Act Now? Celtic languages in Ireland and the UK…

Now mostly retired, Terry McClatchey has worked in health and social care services across various locations in Ireland and Britain.

Many words have been traded on the topic of an Irish Language Act for Northern Ireland but they mostly generate more heat than light. I want to propose that the debate could be greatly helped by moving away from the binary rhetoric of “Act Now” versus “Never, never, never…” and working towards reaching an agreement on a fair and sustainable arrangement that can command a workable degree of consensus. I understand that is not an easy challenge. There is political gain for politicians and lobbyists who can appeal to their own bases by taking the most extreme line. Why go for messy compromise when your most reliable voters will respond to promises of red meat and provoking the other lot is always good fun?

I come to this from a very pragmatic perspective. I have lived, worked and studied in both Irish jurisdictions and in Wales. I have lived and worked in Cornwall and worked on a visiting basis in Scotland and on the Isle of Man. All these places have differing relationships to their ancient Celtic languages. Having worked in health and social care services; I have had to comply with and try to implement a range of legislation, regulation and guidance as it has varied by jurisdiction and over time.

The “Acht na Gaeilge anois!” campaign has strong rhetorical force. After all, why has this not happened already? It was promised (together with provision for Ulster Scots) in outline in the GFA and the commitment was reinforced in 2006 at St Andrews. A legislative “Bill” is currently wending its way through the Westminster Parliament. This is not however a Bill that will lead directly to a standalone Act either for Irish or Ulster Scots. If it completes its passage, it will make insertions into the NI Act of 1998 and may technically fulfil the St Andrew’s commitment to have introduced legislation in respect of “National and Cultural Language and Identity”.

Like much recent UK legislation (NI Protocol Bill being a prime example) it does not so much specify what is to happen but it legislates to allow Westminster Ministers (and maybe in this case the First Minister and Deputy FM) a wide range of discretion to regulate and fund developments that are articulated only in the broadest of generalities on the face of the Act. The current Bill does provide for administrative structures to include an “Office for Identity and Cultural Expression,” a “Castlereagh Foundation” to fund and support academic research and appointments of an “Irish Language Commissioner” and a “Commissioner for the Ulster Scots and the British Tradition.” The brief for all these bodies is aspirational and open-ended and does not specify the sources or quantities of funding that may be available to them.

Some previous attempts have been made to set out what a specific Irish Language Act would include. A 2017 “discussion document” from Conradh na Gaeilge (CnG) offers a broad proposal for 11 Sections of an ILA and they publish some costings that suggest a comprehensive Act (Irish only, not Ulster Scots) could be delivered for around £2M per annum with £9M of set-up costs. An earlier document from POBAL (2012) does not offer any costings but sets out some legalistic language that they proposed to be incorporated into a draft Act.

The easy assumption is that the new Commissioners and the “Office of Identity and Cultural Expression” would simply replicate the sorts of language protections that already exist in other parts of the UK. This however ignores the very great differences between other UK schemes and the sensitivities/aspirations of differing populations. The “why can’t we have the same as them” argument ignores the fact that they are not the same as each other and have very different cost, consent and other implications. From my own experience, I can witness that the requirements of the Welsh Language Act are very much stronger both in principle and in practice than the reality that prevails in Ireland. The easy line, “why can’t we just do it like Wales?” implies that NI would have stronger language requirements than are currently available in RoI.

At a basic level, the costings offered by Conradh na Gaeilge bear little comparison to the reality of Wales – or even Scotland that offers notably weaker support for its Gaelic users. A formal disclosure from the Scottish Government released in April of this year indicated that its own expenditure for the years between 2017 and 2020 varied between around £28M and £31M. That is in addition to expenditure by the BBC, local authorities and other bodies. On a similar basis, the Welsh Government declared its own central budget for the Welsh language in the year 20221/22 to be around £37M. Within that, the allocation for the Welsh Language Commissioner’s office alone is around £3.3M.

Again, the Welsh Government’s budgets are additional to substantial expenditure within local authorities, public bodies and large private businesses. As a mid-sized local authority (1 of 22) without a strong tradition of Welsh speakers, Torfaen estimated that it would spend around £868K in 2016. Authorities with a stronger commitment and greater demand for Welsh medium services such as Gwynedd and Ceredigion will spend much more. Against these big numbers; the Conradh na Gaeilge estimates look pitifully small and omit any additional budget (equal or not) for Ulster Scots provision. Even allowing for some inflation indexing, the budget gap is massive and does not align with equality of expectation.

