May 2014        

Dearg le fearg!

The resignation of the language commissioner, Seán Ó Cuirreáin, in protest against the lack of co-operation he found in the state system, not to mention the virtual refusal by some official bodies to comply with the law, has been the catalyst in a vigorous grass-roots language rights campaign.
      Ó Cuirreáin’s s reports expose what is nothing short of systematic discrimination against Irish-speakers in many government departments. For people who expect, rightly, to be able to do routine business in Irish with public services, nearly every contact with officialdom proves stressful. Such citizens are treated at best as cranks, at worst as some kind of proto-terrorists.
      Many government offices spend more time and effort in arguing against complying fully with the Official Languages Act than it would take for them to comply. In some cases there is a kind of mock technical compliance that borders on fraud. An example is a body that issues a pile of press statements all together on the one day; they are all months out of date and therefore useless but are counted in the number of press statements in Irish the organisation claims to have issued.
      Another example is the placing of an Irish-speaking staff member at the end of the telephone on days when it is known that the Office of the Language Commissioner is monitoring them, then removing that person after the all-clear.
      Another factor that has caused people to be dearg le fearg (red with anger) is the critical situation in regard to Gaelscoileanna. Almost every Gaelscoil has a waiting-list and is prevented from providing more places not just through lack of facilities and staff but because of departmental regulations that are disastrous for Gaelscoileanna.
      Thousands of families have received letters in the last couple of months saying their applications for places in their local Gaelscoil have failed because of lack of places. This has been particularly traumatic for Irish-speaking or bilingual families. In Dublin in particular there is a huge demand for Gaelscoil places in working-class areas, despite active discouragement by the Department of Education.
      The language in the geographical Gaeltacht is undergoing a crisis, where it is being eliminated as a community vernacular. This in a large measure is caused by the imposition of English by the state. In many cases state functionaries are actively hostile to the language.
      The new campaign for language rights has already made some impact. A decision to subsume the Office of the Language Commissioner in that of the Ombudsman was reversed after more than ten thousand people marched in Dublin in February. Particularly positive aspects were the huge number of families and young people taking part, the easy alliance of Gaeltacht and non-Gaeltacht groups, the welcome participation of non-Irish-speakers, and the genuine spontaneity, in that many or most of those in the demonstration had no prior connection with public campaigns.
      This was followed last month by the 2,000-strong demonstration in Conamara to bid “Slán le Seán” on the date of his leaving office. And last month five thousand people marched in Belfast, with special emphasis on the demand for a long-awaited Language Act in the North.
      The campaign for language rights in Ireland, as elsewhere, is a basic democratic demand and an important element of resistance to cultural imperialism.

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