Official Report (Hansard)

Session: 2007/2008

Date: 15 May 2008

Briefing from POBAL

15 May 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
The Lord Browne
Mr Kieran McCarthy
Mr Raymond McCartney
Mr Pat Ramsey
Mr Jim Shannon

Ms Janet Muller (POBAL)
Mr Séamus Mac Aindreasa (POBAL)
Mr Nic Sadlier (POBALl)

The Chairperson (Mr McElduff):
I welcome the representatives from POBAL Janet, Nic and Séamus. Tá fáilte romhaibh. I refer members to their briefing paper. Janet, it is Committee protocol to ask witnesses whether they intend to release a press statement after their presentation.

Ms Janet Muller (POBAL):
Yes; we do.

The Chairperson:
That is fine. Thank you. Will you introduce your team?

Ms Muller:
Ba mhaith liom buíochas a ghabháil libh as fáilte a chur romhainn inniu. Is mise Janet Muller; tá mé i mo phríomhfheidhmeannach le POBAL. Ar mo láimh dheis tá Séamus Mac Aindreasa, atá ina oifigeach forbartha linn; agus ar an taobh eile díom tá Nic Sadlier atá ina oifigeach forbartha fosta.

I thank the Committee for agreeing to meet us today. I am the chief executive of POBAL, and Séamus Mac Aindreasa and Nic Sadlier are our development officers. If the Committee is agreeable, I will say a few words about one aspect of our work, and Séamus and Nic will finish our presentation.

POBAL was established by Irish-language groups in 1998. The first of the two elements of our work is advocacy: research, monitoring, good practice, information and education. The second is community development: co-ordination, strategic support, training, access, and so forth.

Voluntary, government and international bodies have recognised the high standard and expertise that we strive to achieve in our work. Since our inception, we have provided structured training programmes for civil servants and public bodies, put forward collaborative models of good practice and facilitated the exchange of information.

Our work assists Government in implementing policy effectively and, therefore, represents added value. We also provide Government with a means of access to the community, which is a valuable contribution from the voluntary sector. Our advocacy work includes monitoring legislation, including international instruments, such as the Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities and the European Charter for Regional and Minority Languages. To date, we have submitted detailed reports to both monitoring committees at the Council of Europe and have met their experts on several occasions. Several years ago, in recognition of our work, the Council of Europe invited me to be the keynote speaker at a conference of non-governmental organisations in Strasbourg

In March 2008, we welcomed the vice-chairperson of the committee of experts on the European charter, Sigve Gramstad, to our conference on the development of a comprehensive policy and strategy for the Irish language in the North. In the coming year, we will again work with experts in the third monitoring round on those two international instruments to keep them fully apprised of developments in the Irish language.

We recently published a report of the March conference. It emphasised the need for a full partnership between the state and the Irish-speaking community in the drafting, implementation and monitoring of the policy and strategy. The report also stressed the need for a transparent process to be put in place.

There is a legal duty on the Assembly, in particular, to enhance, protect and develop the Irish language, and it requires measurable progress to be made on those elements in relation to the Irish language. That must be the aim and the result of the strategy.

It was agreed at the meeting that concrete and significant actions should be taken in the fields of education, the courts, the media, political and administrative institutions, culture and the arts, social and economic life and incorporation on a transterritorial basis. That reflects the duty of the European charter, which is already in force, and the duties of the framework convention.

On 12 March, we wrote to the Department requesting further information on the process to be put in place; we have yet to receive a response. However, when I contacted Brian Smart from the Department yesterday, he said that a response had been sent. We hope that when the Department’s response arrives, it will show that transparent processes are being put in place. We will welcome a means of describing and measuring that process.

In 2007, we also published our recommendations for the ratification of further and stronger paragraphs and sub-paragraphs to be included in part III of the European charter and for their introduction into domestic legislation. We presented those proposals to the Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure, to the interdepartmental charter implementation group (ICIG) and to the UK Government. We hope that the Committee will urge the UK Government, whose responsibility it is to update commitment to the Irish language, in the manner in which we have proposed.

