other data from which we can draw a conclusion.

Arlene Foster’s claim was “There are more people in Northern Ireland that speak Polish, than speak Irish”.

While it is true, based on the 2011 Census, to say there are more people who regard Polish as their main language, this is not the same thing as people who can speak Polish or Irish.

And based on the data available to us, FactCheck is willing to rule out as implausible the possibility that the number of Polish speakers is greater than the number of Irish speakers.

We rate Arlene Foster’s claim Mostly FALSE. As our Verdicts Guide explains, this means: “There is an element of truth in the claim, but it is missing critical details or context. Or, the best available evidence weighs against the claim”.

To download a spreadsheet containing all the data relevant to this article, click here.

This is the first time we’ve fact-checked a claim by Arlene Foster. In future, you will be able to find her FactCheck File here.

TheJournal.ie’s FactCheck is a signatory to the International Fact-Checking Network’s Code of Principles. You can read it here.

For information on how FactCheck works, what the verdicts mean, and how you can take part, check out our Reader’s Guide here.

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About the author:

Dan MacGuill

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