Language activists blast FG's plan to make Irish optional
Controversy is likely to rage over move to scrap compulsory Gaeilge after the Junior Cert
Fine Gael is set for a war with Irish language activists as it sticks by its plan to scrap compulsory Irish at the Leaving Cert.
The party, which is set to lead the next Government, is committed to making Irish optional after the Junior Cert.
Enda Kenny has frequently stated that compulsion has failed as the political engine to revive the language.
If he presses ahead with his plan, he would be slaughtering one of the sacred cows of Irish education.
Tens of thousands of students who see little value in learning Irish will welcome the move, but language activists warn that it could have a catastrophic effect.
Conradh na Gaeilge, the Irish language movement, warned that making Irish optional could cause a dramatic decline in the number of students taking the subject.
Julian de Spáinn, general secretary of Conradh na Gaeilge, said the measure could de-motivate students right through the school system.
"You could have parents telling their children in second class in primary school not to worry about the subject, because they do not have to study it at the Leaving Cert. That attitude could spread through an entire class.''
Activists also fear that tens of thousands will give up Irish because languages are perceived to be difficult subjects.
"Pupils will give up Irish at the Leaving Cert, because they will feel that they will be able to pick up more points in the Leaving Cert by doing an easier subject,'' said Julian de Spáinn.
In Britain, compulsory modern languages were abolished in second-level schools in 2002 and this prompted a sharp decline in the number of pupils taking them.
Participation at GCSE level, the British equivalent of the Junior Cert, plummeted from 80% to 50%.
While languages declined in free schools in Britain, they continued to be compulsory in fee-paying schools. According to Conradh na Gaeilge, there is a danger that Irish could become the preserve of an elite.
Making Irish optional has been Fine Gael policy for over half a decade.
Enda Kenny, himself a fluent speaker, has said that most students leave second-level without any reasonable command of the language, even though they have received about 1,500 hours of tuition.
Describing compulsion as "a blunt tool'', Enda Kenny argues that those who continue with the language should share classes with students who want to be there, rather than those who wish they were somewhere else.
Although he is a passionate linguist and an enthusiastic Irish speaker, Dr Kevin Williams, senior lecturer at the Mater Dei Institute of Education, supports moves to scrap Irish after the Junior Certificate.
Dr Williams said: "By all means, we should insist that young people have some experience of learning Irish. But it is misguided to insist that after the Junior Cert all young people spend a further two years studying a subject in which some have no interest or for which they show no aptitude."
In spite of the best efforts of teachers, he said reluctant learners were unlikely to derive much profit or pleasure from compulsory language subjects.
'I have come across young people who, after 11 or 12 years of being forced to learn the language, know hardly a single word of it. Once I addressed a senior pupil by the Irish version of his name and he informed me that he had no idea of what I was talking about.''
Dr Williams said: "I heard of Irish fans in the USA in 1994 during the World Cup assuming that the broadcast in Irish of the match between Ireland and Norway was in Norwegian."
If Fine Gael abolishes compulsion at the Leaving Cert, it will be one of the most radical changes in the language's development. A lot will hinge on Fine Gael's likely coalition partner, Labour.
Labour's Education spokesman Ruairi Quinn was non-committal when I contacted him this week. "We have no specific proposals on the issue,'' he said.
Although it plans to abolish compulsory Irish at the Leaving Cert, Fine Gael supported the Government's new strategy for the language, which was launched last month.
The Government's 20-year-plan proposed that other subjects, apart from Irish, could be taught through the medium of the language in primary schools.
To take one example, under this plan a teacher in an infants class in a primary school would teach art through Irish. Teaching extra subjects through Irish in primary school would require extra training for teachers.
In recent years, the Government has focused on trying to give greater emphasis to the spoken language in schools. From 2012, students will be awarded 40% of their marks for the oral part of the Leaving Cert.
Although this move has been welcomed by Irish teachers in mainstream schools, Conradh na Gaeilge has expressed concern that the syllabus has been dumbed down.
Robbie Cronin, the ASTI's Gaeilge subject representative and teacher at Marian College in Dublin, opposes the FG plan to abolish compulsory Irish at the leaving Cert.
"We should concentrate on getting the teaching of Irish right, and see how the new focus on oral Irish works, before making it optional,'' he said.
"It would be a terrible shame if Irish became an elitist language that is only learned by a few students at the Leaving Cert.''