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Column: The Government’s attitude to the Irish language is a total sham

It’s bad for democracy when Government picks and chooses what legislation to implement and when they censor and undermine anyone who has an opposing view to them, writes Daithí de Buitléir.

Daithí de Buitléir

THE IRISH LANGUAGE discourse is incredibly stale – every time the Irish language question hits the headlines regardless of the context an impromptu debate is quickly held on the merits of the language and the accompanying education system which generally reaches the same inconclusive end.

At a glance one would think that the language has the unwavering support of Government. For the first time in generations the Gaeltacht and Irish speaking communities have a senior and junior minister, the first Gaeltacht Bill in over 60 years was introduced and even our Taoiseach decided to lay off on his much-touted policy of scrapping compulsory Irish for the Leaving Certificate.

However, as the old seanfhocail goes – “Ní mar a shíltear a bhítear”.

Disquiet amongst the Irish language community is at its highest in 10 years. Public meetings are sprouting up all across the country, on February 15th Dublin’s Irish speaking community will be hitting the streets for “Lá Mór na Gaeilge”. I’m sure many Irish speakers think this vitally needed, I’m sure many non-Irish speakers think it a waste of time and column inches. However, when you take a step back from the whole identity and education debate and simply examine democratic principles – the Irish language question is one which deserves our attention.

This government’s attitude is a sham

This government’s attitude to the Irish language has been nothing short of a sham. The whole two-minister trick has been a first class illusion, Minister Deenihan seems to go AWOL every time he has any duties in relation to the Irish language, while any duties he does fulfil he does so in English. The Gaeltacht Bill became one of the most contentious pieces of legislation in modern times.

The Government’s proactive subversion of the Irish language is no secret in political circles. In July 2012, the opposition parties staged a mass walkout in protest at the government’s refusal to accept any of the 150 proposed amendments to the Gaeltacht Bill. This was the first walkout of its kind in a generation.

The political antipathy of FG/Labour towards the Irish language has noticeably permeated down through the system. The case of Dónall Ó Cnáimhsí for example is a real eye opener, Ó Cnáimhsí is a Donegal Gaeltacht native who is employed as a Gardener in Glenveagh National Park and he is also a driving force behind voluntary group Guth na Gaeltachta who were one of the lobby groups who spoke out against the Gaeltacht Bill. The powers that be were clearly not happy with an citizen playing an active role in the democratic process, Ó Cnaimhsí was issued a letter from his employers in the Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht after he criticised the Gaeltacht Bill – saying that he “may have breached” the terms of his employment by speaking out against the it.

What does this mean for your ordinary teacher, nurse or social worker? As an employee of the State, are you not entitled to an opinion on the state of the nation? Hardly seems like the sort of principle which underpins a healthy, functioning democracy.

Whilst in another case a young Dublin man was arrested for speaking Irish to the Garda Síochána. This story rightly hit the national headlines, however the debate centred around whether the young man was right or wrong to speak Irish. Surely the more pertinent question was why the Garda decided not to enforce the law and instead enforce their personal prejudice?

In a democracy, it’s good to have difference of opinions

The Government’s attitude recently came to a head in December 2013 when Seán Ó Cuirreáin, the Language Commissioner resigned from office in protest, in the process becoming the highest level civil servant to resign in the history of the state in such circumstances. When he was called in to be questioned by a Dáíl committee regarding his decision, no Government representatives even bothered to attend.

Ó Cuirreáin whose main job was to promote the use of Irish amongst state agencies was forced to resign after 10 years due to the lack of support he received from Government in trying to achieve exactly what he had been appointed to do.

The Irish language isn’t black or white; some people passionately believe in its value, some don’t. The same can be said of many questions in society. In a democracy it is good to have difference of opinions.

However, what is bad for democracy is when the government refuse to engage opposition parties in the legislative process. It is bad for democracy when they attempt to censor state employees.
It is bad for democracy when Government picks and chooses what legislation to implement and when they censor and undermine anyone who has an opposing view to them.

In what sort of democracy can one spend a lifetime lobbying for legislation, for the legislation to be successfully introduced, only for government to refuse to implement it? Where people are gagged for standing up for their community and their way of life?

Undermining the language

Regardless of individuals stance on the Irish language question, people need to realise that this the Government have overstepped the mark. They are lying to the electorate by saying they support the Irish language whilst all signs point to them actively trying to undermine it. Their negative attitude has permeated down through government departments and state agencies to create an incredibly hostile environment from which the Irish language can flourish.

There are many vibrant Irish language communities on our island, people who live their day-to-day life exclusively through the medium of Irish, these people have rights. Yes there are problems with the way Irish is taught – there is definitely a need for a fresh and open debate on what is the role of the Irish language in 21st century Ireland. However, do not let this distract you from the pressing issue at hand. We have a government with a laissez-faire attitude to upholding democratic principles and this is impacting on the rights of Irish citizens.

As a nation it is essential we send a strong message to government that we have no interest in this style of selective democracy.

Originally from Kilkenny, Daithí de Buitléir is a fluent Irish speaker and multi award-winning social entrepreneur.

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Read: NI Assembly criticised for ‘hostile climate’ towards the Irish language

About the author:

Daithí de Buitléir

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