It would of course be possible to enhance Irish language support with an additional budget of £2M. As an objective measure, the CnG costings are based on a total staffing of 12 persons for the whole of NI to include translators, interpreters and the Commissioner. They do not even budget for the Commissioner to have a personal assistant or deputy. At the same time, they (and POBAL) set expectations for this senior person to carry and deliver on responsibilities for which the Comisiynydd y Gymraeg has a dedicated departmental budget of £3.3M pa. Whilst some adjustment might be made for population differences, the cost of running language services does not vary much by numbers. Translating for a big meeting is the same as translating for a small meeting. Printing 100,000 documents does not cost much more than 1,000 documents after the first has been translated and a print run set up.

The ”let’s just do it the same as the Welsh?” claim also falls down on the basis of the level of compulsion that is involved. Both the Conradh na Gaeilge proposal and Carál Ní Chuilín as Minister in her foreword to the 2015 consultation, go out of their way to assure against compulsion and emphasise positive support for those who wish to learn and use Irish.

When I worked for a Welsh local authority, I was required by contract of employment to answer all external telephone calls in Welsh. I was given basic training to do that and I had a prompt card on my phone to remind me of the approved wording with variations for morning and afternoon. I could eventually rattle this off without too much thought but the problem for me (and most of my colleagues) was that if the caller wished to continue in Welsh, our own command of the language was too weak to do so effectively. When this actually happened (a few times a year), the procedure was that I would explain in English that I would take their number and find (with some difficulty) a fluent Welsh-speaking colleague to call them back to transact their business as required by the LA’s language scheme. What usually happened after this was that the caller would berate me for several minutes on the inadequacy of the service, decline to accept the hassle of the call-back offer and having subjected me to what they considered sufficient humiliation, would agree to transact the original business in English.

On a similar basis, if I received a letter in Welsh, the requirement was that it be answered in Welsh. This required me to send off the letter to the support unit, wait for a translation in English, deal with the matters concerned, draft a reply in English, send that off again for translation into Welsh and then apply my signature in the blind hope that nothing had been lost or corrupted in the translation process. This messy and inadequate compromise took place in a system that is hugely better resourced than anyone is proposing for NI – yet they are offering to meet higher expectations. Postal responses most certainly did not happen on a “just as timely” basis as an English only service.

In my experience of working in services in Ireland, I was often struck as to how much less (in most parts of Ireland) is expected when compared to equivalent areas in Wales. For events in Wales that attract perhaps 60-100 members of the public, it would routinely be expected that simultaneous translation be provided. People in Ireland would look at me as a weirdo if I suggested that provision might be required for similar meetings. When such services are provided in Wales, they are often little used outside the strong Welsh speaking heartlands. On a number of occasions, I witnessed zero take up of expensively bought in services. Quite often, a self-employed translator would be sent home at the half-way point of an all-day event having established that no one wished to make use of their services. For some cynical translators, this was a great cash cow. They would turn up for the morning, collect the fee for the whole day, gather in the rented headsets and go home early. Most translators are not cynical and genuinely love the languages in which they operate. More usually, a small number of participants would wish to demonstrate their commitment to the promotion of Welsh so they would take the headsets to spare the translator’s blushes even if they didn’t actually use them for the whole day. When such things happen, people mutter about “a waste of money” and the influence of the “Taffia” [a mythical elite of Welsh speakers who live by the banks of the river Taff in the Cardiff equivalent of D4]. Such resentments do not however have strong political force.

As I have indicated, not all language protection legislation or support schemes are the same across the jurisdictions. The very clearest divide is in the strength of compulsion that is applied. Law by definition requires people to do things but it can be permissive or encouraging of things rather than compelling people to do things on pain of criminal, civil, employment or other penalties. The great under-said part of the Irish language debate is as to whether people will be required to learn the language. The assurances of non-compulsion offered by Carál Ní Chuilín in her consultation foreword and by CnG in their “myth busters,” seem to make this explicit. The CnG cost projections certainly make no provision for extending Irish teaching into all schools. Even given unlimited funds, where would sufficiently well qualified teachers be found to deliver equality of input into all schools? Schools in traditionally loyalist/unionist areas would most certainly be resistant to such inputs. Would a newly qualified teacher from Gaeltacht Chiarraí really want their first job to involve going into classes of adolescents in a loyalist area and trying to tell them why they must study and pass exams in Irish?

No one of course is actually proposing any such thing but they say it very softly. Ireland and Wales do have universal compulsion. When my children were at school in Wales, the only choice was between learning Welsh in a English medium school or have total imersion in an Ysgol Gymraig. It is contradictory to say “of course no compulsion” at the same time as “we are only asking for what Wales and Ireland have”. It might be more realistic to make a loose comparison with Scotland that has a promotional rather than a compulsory system. The CnG estimate of £2M pa is certainly more than the £170K pa that Cornwall has to support its 600K population. There is a choice to be made between a low-cost/light-touch system and one that is high-cost and threatens penalties for non-compliance. It is disingenuous to claim or even give the impression, that systems at different ends of this continuum will deliver equivalence of outcome.