Since 2000, we have had an increasing sense of the benefits that will accrue from Irish-language legislation and which will clarify the duties of the state, making it easier for Irish speakers to understand and use their entitlement and bringing the North into line with everywhere else on these islands. Pobal has been working on that and on other issues for several years.

In 2001, our comments on the need for Irish language legislation were noted by the Council of Europe. In 2003, it was one of the findings of our consultation on ‘A Shared Future’ consultation.

From 2004, we have drafted suggestions and held a community consultation on the shape of such legislation. The document arising from that was the agreed proposal Acht na Gaeilge do Thuaisceart na hÉireann, the Irish language Act for the North of Ireland, which was launched in February 2006.

In March 2006, Dónall Ó Riagáin, who is employed as a special advisor on language matters by the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure, told the Department that the POBAL document is “coherent and reasonable”. He also said that it would be “absolutely logical in a UK setting” to enact legislation to support the Irish language in the North of Ireland.

He noted that the Pobal proposals are:

“very much in keeping with good practice in other parts of the UK and Europe.”

Two consultations undertaken by the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure found that 75% of respondents — 12,687 responses out of 16,863 — were in favour of Irish-language legislation.

Two departmental equality impact assessments found that the legislation would have “only positive impacts” on community relations and equality, a view that was supported by the Equality Commission and the Community Relations Council.

In December 2007, we wrote to the Minister asking him about the statement that he made in the Assembly on 16 October. The estimation of costs in that statement is an extremely unusual measure for a Department to take; it has certainly not been taken by the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure in the past. Concerning those figures, we asked him to outline for us whether he felt that there would be substantial costs with the legislation and what specific measures he had considered might be taken to mitigate any such costs. Unfortunately, although we did get a reply from the Minister, he simply referred us to his statement of 16 October.

In October 2007, the advisory committee to the Council of Europe on the Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities wrote in its official opinion to the UK Government on the implementation of the convention in the UK that the UK Government and the Northern Ireland Assembly should ensure that the process of adopting the Irish language Act is not:

“dominated by political considerations and reflects as far as possible the needs of the Irish speaking population as set out in the responses submitted to the Government’s consultation process.”

Recently, leave was granted to take a judicial review of the continuing operation of the Administration of Justice (Language) Act ( Ireland) 1737 in the North and we shall follow its progress with interest, as, I am sure, will the Committee.

The two departmental consultation documents on the Irish language Act propose that the use of Irish in the courts should be facilitated. POBAL contributed to research commissioned by the Department some years ago on this issue and will continue to follow the review with interest.

This year, we will complete ground-breaking research commissioned by the Department of Education into the special needs of bilingual children, the results of which will be presented in September of this year. I will now hand over to Séamus MacAindreasa.

Mr Mac Aindreasa:
Go raibh maith agat. Irish-language development, as with other types of community development, is carried out largely on a voluntary basis. Voluntary committees, individuals, and parents have worked long and, in many cases, unsociable hours over the years to fund and support schools, organise social events, chair public meetings or campaign for language status and rights.

Since 1998, POBAL, the Irish-language umbrella group, has provided a focus for Irish-language voluntary groups in their attempts to celebrate their language and culture. POBAL provides strategic direction and a democratic forum for those rapidly growing Irish-language communities throughout the Six Counties, giving advice as well as campaigning for their rights to be recognised in legislation.

Communities in Belcoo and Lisnaskee in County Fermanagh, Castlewellan and Annalong in County Down, Coalisland, Omagh, and Sion Mills in County Tyrone, to name but a few, often working on shoestring budgets with the support of POBAL — and in a limited way the local council — have expressed a desire to see and hear more Irish in their areas and for the right to use Irish in their everyday lives.

We keep in contact with groups in every county and meet them regularly to discuss the promotion of the Irish language in their areas. A good example of that work can be seen in the townland of Carntogher in Maghera, where a bilingual approach has been taken to everything from place-name signage to information leaflets, such as the Carntogher history trail guide and map, which has been made available in Irish and English. That is a perfect example of a community using its culture to enhance education and arts provision and to create tourism and leisure opportunities.

