Official Report (Hansard)

Session: 2007/2008

Date: 07 February 2008

Linguistic Diversity

7 February 2008

Members present for all or part of the proceedings:
Mr Barry McElduff (Chairperson)
Mr David McNarry (Deputy Chairperson)
Mr Dominic Bradley
Mr Francie Brolly
Lord Browne
Mr Kieran McCarthy
Mr Nelson McCausland
Mr Paul Maskey
Mr Pat Ramsey
Mr Ken Robinson
Mr Jim Shannon

Witnesses:
Mr Brian Smart ) Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure
Mr Stephen Shimmon )

The Chairperson:
We are due to receive a briefing from Mr Brian Smart, head of linguistic operations branch and acting head of culture and language diversity policy branch in the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure. We welcome Brian, who was with us last week, and Mr Stephen Shimmon, the Department’s director of culture.

Mr Stephen Shimmon (Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure):
I am a deputy principal in linguistic operations branch. The director of culture was unable to attend this meeting.

Mr Brian Smart (Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure):
Linda Wilson, the director of culture, has sent her apologies. The Minister is attending a North/South Ministerial Council (NSMC) plenary session, and Linda is covering another meeting in his place.

Mr Brolly:
For Brian’s information, on last week’s list of witnesses, his name was spelt as “Brain” — “Brain Smart”.

Mr Smart:
I will try to live up to that. [Laughter.]

The Chairperson:
The departmental briefing papers were issued to members on Tuesday: they were left in members’ offices. Members were asked to insert the briefing paper into their packs.

Mr Smart:
I thank the Committee for the opportunity to talk about the work of linguistic operations branch. I have attended several Committee meetings to talk about indigenous languages in Northern Ireland.

The briefing paper contains information about the operation of the branch. We have a budget of approximately £6∙5 million, which comprises £5∙8 million for the North/South Language Body; £36,000 for consultancy and translation costs, hospitality, travel and subsistence; and a salaries budget of £587,000.

The aims and objectives of the branch are to give policy advice, support and guidance to Ministers, colleagues and others on linguistic issues, which includes issues related to Irish and Ulster Scots. The branch has no grant-making capacity; that function is carried out by bodies that the Department funds.

The main aspect of our work is connected with the North/South Language Body. Our aims and objectives for the body are as follows. The branch is responsible for ensuring that the body complies with all corporate governance and fiscal management of external sponsored bodies through regular monitoring of corporate and business plans; identifying outstanding audit and financial memorandum issues; monitoring expenditure of both the body’s agencies; liaising with all Departments and organisations, both North and South, to establish and develop policies; and preparing papers for North/South Ministerial Council meetings.

The North/South Language Body was established by the North/South Co-operation (Implementation Bodies) ( Northern Ireland) Order 1999. Linguistic operations branch — along with colleagues in the Department of Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs and the Department of Finance in the South and the Department of Finance and Personnel in the North — advises Ministers and the North/South Ministerial Council on, and provides support to, the North/South Language Body. The body has two agencies, Foras na Gaeilge and Tha Boord o Ulster-Scotch.

The functions of Foras na Gaeilge include promoting the Irish language; facilitating and encouraging its use in speech and writing in public and private life in the South and, in the context of Part III of the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages, in Northern Ireland, where there is appropriate demand; advising both Administrations, public bodies and other groups in the private and voluntary sectors; undertaking supportive projects and grant-aiding bodies and groups as considered necessary; undertaking research, promotional campaigns and public and media relations; developing terminology and dictionaries; and supporting Irish-medium education and the teaching of Irish.

Tha Boord o Ulster-Scotch is charged with the promotion of greater awareness and use of Ullans and of Ulster-Scots cultural issues, both in Northern Ireland and throughout the island. The agency has managed that through support for a number of community-based projects, which have included summer schools, Highland dancing, pipe-band competitions, etc.

