| 15.3°C Dublin

Concubhar O Liathain: Gaeltacht needs helmsmen to steer through sea change

Agardener-cum-Gaeltacht activist found out to his cost last week that freedom of expression is a devalued currency in this fair isle of ours.

Donal O Cnaimhsi from Gaoth Dobhair works in Glenveagh National Park, which comes under the auspices of the Department of Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs. He is also a prominent member of a group called Guth na Gaeltachta (The Voice of the Gaeltacht), a campaigning group which advocates for Gaeltacht rights.

His trenchant views demanding more time for debate on the new Gaeltacht Bill -- currently careering through the Oireachtas as if it were on speed -- which pointed out some flaws identified by the group in the Bill gave rise to some unexpected correspondence from a functionary in the department which he received when he returned from paternity leave after the birth of a new daughter.

Apparently he might have breached a term of his employment contract by speaking out on issues relating to the Gaeltacht, he was advised in a letter addressed to Donal Bonnar, the anglicised form of his name.

Let's get this straight first of all. Many, but not all, Irish speakers use the Irish version of their names not because they want to cause unnecessary angst to bored bureaucrats who want to fill the time of day by anglicising names of employees whose names are in Irish and whom they would like to reprimand. It's simply that this is their name.

It is likely, too, that this is the name they used when signing an employment contract. It doesn't make them more or less Irish than anybody but, in a country where Irish is supposedly the official first language, it shouldn't be against the law, should it, to use the Irish version of one's name?

The Gaeltacht Bill being rushed through the legislative process for no good reason should be debated robustly in its every detail.

One of the arguments made rather disingenuously by the Gaeltacht Junior Minister, Dinny McGinley, an honourable man from the Gaeltacht, is that there have been numerous reports and studies over the past 20 years or more which have pointed to the decline of spoken Irish in Gaeltacht areas and that now is not the time for more talk but action.

In a sense, of course, he's right. There has been the report of the Gaeltacht Commission in 2000, the Comprehensive Study on the Use of Irish in the Gaeltacht in 2007 and the 20-year Strategy for Irish in 2010, and these have all prompted separate consultations.

The Gaeltacht Bill, however, flies in the face of all that has gone before in that it proposes many radical -- but ill thought out -- reforms to the way the Gaeltacht is being run.

For instance, the Bill proposes reducing the membership of the Board of Udaras na Gaeltachta from 20 to 12 members, and ending the practice of electing some of these members in Gaeltacht elections.

What is proposed to replace this arrangement, however politicised it became, is even more flawed. One member each will be selected by the county councils attached to the four largest Gaeltachtai -- Donegal, Mayo, Galway and Kerry -- to serve on the board for a six-year term. A fifth member will be rotated between the county councils of Cork, Meath and Waterford, the local authorities attached to the smaller Gaeltachtai, and that member will serve for a term of two years.

The fact that these Gaeltachtai (including the one in which I live myself) are smaller does not mean that less Irish is spoken there. In fact I would say that they each punch above their weight in that particular contest.

The remainder of the board members, including the cathaoirleach/chairperson, will be nominated by the minister himself. The link to the county councils is being spun as an effort to maintain the 'democratic aspect'.

These measures are being proposed as a cost-cutting move in these recessionary times. They, apparently, will save a total of €1m in each term of the Udaras board.

One significant flaw in this proposal is that the only qualification for membership explicitly stipulated in the legislation is that each new member should be fluent in Irish. My own job specification for a board member of Udaras na Gaeltachta would be far more ambitious because I recognise that the Gaeltacht isn't so much dying but going through a massive change.

A change of management to ensure the best possible result -- a vibrant community in which Irish is a living language in my view -- is vital at this stage.

New board members would need to be expert and passionate in any number of areas -- including language planning, business development, community activism, cultural and technological advances.

The CV of an aspiring board member should be one which equips that person to steer and direct the Gaeltacht into a new age and phase of development. When I look at the serried ranks of county councillors through the length and breadth of Gaeltacht counties, I, as a Gaeltacht resident, am not inspired with confidence.

An expertise in language planning is a prerequisite given that the Udaras will now be charged with overseeing language planning throughout the various Gaeltachtai. The various Gaeltachtai will have to draft language plans which will include measures to increase the number of daily Irish speakers in the Gaeltacht.

There's no extra money to bring about this aim -- so we will have to be clever about how we do it. Training, apparently, will be provided 'on the job', but who's to know if we will succeed or not. Because there's no independent mechanism in place to assess the number of daily Irish speakers at the beginning, in the middle and at the end of this process. It's self assessment all the way.

The language planning should inspire confidence. This doesn't.

It's one of the many flaws of the new Gaeltacht Bill, the first since 1956 when the current Gaeltachtai were set out by the then Gaeltacht minister, the late Paddy Lindsay. If we waited 56 years for a new Gaeltacht Bill, we should be able to allow a bit more time for more robust and honest debate about the latest edition before it is enacted into law.

This debate should not be stifled either by the dead hand of bureaucrats writing letters to gardeners.

Sunday Independent