POBAL works with local councils to run its annual arts roadshow. The roadshow visits areas where Irish language promotion is already under way and helps to provide arts through Irish as well as raising the profile of the language and strengthening contacts with Irish speakers in those areas.

Local groups are encouraged to help in the organisation of events and emphasis is placed on encouraging Irish-language arts for children and young people through corresponding workshops. Our April roadshow travelled throughout the North with Altan’s Máiréad Ní Mhaonaigh and was a great success, with packed workshops in schools and village halls and sell-out concerts every night.

POBAL recently launched its ‘Tá’ campaign, which aims to give everyone in and outside the Irish-language community an opportunity to show support for the Irish language under the banner of Irish as an ancient language, a living language, and a language that belongs to us all. To date, the campaign has organised a carnival parade, discussions, lectures and the distribution of materials promoting the use of Irish in all aspects of life. The campaign aims to remove some of the misconceptions that have grown about the Irish language in recent times — misconceptions that have caused it to be seen in a political light rather than as an important aspect of the history and culture of all communities here.

POBAL regards the Irish language broadcast fund (ILBF) as an example of the great benefit that can come from investment in the arts, with a particular focus on training. The ILBF receives £3 million per annum, with funding provided by the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure. It funds at least 75 hours of Irish-language output per annum, which is broadcast on TG4, BBCNI and R T É. Each year, 14 people take part in training schemes with the television companies to gain experience in the field. The fund employs 504 people directly and indirectly.

One of the crowning glories of the ILBF is the bilingual film ‘Kings’, which was written by Tom Collins from Derry and which stars Colm Meaney. The world premiere of ‘Kings’ took place at the Taormina film festival in Sicily. It has been screened at the Galway Film Fleadh, the Foyle Festival, the Toronto International Film Festival, and the Cannes Film Festival, among others, to extremely positive reviews. The film also won the Screen Directors’ Guild of Ireland Finders Series award, and it was nominated by the Irish Film and Television Academy as its entry for the eightieth Academy Awards for the best foreign-language Oscar. The film was shown extensively in cinemas throughout Los Angeles and beyond after its nomination. Costing only €2∙2 million, this is an outstanding achievement for the North of Ireland, and it has helped to bring the Irish language and the skills of Irish-speaking actors and crew to an international stage.

POBAL is concerned that the cessation of funding for the ILBF in March 2009 will be a huge loss — not only to the Irish-speaking community but to film and television broadcasting in the North and to the international market. Go raibh maith agat.

The Chairperson:
Go raibh maith agaibh. Two members wish to ask questions. Is é Dominic an chéad chainteoir.

Mr D Bradley:
Maidin mhaith daoibh. Ba mhaith liom fáilte a chur romhaibh fosta. Go deimhin, ba mhaith liom comhghairdeas a dhéanamh libh as an obair phroifisiúnta atá ar siúl agaibh leis an Ghaeilge a chosaint agus a chur chun cinn. Ar an drochuair, ní raibh seans agam a bheith i láthair ag an chomhdháil a bhí agaibh, ach bhí seans agam an tuairisc a léamh agus tá ard-mholadh tuillte agaibh as an dóigh shlachtmhar inar chuir sibh an tuairisc sin i láthair.

I would like to add my welcome to the representatives from POBAL and to express my admiration for the professionalism with which you do your work. I notice that your latest report draws on international expertise; it informs the Committee and the Department, and I hope that good things will come from it.

Seo an chéad cheist a ba mhaith liom a chur oraibh.

POBAL’s submission to the conference said that the original ratification of the charter for Irish in the North of Ireland was weak in comparison to the ratification for Welsh in Wales and G à idhlig in Scotland. What must be done to make the European charter more effective and more useful as a means of delivery for Irish speakers here?

Ms Muller:
Several things can be done. The UK Government are internationally recognised as having a certain approach to languages, and it applies that approach to the ratification of the European charter for all the part-111 languages. Its approach is that the greatest provision must be made for the languages in the strongest position.