The funding for the North/South Language Body for 2007 was £16·4 million, of which the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure provided £5·4 million. The provision for 2008 is £17·6 million, of which the Department for Culture, Arts and Leisure will provide £6·1 million. The balance of the funding is provided by the Irish Government through the Department of Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs.

Linguistic operations branch monitors the activities and expenditure of the North/South Language Body, prepares relevant papers for the North/South Ministerial Council and approves the body’s business and corporate plans. The projected Northern Ireland funding for the North/South Language Body for the next three years is: for the Ulster-Scots Agency over the comprehensive spending review cycle for 2008-09, it will be £2·542 million, rising to £2·769 million in 2009-10 and to £2,996 million in 2101-11; for Foras na Gaeilge over the comprehensive spending review cycle for 2008-09, it will be £3·594 million, rising to £3·666 million in 2009-10 and to £3,738 million in 2101-11. The Minister pointed out that there was convergence over the cycle in relation to the support that the Department would be giving to the Ulster-Scots Agency and Foras na Gaeilge.

Members will have heard of the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages, and I will now set out the aims and objectives of the charter and the branch’s involvement. The branch’s aim is to meet the departmental corporate goal of encouraging respect for, and celebration of, diversity through promoting and encouraging indigenous minority languages in line with the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages, the Belfast Agreement and the St Andrews Agreement Act 2006. That is achieved through co-ordinating the Northern Ireland input to the UK Government’s periodical report to the Council of Europe, and the third UK report will be submitted in June 2008; co-ordinating the Northern Ireland Assembly’s comments to the Committee of Expert’s (Comex) report on the UK’s compliance with the charter; developing Irish language and Ulster-Scots strategies, which is to be completed by Autumn 2008; overseeing and providing a secretariat to the interdepartmental charter implementation group (ICIG); and working closely with colleagues in other jurisdictions and providing support to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in preparing the third charter report. I do not propose to go into the background, as the briefing that members received from the Research and Library Service has covered that.

Linguistic operations branch chairs the interdepartmental implementation charter group in Northern Ireland. The group’s remit is to provide Departments and the devolved Administration with advice on implementing the charter and preparing progress reports; monitor the implementation of the charter; advise on resource implications; and develop guidance for Departments. The UK submitted the first report to the Council of Europe in June 2002.

In 2005, linguistic operations branch issued guidance to all Departments on the use of the Irish language in official business to help them to meet the UK charter commitments. That guidance was received in 2007, prior to devolution.

Representatives from the Committee of Experts visited Northern Ireland in 2003 and 2006 to discuss the implementation of the charter in Northern Ireland. Following each visit, Comex reports on the application of the charter in the UK were received. The Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure circulated those reports to members of ICIG and then forwarded their comments to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, which co-ordinates responses from the devolved Administrations and Whitehall Departments, before submitting a UK Government response to Comex.

Following that, and having received the UK Government’s response to its report, Comex forwards its final report, together with the UK Government’s response, to the Council of Ministers, which decides exactly what should be published. The next Comex visit is scheduled for late 2008 or early 2009.

Linguistic operations branch’s wider responsibilities include the provision of a translation and interpreting service for Irish and Ulster Scots. That involves the co-ordination and running of a competent translation service on behalf of the Northern Ireland Civil Service, and in keeping with charter obligations. The branch oversees the system by agreeing contractual arrangements with translators; co-ordinating requests from Departments and associated bodies; examining proposals for the development of available services, such as Trados; and by providing appropriate advice and guidance for translators. By May 2008, we hope to roll out the translation advisory committee’s guidance, which will be available on the Department’s website.

Demand for translation and interpreting services from Departments and associated public bodies has increased since the reinstatement of devolution. Linguistic operations branch administers a central service on behalf of all Departments and deals with requests from colleagues for help with Irish, Ulster Scots, minority and ethnic and other languages. A call-off contract panel of Irish translators has been set up, and a quality-assurance mechanism is in place.