From my experience, the one area where Ireland gives stronger practical expression to language promotion than Wales is in access to higher education. While every child resident in Wales learns some Welsh at primary and secondary school, Universities in Wales make no specifications for competence execept for those courses in Welsh or Celtic studies etc where it is a programme-specific requirement. For matriculation at the National University of Ireland however, “Candidates born in the Republic of Ireland (26 counties) must pass Irish…”. This is intended to promote the use of Irish and obviously provides a strong incentive for young Irish people. It is obviously not required for academic purposes unless of course the programme of studies involves the use of Irish. Students from the northern jurisdiction who haven’t studied Irish as well as those from GB, Australia, the USA or other anglophone counties can perfectly happily complete their studies in Ireland through the medium of English. They can claim exemption from the compulsion that is applied to Irish (RoI) applicants. If after 3 years they learn to say “sláinte” in the bar or can reproduce the name of Coláiste na hOllscoile Corcaigh or Ollscoil na hÉireann Gaillimh as it’s written or their sports shirt; they will have done well.

If/when a United Ireland comes about, will former northern jurisdication students who haven’t had the opportunity/compulsion to study Irish be excluded from NUI institutions? One assumes that the intellectual firepower of the academics at NUI and its constituent universities will equip them well enough to finesse this anomaly. While they are at it, they may need to do some tidying up to avoid pedantic challenges from applicants resident in modern counties such as Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown or Fingal who might argue that they too are from outside the “26”.

The case is often made (in Slugger comments and elsewhere) that the reason that we don’t have an “Acht Anois” is that the Unionists/Brits are just sectarian bigots who hate the language and want to take any opportunity to purge its use. This argument is not entirely without merit. It is however overstating the case. Most unionists do not hate the Irish language or want to prevent other people learning or using it if they wish to do so. What they do have, is a very deep fear that they will be required to use Irish. In so far as assurances of “threatens no one” or “no compulsion” are offered; those are not heard because they are outweighed by mixed messages of equivalence with other jurisdictions.

Many unionists would be greatly reassured if they knew that most people in Ireland (and Wales) get on perfectly well with minimal knowledge of the traditional language. They don’t know this because they don’t spend much (if any) time across the border where they might meet real people. A day out at the Aviva or passing through the airport or Dublin harbour enroute to elsewhere, does not provide much exposure except that they notice the bilingual road signs that most Irish people mentally filter out. Politicians and language advocates will never pass on the thoughts of reluctant adolescents preparing for the Leaving Cert whose reflections on the Irish Language might cause Gregory Campbell to curry his yoghurt.

Many unionists wonder why the Irish get so sensitive when they have made the effort to call their country Eire and they can quite clearly remember coins and stamps with Éire written on them. Why do those little accents matter so much when they are not even available on a computer keyboard? Why do the Scottish people proudly use Gaelic to describe their minority language when Dara Ó Briain tells us that “talking Gaelic” can only be used to describe discussion of sporting events with arithmetically challenging scoring systems? In as much as most unionists give any thought to these matters, the degree of brain-hurt is overwhelming such that they are only too willing for government to hand over some money so that the enthusiasts can go away and speak whatever language they want as long as they don’t bother us.

The people who are really frightened of the Irish language are Unionist politicians and their opinion matters. Unlike most of their voters, politicians cannot just close their eyes and hand over some money to make an awkward issue go away. They would have no problem with simultaneous translation in the Stormont chamber. That’s no different from international meetings where you switch off for the “foreign“ bits and wait for the version you understand. Bilingual documents are also no problem. It may be a waste of money but it’s a great relief if you receive a bulky document that you have a deadline to read and find that you can immediately consign half of it to the recycling bin.

By this stage, anyone who has followed Stormont proceedings could make a fair fist of parroting the “Go raibh maith agat, Cheann Comhairle” line even if they couldn’t write it. Advanced students might be alert enough to notice a change of personnel and switch to the “Leas-Cheann Comhairle” version when circumstances require. In the present context, no Unionist politician would do this. They would get “Lundied” by their own side and be terrified of getting their pronunciation wrong. They have heard that “down there” even Gerry Adams and Leo Varadkar have been ridiculed for their lack of fluency.