One would expect therefore that greater provision would be made for Welsh. Demographically, one would expect that the next strongest provision would be made for the Irish language, and then for Gàidhlig in Scotland. The census shows that there are 167,000 speakers of Irish — people with knowledge of Irish — in the North of Ireland, as opposed to 50,000 to 55,000 speakers of Gàidhlig in Scotland. In percentage terms, 10·4% of the population of the North of Ireland have knowledge of Irish, and 1·5% of the population of Scotland have knowledge of Gàidhlig. Based on the logic of the UK Government — and one could argue with it — one would expect that the case for ratification of Irish as a part-111 language would be stronger than that for Gàidhlig in Scotland, which is somewhat weaker.

The preamble of the European Charter for Regional and Minority Languages instructs that the options available in its provisions should not be selected arbitrarily but on the circumstances of a language. That demonstrably did not happen in the first ratification, because there are sections in which there appears to be no logic to the ratification process. The UK Government’s ratification of Irish is based solely on education, and the weakest options were selected from all the other categories. All the categories — education, media, economic and social life, the courts, political institutions, public administration and cross-border contact — should be revisited and additional and stronger clauses ratified. In the case of the Irish language, the weakest options were ratified in many cases, even though it is possible to ratify stronger options for Irish.

In the seven years since the 2001 ratification of Irish, weak though it was, the rate of development of Irish compared with Welsh and Gàidhlig has been much quicker. That means that attention must be paid to the ratification of the Irish language. The other key element is that once stronger and more comprehensive options have been ratified for Irish, the provisions of the European Charter for Regional and Minority Languages must be recognised in domestic legislation so that they are enforceable in the courts.

Mr D Bradley:
Is it correct to say that the level of ratification of Irish in the charter is falling behind the development of the language?

Ms Muller:
Very much so. That can be shown at every level, bearing in mind the growth of Irish-medium education and the increase in community activity. That growth can be tracked through the 1991 and 2001 censuses and through research such as the continuous household survey, which shows the same rate of growth.

Mr D Bradley:
As you said, it is regrettable that the Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure decided not to go ahead with an Irish language Act. Instead, he proposes to advance an indigenous languages strategy. What is POBAL’s view of a strategy for the Irish language?

Ms Muller:
A strategy can take in many different elements, such as legislation. The fact that there is a strategy or a legislative duty on the Assembly to adopt a strategy for the Irish language does not mean that that cannot include legislation; it certainly can. At the moment, one of the key issues is that of involvement and engagement with the Irish-speaking community. An external oversight mechanism or an Irish-language commissioner must be put in place to ensure that any and every part of a comprehensive, logical and rational strategy for the development, enhancement and protection of the Irish language can be measured. That would be very useful, as it would increase the confidence of the community and of the Assembly that it was pushing the right buttons and doing the right things.

The duty towards the strategy for the Irish language is very strongly worded. There is a legislative obligation to enhance, protect and develop the Irish language. We would welcome the opportunity to work with Government on an integrated basis to assist that process.

Mr Brolly:
Go raibh míle maith agat, a Chathaoirligh. Dia daoibh ar maidin; tá fáilte romhaibh. Aontaím le Dominic. Ba mhaith liom ceist a chur oraibh faoin tábhacht atá le cúrsaí craoltóireachta. Sílim féin go bhfuil siad iontach tábhachtach, agus ba chóir dúinn an t-airgead a bheith ar fáil againn leis an chraoltóireacht a choinneáil ag gabháil mar atá sí.

How important is broadcasting in support of the Irish language? How harmful would it be if the required funding was not forthcoming? Have you spoken to the Minister about his efforts to get funding from Westminster, as the Welsh language body does?

Ms Muller:
It is recognised internationally that, along with education, broadcasting is an extremely important element of language planning and promotion. Broadcasting is important not only to the speakers of a language but also to making a language visible to a wider audience. Most Irish-language programmes produced in the North are subtitled; broadcasting is, therefore, a good way of giving people access to Irish and of enabling them to understand that it is like any other language. That is particularly important in a divided society.

The BBC has a public service broadcasting duty, which should mean that the corporation recognises that its duty to the Irish language must be fulfilled, quite apart from the broadcasting fund.