We are developing an Irish database for the Trados translation memory software system, which accelerates and partly automates the translation process, enabling translators to work faster and more efficiently. That database is nearing completion and, in the hands of a competent translator, should enable faster and more cost-effective translations and the consistent use of appropriate standardised terminology.

We have submitted a breakdown of the costs of translations into Irish, Ulster Scots and minority and ethnic languages — including sign language — for all Departments during 2006-07. Those figures should be self-explanatory, although members may wish to ask questions later.

Colmcille is another area of linguistic operations branch’s work. Colmcille was established with the aims and objectives of fostering support for the Gaelic language and developing links between Gaelic Scotland and Ireland. The Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure is one of three sponsors — the others come from the Scottish Executive and the Republic of Ireland’s Government — and linguistic operations branch is charged with ensuring the organisation’s compliance with all corporate governance and fiscal management of external sponsored bodies; monitoring its ongoing expenditure and the continuing value-for-money aspects of supporting the initiative; and the approval of business and corporate plans.

In June 1997, the Columba initiative was launched to foster closer cultural and linguistic ties between Gaelic-speaking communities in Scotland and the island of Ireland, and its scope encompasses economic and social development themes. Funding is provided equally by the Governments in the Republic of Ireland, Northern Ireland and Scotland. Proposals for Foras na Gaelige to administer the sponsor funding provided by the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure in Northern Ireland and the Department of Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs in the Republic of Ireland are being considered. Bórd na Gáidhlig already oversees the Scottish Government’s funding contribution. Each jurisdiction’s funding is £180,000 per annum.

In relation to the British-Irish Council’s subgroup on minority and lesser-used languages, linguistic operations branch engages with the other jurisdictions in order to share information and best practice concerning language issues. The British-Irish Council’s subgroup is exploring several new areas of co-operation between its members, including media and community development.

Linguistic operations branch provides administrative advice in response to ministerial queries and Assembly, parliamentary and Committee for Culture, Arts and Leisure questions about linguistic diversity. It also prepares papers for meetings of the North/South Ministerial Council and the British-Irish Council.

In addition, linguistic operations branch contributes to the Department’s corporate plan, the new targeting social need action plan, the equality scheme, and the Executive’s Programme for Government. It also provides a linguistic perspective on a wide range of policy issues arising from the work of the devolved Administration and the UK Government.

Mr McCausland:
I have questions about a couple of specific points. I understand that people in the Civil Service are extremely well paid; however, how many staff do you have to justify spending £587,000 on salaries?

Mr Smart:
There are eight support staff, which means that, altogether, there are nine members of staff.

Mr McCausland:
Your submission mentions preparing the third charter report. In order that I can understand the cycle, the first was submitted in June 2002, and the second was —

Mr Smart:
The second report was submitted last year, and it came before the Council of Ministers in June, or possibly March, 2007. It was accepted at that time. We are working with our colleagues in England, Scotland and Wales to prepare our response. Manx and Jersiaise, from Jersey, are other languages —

Mr McCausland:
You referred to another report. Does that mean that you are starting work on the third report?

Mr Smart:
Yes, we are preparing our response. The UK Government signed up to the charter on behalf of the devolved Administrations. Therefore, the responses are co-ordinated by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office reports back; and we have worked with our colleagues to agree a standardised format to report back to Comex.

Mr McCausland:
If that report is to be submitted by the UK in June 2008, I assume that the Northern Ireland contribution would be completed by May 2008.

Mr Smart:
Yes, that is correct.

Mr McCausland:
I am interested to note that the British-Irish Council has a subgroup working on language. I was aware that such a group existed, but I have never seen what it does or produces. How do we access that information?

Mr Smart:
We can provide information on that. Wales is in the lead in languages, when not only North/South, but east-west relations — strand 3 of the Good Friday Agreement — are considered. The British-Irish Council has focused on how minority languages are portrayed by the media and the use of minority regional languages in the family.

Mr McCausland:
Who attends those meetings?