The problems get even worse if Unionist politicians have to go abroad to “Southern Ireland”. Most have now learnt the basic roles of Taoiseach and Tánaiste etc but is it “The Taoiseach” or “An Taoiseach” and what panic if it’s a meeting where you might meet a plurality of former holders of that office? Not too bad if you’re writing in advance and can get your SPAD to check all those tricky spellings and accents etc but horror-of-horrors, what would happen if you were at one of those cross-border meetings and you had to write one of those words that you sort of know on a flip-chart or whiteboard? Total nightmare! Just think of the grief Liz Truss got for her recent “Tea Sock” attempt?

I speculate that some current Unionist politicians might quite fancy themselves as representatives in Dáil Éireann. A bit of taxpayer funded accommodation in Dublin would be great for rugger weekends or concerts at The Point. But how do you say the name of that place. They know you can drop the Éireann bit and that saves one fada but is it Dawl, Daw-ill or Doyle? Do those Irish people know how to use their own language? Is it regional variation and if so, which one is the Ulster version? Or is it just a Machiavellian plot to keep changing the pronunciation so as to gaslight unwelcome interlopers? Irish language names are difficult for the uninitiated so it’s good that there is an opportunity to be super-polite and address the top dog as Mr Martin. Micheál is difficult and they know Michael is wrong so best stick with formality. Woe betide the unfortunate unionist politician who has been listening over-attentively to the detractors of the Taoiseach and inadvertently copies those who pronounce his forename with the scatological variation.

On recent numbers, it seems like a British People’s Party (or some such title with unionist no longer applicable) would be able to command a place in most all-Ireland coalition governments if they wanted to participate. A major impediment is again the language. They have learnt the Cheann Comhairle lines and can read and maybe pronounce some other key names for public bodies – but what if someone throws you a curve ball? Language anxiety is not confined to learners of Irish. Many of us will have had the experience of visiting a European county where we have learned something of the language at school. When approaching a counter, you rehearse your best lines and are reasonably confident that you’ve got it right. You’re hoping for the quick handover of items or tickets and a broad smile in acknowledgement of your very best effort to respect your host’s language. If instead you are greeted with a rapidly delivered and complex supplementary question; it’s panic time. Can you scramble a meaningful response or do you just absorb the humiliation as your multi-lingual interlocutor bails you out in perfectly constructed English?

One of the things that Wales is really good at is support for its Welsh learners. They know that there is no binary divide between speakers and non-speakers and give every encouragement to those beginning or progressing along the journey. A young sports star will be encouraged to do post-event interviews on Welsh medium TV even if they are struggling to remember the basics of what they learned at school. They will be given prompts, allowed to lapse into English and errors are be overlooked. International rugby personalities like Warren Gatland or Bryan Habana will be interviewed in English but can play the language game and conclude an interview on Sianel 4 Cymru with a few set lines of greetings and thanks in Welsh. They receive great kudos for doing so. Can we imagine circumstances where similar generosities were extended to unionist politicians taking their first tentative steps in Irish? I think we should.

The rhetoric around “Acht Anois!” raises anxiety and expectations beyond what is justified by the reality of what is possible in a low-budget and non-compulsory proposal. NI will not (even if it were hypothetically and immediately absorbed into the current Irish system) have anything like the level of language support that is currently available in Wales.

I’m sure there will be commentators below who suggest that unionist politicians deserve no sympathy, generosity, understanding or encouragement. As a matter of short-term pragmatism however; unionist politicians can unlock progress to additional support for the Irish Language. If their fears can be reduced, they are more likely to go along with it – even if hesitantly. For those who aspire to a united Ireland, reluctant minorities have to be included and brought along if they are to be united into a new entity. If the unionism of the 1920s taught us anything; it is that large minorities do not go away no matter how badly you treat them.

To be clear, I do not oppose legislation in support of learners and users of the Irish language. I don’t personally think that Irish and Ulster Scots are direct equivalents but if supporting them in parallel lubricates progress; I think that is a worthwhile compromise. What does not help is simplistic rhetoric implying that a low-cost/low-compulsion scheme can instantly deliver the same outcomes as high-cost/high-compulsion schemes. Such rhetoric is counterproductive as it raises false expectations for supporters and unnecessarily exacerbates the fears of opponents.

Donate to keep Slugger lit!

For over 20 years, Slugger has been an independent place for debate and new ideas. We have published over 40,000 posts and over one and a half million comments on the site. Each month we have over 70,000 readers. All this we have accomplished with only volunteers we have never had any paid staff.

Slugger does not receive any funding, and we respect our readers, so we will never run intrusive ads or sponsored posts. Instead, we are reader-supported. Help us keep Slugger independent by becoming a friend of Slugger.

While we run a tight ship and no one gets paid to write, we need money to help us cover our costs.

If you like what we do, we are asking you to consider giving a monthly donation of any amount, or you can give a one-off donation. Any amount is appreciated.