The Irish language broadcasting fund has been extremely important over the past three years, as Séamus’s examples illustrated. The fund is important not only to us but also to the economy, the status and the international reputation of the North of Ireland. The fact that a film such as ‘Kings’ received international recognition does not happen every year or even every three or 10 years. That was a huge achievement.

It would be a shame not just for the Irish language but also for the North of Ireland, the arts, the film industry, and for small independent companies working in culture, the arts and leisure if the broadcasting fund was not renewed, and, indeed, increased. A 25% increase in funding is needed for a further five years after the projected end of the fund in March 2009.

Westminster has funded broadcasting in Gàidhlig in Scotland and in Welsh in Wales. We have told the Minister that the broadcasting fund is an extremely important element of a forward and outward-looking society. If Westminster proves unwilling to fund Irish-language programmes, there must be a great push from the Assembly to ensure that such a decision is reversed. The responsibility for broadcasting rests ultimately with Westminster. However, the Assembly recognises its responsibility in that area, and it would be a bleak day for the North if that funding was not renewed.

Mr D Bradley:
At the Committee meeting before last with the Minister, I asked him what efforts his officials were making in contacting the Department for Culture, Media and Sport at Westminster to secure further funding for the Irish language broadcast fund. He said that there were ongoing contacts between officials in the two Departments about it. It might be appropriate for the Committee to write to the Minister to ask what progress is being made.

The Chairperson:
We will certainly do that.

Mr P Ramsey:
You and your team are welcome, Janet. To follow Francie’s point, I have seen the hugely positive aspects of ‘Kings’ not just parochially in Derry, where director Thomas Collins comes from, but in Ireland as a whole. That includes economic benefits from the film’s being shortlisted for various awards.

However, we are examining arts underfunding as a whole. How much public money was spent on ‘Kings’? Can you put an economic value on its contribution to tourism?

Those are arguments that we must support to justify a general increase in funding; it is not for DCAL alone to convince Ministers that there are good reasons to boost funding.

Dominic has consistently raised the matter of the Irish language broadcasting fund, but he also referred to the Irish-language arts roadshow and how much value its voluntary contributions add. How many people volunteer? What can the Irish language contribute to cultural tourism, to grassroots arts and to targeting social need?

You were angry with the direction taken by the Minister and his Department on the Irish language and the economic arguments that they used. Have you a counter-argument that you can compile and provide to the Committee as a paper?

The Minister is developing a so-called strategy and we must do what we can to maximise its benefits for the Irish language. We need as much information as possible to put the Irish language case in formal meetings with the Minister. Will you elaborate on the cultural and economic benefits of the Irish language?

Mr Mac Aindreasa:
It is difficult to put a figure on the number of volunteers involved. For example, I know of a councillor in Belcoo who works tirelessly in favour of Irish-language signage, but people from the community itself also unite to support him because they want to run social events, to see signs in shops and to have more information on the area available in Irish.

Those people were annoyed that they were not consulted on documents and brochures explaining why St Patrick’s Tub is called St Patrick’s Tub and because their advice was not sought about its proper translation. They want to ensure that visiting tourists are given accurate information about Belcoo.

Cultural activities include our roadshow, which involves young people, their families, local musicians and anyone else in the community who wants to help to celebrate the arts, but particularly the Irish language in speech and song.

There are examples all over the North of communities trying to attract more people into their areas by using the language. Welcome signs in Irish are displayed and cultural events are staged. The POBAL roadshow took part in the very successful launch night for Castlewellan’s new cultural business centre, and the place was packed.

Ms Muller:
There are ways to measure the economic benefits. We have compiled terms of reference and, if funding is secured, plan to work with universities on a cost-benefit analysis.

Some years ago, the education budget was £2,000 per child. It took 21 years for the first Irish-language school to be recognised and to receive the full amount for its pupils.

Even though that primary school provided the full curriculum, for 21 years money was not spent on the children who attended it. In 2000, there were about 30 unrecognised schools. Considering the number of years they have been operating, it represents a considerable amount of money generated by the voluntary efforts of Irish speakers to support their children’s education, because the state was not doing it. Fortunately, that has changed. What would it have cost the Government to produce the consultations that POBAL has produced or the training course in language awareness that we have provided for more than 40 public-sector and governmental organisations. Consultants would find that it cost a great deal of money. The proper way to go about it is through proper independent study, which we hope to commission in the future.