Mr Smart:
Civil servants attend them, and there are plenary meetings. For example, a plenary session of the British-Irish Council took place in 2007 in Galway and was hosted by Minister O’Cuiv. Ministers attended from throughout the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland, particularly from Scotland and Wales. They considered the use of minority languages in the family and in communities.

Mr McCausland:
Will any of that material come before the Committee, as a matter of regular practice?

Mr Smart:
If you felt that that would be beneficial, we would make that material available. The British-Irish Council secretariat produces reports on its various activities, such as transport and the Republic of Ireland’s drugs strategy. There are a number of different strands to the work of the British-Irish Council.

Mr McCausland:
I know a number of people who work in different minority language organisations, and they have no sense of what is happening at those meetings. Something is happening out there, but it is not filtering back onto the ground. Some mechanism for that might be helpful.

Mr Smart:
We will take that forward.

Mr Shannon:
Thank you for the presentation. You listed the activities that Tha Boord o Ulster-Scotch is charged with, including summer schools. I understood that the Department of Education had some responsibility for summer schools; is that correct?

Mr Smart:
The Department of Education provides summer schools. At the Committee meeting on 31 January 2008, the Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure said that members might want to take that up with the Minister of Education.

Mr Shannon:
I made that point because I am keen to question the Minister of Education to find out what she has spent on Ulster-Scots summer schools. The presentation paper shows that the Department of Education spent £50·61 on Ulster Scots in 2006-07. I am not sure whether that was for digestive biscuits and Tetley teabags, but I am keen to know what that money was for. Was it for one translation and, if so, who was involved in that? I do not understand that figure.

Mr Smart:
The £50.61 is for translation into Ulster Scots.

Mr Shannon:
Was that for one request?

Mr Smart:
It was for one or two requests.

Mr Shannon:
I am happy for you to come back to me on that one. I do not expect you to have all the information at your fingertips; it would be unfair to expect that.

Mr Smart:
Thank you, Mr Shannon.

Mr Shannon:
The table on pages seven and eight of your submission shows a breakdown of departmental translation costs. The Department for Social Development and the Department of Education have fairly large costs for translations to ethnic languages — it will be £1 million before we know it. Are those high costs due to the arrival of ethnic groups to Northern Ireland? The Department for Social Development has such high costs because it deals with benefits, and the Department of Education accrues large costs for translation services. Where are costs for PSNI translation requirements listed?

Mr Smart:
Following accession and the expansion of the European Union, people from eastern European countries such as Poland, Latvia and Lithuania have moved to Northern Ireland. They are accessing public services that require translation. Many of those people also come before the courts. The table shows that almost £360,000 was spent last year on interpretation and translations for those people who came before the courts or those who were subject to arrest by the PSNI. That will explain the high costs accrued by the NIO.

Many costs are incurred by the Department of Education, because many ethnic minority families have children who attend schools here. There is, therefore, a requirement on schools to provide some materials during the early stages to assimilate those children into local education provision.

Mr Shannon:
I asked the question because I am curious to know whether the Budget has allocated money to deal with the obvious increase in people coming here. Have Departments had to dip into their resources to cover the extra costs?

Mr Smart:
Although we provide the service, the Departments pay for it. We act merely as a post box and provide the service and quality assure aspects of Irish-language translation, for example. For the sake of policy, it makes sense for us to have some sort of control over translations. That way, we will be able to provide the Committee with information on Departments’ expenditure on translation, for instance.

Mr Shannon:
I am concerned that people might be using language as a political tool when asking questions. I am sure that that is not the situation with the Irish language. I am especially concerned in light of the article in today’s ‘News Letter’ stating that an Irish language newspaper has folded because it was selling in the region of only 500 copies a week. That indicates that there is not a big demand for it. However, your branch and the Departments have no control over that.

Page nine of your submission refers to the British-Irish Council subgroup on minority and lesser-used languages. Do its costs come under the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister?

