Thursday, 26 May 2016

Dia ár Sábháil!

Irish-speakers, and the parents of children attending Irish-medium schools, will be feeling sorely let down at the fact that the two key Departments for language, Education and Communities, have been handed over to the quasi-racist DUP. One Nationalist party, the SDLP, has withdrawn from the Executive entirely, and looks set to slide into obscurity as a result, while the other, Sinn Féin, stayed in but showed no interest in opting for the relevant ministerial posts when it had the opportunity.

It may be the case that Sinn Féin is scared at the modest success in the recent Assembly elections of People Before Profit, a party widely regarded as drawing its support from disaffected Nationalists. Or perhaps the Shinners are taking a leaf out of the DUP's election game plan and trying to force their voters to turn out by talking up the dire consequences of staying at home. But the DUP's Jeremiads concerned the title of First Minister, which its candidate was never seriously likely to lose; even if it had, any difference vis-à-vis the post of Deputy First Minister is more symbolic than real. In any case, if anything, Sinn Féin's failures on this occasion are more likely to encourage folk to opt out of participating in electoral politics altogether.

Were the Blether Region a devotee of conspiracy theories, it might even be tempted to suggest that the party was attempting to underline the extreme dysfunctionality of the Stormont system lest Brexit render a return to violence desirable. However, that seems not to be the case. While Education went early in the d'Hondt process, the word from the grapevine is that Sinn Féin made a conscious decision not to take the Department of Communities because it did not want to be seen to be implementing welfare reform — the ultimate victory of style over substance.

None of this would be quite so bad were it not taking place in a context of shrinking budgets. Irish can now look forward to having its funding not merely frozen but actively reduced.

The loss of Education to the DUP's Peter Weir is particularly depressing, since the fact that the party wished to take it this time around was well trailed. One of its election promises involves ending the supposed "preferential treatment" shown to Irish-language schools.

Communities, on the other hand, has gone to the evangelical Christian Paul Givan. Ironically, in Scotland, no one would bat an eyelid if control of Scottish Gaelic policy were to be given to a (suitably qualified) evangelical, since so many native speakers of the language are just that. No, the problem with Mr. Givan is politics, not religion. Expect funding for Irish to be cut to the bone while funding for Ulster-Scots projects, most of which will not involve language to any meaningful degree, will be puffed up into an artificial parallel.

Or perhaps the creationist Mr. Givan will confine himself to promoting English. If so, the Blether Region suggests starting with this quote from Shakespeare's longest play Hamlet:
"There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,Than are dreamt of in your philosophy."

Wednesday, 11 May 2016

Respecting Irish-speakers

Not answering the question asked is of course one of the most reliable, if clunky, instruments in the tool-box of any politician worth his or her salt. Luckily for the voters, our broadcast media have among their kenspeckle faces a few focussed and above all tenacious individuals who simply refuse to be brushed off. Some of the instances where this has happened have become part of broadcasting legend. Who could forget, for example, the occasion, now almost 20 years ago, when Jeremy Paxman asked former Home Secretary Michael Howard the same question a dozen times?

It is therefore all the more disappointing to read this:
"Almost 40 Irish language speakers have taken part in a protest outside the BBC's Broadcasting House on Ormeau Avenue, Belfast.
A spokesperson said he had not been allowed to ask questions about Irish language issues during the BBC's election debates. 
A petition was handed to the reception. 
In response, the BBC said it produces multi-platform Irish language content."
Hm, see the similarity? The issue raised clearly referred to the attitude to the Irish language displayed by current-affairs staff rather than the fact that the BBC produces a few shows as Gaeilge (not a channel, of course, like the Scots get). The original question referred to the DUP's manifesto plans to stop "squandering money" on Irish-language schools. As such, it was a clear and pressing concern for the Irish-language community — a "current affair" if ever there was one (and hardly the sort of thing deserving of being dismissed with a dose of non sequitur bluster).

One explanation is that the BBC was trying to avoid contentious themes in what was widely seen as a rather dull election (as well as one in which a whole swathe of bored Nationalist voters once again failed to turn up). If true, that would be shameful.

The alternative, just as likely, explanation is that the BBC was taking a rather ill-informed decision about what is relevant or interesting to voters, one very likely based on an ignorant conception of how many pupils attend Irish-language schools. As Comhairle na Gaelscolaíochta puts it:
"There are over 700 children expected to enter Primary 1 in September 2016 – the highest number ever within the IME sector. Last year, 647 children began their primary education through Irish and the trend continues with Primary 1 enrolments up from 447 children in 2011 – a growth of 57% in the IME primary schools alone!"
"The growth in the Irish-medium Education sector is clear for all to see with a 45% increase in enrolments over a five-year period. September 2016 will see over 5800 children be educated daily through the medium of Irish and those numbers will continue to rise with nearly 90 IME providers across Nursery, Primary and Secondary levels."
Irish is, owing to its exclusion from public life through laws affecting sectors as various as the courts and road signage, for many people an invisible language. Far from being the Catholic equivalent of ragged flags on lamp-posts, a neutral observer would have to conclude that it is the very opposite: omnipresent yet assiduously brushed under the carpet. Small wonder, then, that one part of the BBC can assume that it has no relevance to political debate.

Given the growing numbers of fluent speakers being produced by Gaelscoileanna and elsewhere, that state of affairs can hardly continue for much longer.