A Chara - I refer to an article in the Sunday Independent (17/10/04) headed 'Strictly speaking - an Irish solution to an Irish problem'.
Contrary to this article, the fact of the matter is that the vast majority of the population have a positive attitude towards the Irish language. This was most recently evident in the outcry against the singing of the National Anthem in English at the Ryder Cup in America. It is true also to say that the vast majority of the people of this country believe that our ecological, archaeological and linguistic heritage should be protected particularly when that heritage is of world importance.
To put it in its world context, the Irish language is the oldest vernacular written language in Europe. It is of major importance in this context as part of our world linguistic heritage. Furthermore, in the European context, the European Union is founded on the concept of unity in diversity and on the protection and the development of the diversity and richness of European culture.
In this context it would be a major decision for the Irish people to decide that those areas in which the Irish language has been continuously spoken as a vernacular language for the last 2,000 years were not to be given special protection, particularly in view of the major threats being faced in linguistic terms by these areas. Obviously if it is the choice of the people of the Gaeltacht and also of the people of Ireland that the Gaeltacht is no longer of any importance, I will as a democrat accept the democratic wishes of the people.
However, every Government since the foundation of the state (led first by the Cumann na nGaedheal government in the Twenties who set up the initial Coimisiun na Gaeltachta) down to the present day has had as one of its objectives the preservation and development of the Gaeltacht.
Despite certain failings in the policy, when one considers the rate at which the Irish language was in decline at the time of our Independence, the success of this policy is evident. However, changing times bring new challenges and one of the major challenges now facing the Gaeltacht is not decline but over-rapid population shift. Not to recognise this is not to recognise some basics in relation to linguistic behaviour.
As Minister of the Gaeltacht I would welcome an open and honest debate in relation to the future of the Irish language in this country and also in relation to the future of the Gaeltacht. I have no difficulty with people saying that the Irish language, despite its national, European and world importance, should be allowed to die and that no effort should be made to preserve it; everyone is entitled to their opinion. What I do have difficulty with, however, is those people who say that they believe the Irish language should be preserved and developed and then oppose any reasonable steps taken to ensure that preservation and development.
Finally, I wish to make clear that I have never at any time in my life had other than a very inclusive view of what Irishness is. Furthermore, I have never tried to say that knowledge of the Irish language makes a person more Irish than another.
However, what is self-evident is that the Irish language is an uniquely Irish heritage belonging to the people of this island, to be shared with the rest of the world.
On a visit to Ireland the Canadian Language Commissioner illustrated this point clearly when she said that if French were to die in Canada the French language would continue to thrive throughout the world. However, if Irish were to die as a vernacular spoken language in Ireland, a priceless part of world heritage would be lost. Certainly culture and identity is about a lot more than the cupla focal. However the cupla focal is very much part of that identity.
The difference is between exclusivity and inclusivity.
Eamon O Cuiv, TD,
Community, Rural and