Mr Smart:
The secretariat lies there, and we are part of that group in our capacity of having responsibility for linguistic development.

Mr Shannon:
I want the Committee to be kept abreast of any discussions or engagement involving language. I want to be kept informed about those discussions, as, I am sure, does the Committee.

Mr K Robinson:
I understand why the Department of Education has £212,177.62 set aside for ethnic languages and the Department for Social Development has £257,924.33 set aside. However, I cannot understand why the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety (DHSSPS) has only £740.01 set aside for ethnic language translation costs. Surely there is a great interface between ethnic groups and health. I know of people who speak Gujarati and Hindu, for instance, and their family members translate for them. Surely that amount is not right.

Mr Smart:
I cannot comment on the requests to DHSSPS. However, some people who come to Northern Ireland from accession countries cannot, as the Committee knows, claim benefits until they have been in work and paying National Insurance contributions for at least a year. Therefore, it is possible that they are not approaching DHSSPS.

Mr K Robinson:
Does DHSSPS have an in-house provision that is separate from linguistic operations branch’s translation work? Would that explain the low figure?

Mr Smart:
In some situations, individual Departments are not duty bound — except in the case of Irish —to come through the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure and may decide, therefore, to provide translation services on the ground. Also, some areas in Dungannon and Portadown, for example, have large Portuguese communities, who come into contact with the Housing Executive and possibly go regularly to social security offices. Therefore, those offices are likely to provide translation services, which may account for the low cost of translation in DHSSPS.

Mr Brolly:
You mentioned the connection between the Gaels in Scotland and the Gaels in Ireland. Is there a similar connection between those who are helping to sustain Scots, as it is called in Scotland, and Ulster Scots?

Mr Smart:
The future development of the Ulster-Scots Agency and the Ulster-Scots community was discussed at the last meeting of the North/South Ministerial Council. Members talked about how the agency and community could develop a strategy of engagement with Scotland and North America, where a significant number of Ulster-Scots and Scots-Irish people live, particularity around Carolina and Nashville.

The next NSMC meeting will be on 16 April 2008, and Mark Thompson, who chairs the Ulster-Scots Agency and is also a member of the North/South Language Body, will present plans for such a strategy to Ministers. Given the links with Scotland, that is beneficial. More importantly, following the Smithsonian legacy, the Ulster-Scots and Scots-Irish communities in North America offer considerable potential for engagement.

Mr P Ramsey:
We have been talking about Irish and Ulster Scots as second languages. How does the Department promote sign language, which is the first and only language of many people?

Are the current proposals from the Columba initiative and Iomairt Cholm Cille revenue-based or capital-based? Can you give the Committee any information on previous projects that resulted from the initiative since its launch in 1997?

Mr Smart:
All funding for the initiative is revenue-based.

The Minister’s bid for £100,000 for additional work with sign languages, both Irish and British, was successful. We are working with Hands That Talk and the Royal National Institute for the Deaf on promoting sign language and training more people to use it. That money was secured as part of the comprehensive spending review. We are talking to interested groups about ways to progress and how to spend that money to promote, enhance and develop sign language.

Mr P Ramsey:
I have spoken to several groups, of which Hands That Talk is a good example, and they experience more problems with Departments other than the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure. Does the Committee have a role in encouraging the promotion of sign language at departmental level? Someone who has a hospital or dental appointment will experience difficulties in trying to explain the situation. That is much more relevant and far higher a priority than either the Irish language or Ulster Scots. What efforts are being made across Departments to ensure equality for those people who use only sign language?

Mr Smart:
Promotion of sign language is part of our strategy. One spin-off of that is that there will be a greater pool of people who can translate and interpret on behalf of those groups. We can only encourage Departments to meet their commitments in relation to people who need to use sign language for hospital appointments or in order to access other Government services. I am not sure whether there is any cross-departmental work in relation to sign language. That falls outwith my immediate responsibilities.

Mr P Ramsey:
Would that be the responsibility of the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister?

