FINE Gael's plan to make Irish optional in the Leaving Certificate has split voters as well as the political parties.
A slight majority (53pc) of voters wants the language to remain compulsory, an Irish Independent/Millward Brown Lansdowne poll reveals. But 44pc say it should not be obligatory. The remainder said they didn't know.
Some Fine Gael councillors in the Connemara Gaeltacht say the party's policy will cost it crucial votes.
At present, most Leaving Cert students are obliged to study the language. However they are not compelled to sit the subject in the exam, nor to pass it, as was the case in the past.
About one in five students do not take the exam for Irish. They fall into two main categories: those who have studied the subject but don't bother to take the exam and those who are exempted, either because they lived outside the country for a number of years or because they have a learning disability.
Fine Gael is alone among the major parties in suggesting that Irish should be obligatory up to the Junior Cert but optional after that. It has promised consultation with interested parties, but says the policy will still be implemented.
"Compulsion has not worked, as is reflected by the fact that only 4.4pc of people speak Irish on a daily basis outside of education," said the party's education spokesperson Fergus O'Dowd.
However, he also promised curricular reforms and a doubling of the proportion of Irish students sitting the higher-level paper in Irish in the Leaving Cert by 2018.
Its likely coalition partner Labour, along with Fianna Fail and Sinn Fein, wants to retain Irish as a compulsory subject.
The Greens favour a compulsory programme in the language, culture and spoken Irish but an optional literature course for Leaving Cert students.
At least 31 Independent candidates have pledged their support for retention of Irish as one of the core subjects at Leaving Certificate level.
Irish-language groups are also campaigning for the retention of the status quo.