Mr Smart:
No. It is part of the wider work of the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure. I would be happy to come back to the Committee on that point.

Mr Brolly:
You mentioned Hands that Talk. David McClarty and I have been approached by that group, because it is in financial difficulty. I appreciate that you do not have a grant-making capacity, but you can provide training, and that is the area in which there is a shortfall of funding. Can you do anything to resolve that?

Mr Smart:
The Minister has met that group; it is one of the groups that we propose to fund in the incoming period. We have been in contact with that group. We have the expenditure for that type of work, and we are engaging with those groups, so that they can bring us their proposals.

Mr McCausland:
I wish to make a couple of quick points. I raised this point with the Minister last week, and I repeat it for the record, because it is terribly important. With regard to the report to Comex, in previous years, there have been complaints that some claims were, to say the least, somewhat disingenuous in the way in which they were reported. For example, people who want to learn Irish can go to a whole Irish-medium sector, but people who want to learn Ulster Scots can go to a six-week class in the Linen Hall Library. That does not meet the obligation of “resolute action”. There were also totally inaccurate figures on BBC provision. Can we be assured that claims that will be made this time will be honest and forthright? We do not want to end up in a situation where a claim is made, the community says that it is untrue, everyone ends up squabbling for six months, letters of apology are issued, and the claims are retracted six months down the line. That is no good to anybody. Let us be honest, we want a warts-and-all report.

Secondly, the Colmcille money is additional to the Foras na Gaeilge money. If work is to be done with Scotland in an east-west direction, presumably the Ulster-Scots Agency would receive additional money? Thirdly, although this is a reserved matter, how do we develop some sort of convergence of the two languages with regard to meeting the charter obligations on broadcasting?

Mr Smart:
Ok. As members will know, Comex is an independent group that makes an assessment based on what it hears and the background information that is provided. As a committee of experts, it probes various groups, individuals, Departments and other organisations that have an interest in the Ulster-Scots or Irish languages. We have no control over information that other groups might provide or what claims they might make on behalf of their respective languages or communities. We can provide background information on the activities that we sponsor through the North/South Language Body, which is made up of Foras na Gaeilge and the Ulster-Scots Agency. I acknowledge that people sometimes embellish information for the sake of strengthening their arguments. However, it is up to Comex to find a way to verify the claims.

Mr McCausland:
With regard to building relationships with the Department, the claims that will be made in its report, which is produced through the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, should be as truthful and accurate as possible.

Mr Smart:
I stand by the report, for which I have responsibility. The Department always accurately reports all its public statements.

Mr McCausland:
Its most recent report was somewhat creative. However, I accept your point that it was not your responsibility — it was that of your predecessor. I have absolute confidence that we will get an accurate report this time.

Mr Smart:
Turning then to additional funding, we have to wait on the proposals from the Ulster-Scots Agency with regard to activities in Scotland and North America. Then the Minister will have to make a decision on whether he wants the plan to be fulfilled within the existing allocations, or whether he will be able to find additional money for it. Given that the funding is split, any additional money for Ulster Scots would have to be approved by the Republic of Ireland Government and the Northern Ireland Assembly, in the same way as it would be for Foras na Gaeilge.

Mr K Robinson:
Who is your counterpart for promoting Ulster Scots in the Department of Education?

Mr Smart:
The Department of Education’s representative on the interdepartmental charter implementation group is John Leonard, who is head of the Department’s top management support unit. Dr Chris Hughes, who is the project manager for the Department of Education’s review of Irish-medium education, attends ICIG when its business impacts on his policy area.

The Chairperson:
Thank you for coming along today.

Find Your MLA

tools-map.png

Locate your local MLA

Find MLA

News and Media Centre

tools-media.png

Read press releases, watch live and archived video

Find out more

Follow the Assembly

tools-social.png

Keep up to date with what’s happening at the Assem

Find out more

Contact information

tools-newsletter.png

Contact us for further information about our work.

Contact us