Mr P Ramsey:
What benefit would you expect from the devolution of broadcasting powers to the Assembly?

Ms Muller:
The argument is whether people here believe that there is a benefit in devolved powers; if they do, there is no reason why the viewpoint of people in the North should not be expressed and directed through the Assembly. If that is what people believe, it is a rational argument to extend devolution to broadcasting. The British Government have perhaps a lack of interest in what is happening locally, probably in all the devolved regions. The input of the Scottish Parliament and the National Assembly for Wales has been much greater and has benefited the Welsh and Gàidhlig languages. Our organisation hopes that the devolution of broadcasting powers would benefit the Irish language in a similar way because that would be in keeping with practice in these islands.

Mr Shannon:
I am sorry that I missed your presentation; I had constituency work to do and could not make it on time. Perhaps in your presentation you have already addressed some of the issues that I want to focus on, and, if so, I apologise in advance. What is your relationship with the Ulster-Scots language bodies; do you have a relationship with them, do you meet each other, do you exchange ideas, do you interconnect?

My second question relates to a small-Irish language body that was established in Southern Ireland and which was named after an IRA bomber. What is your organisation doing to reach out to unionists to persuade them that the Irish language is a cultural issue and not a political tool or a political stick with which to beat unionists? Naming a body after an IRA bomber immediately produced a reaction from the unionist people, who are by and large turned off the Irish language by how it is promoted. Much work needs to be done to persuade us — me and the people that I represent — that the Irish language is one in which we can take an interest. Not so long ago many Presbyterians were Irish speakers; indeed, we heard a presentation on that the other week. Now we find that, instead of people being encouraged to be involved, they are turned off by it.

Ms Muller:
We work with a range of organisations. I was one of the directors of the European Bureau for Lesser-Used Languages and worked with Ulster-Scots, Scots and Gàidhlig and Welsh-language organisations. We are also funded by Foras na Gaeilge, which is the equivalent of the Ulster-Scots Agency. When organising public events, we always ensure that we invite a wide range of people. We are also interested to hear about language and cultural developments wherever they occur, so we have ongoing contacts at that level.

I have studied the period when Presbyterians spoke the Irish language, as, I am sure, have many Committee members. The motivation for Presbyterians in the nineteenth century to take up the Irish language was the sense that it was part of their identity. That is still the case. There was not much encouragement for Presbyterians to speak Irish apart from their perception of what society was and how their identity fitted with it. I agree that everyone has a responsibility to reach out to one another, explain what is happening and talk about issues, particularly in a divided society. That is one reason why we devised a language-awareness course to give public bodies, community-sector and Government organisations the opportunity to take the initial steps to talk to us about the Irish language. The course covered all aspects of history, the provisions in the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages and incorporated Government directions on how to treat Ulster Scots and the Irish language in the North of Ireland. There was much interest in the course; it was worthwhile and people told us how useful it had been. Unfortunately, as it was funded by European money, we were unable to continue it when the money ran out. However, it is something that we would like to run again.

We would also like to see the history and culture that surrounds the Irish language on the national curriculum in our schools. That is one of the commitments in the classification of the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages. All parents should have the right to say that they would like their children to be taught the Irish language; at present, that right does not exist. Children can go through the controlled sector without learning to say hello and goodbye in Irish or being taught about the language and its structure. That make us all poorer; we are in favour of children coming into contact with the language.

Mr Shannon:
You did not say what you have done to depoliticise the Irish language; that is important because it is the reason why people are put off the Irish language. For instance, what are you doing to stop Irish-language groups being named after dead IRA members? Until that is addressed, you will not get support from unionists.

The Chairperson:
Do you have a specific example, Jim?

Mr Shannon:
It is on page nine of POBAL’s report of the conference; it is the group to which the Minister referred.

Ms Muller:
No community-sector Irish-language organisation is named after an IRA volunteer or a political figure. The Minister referred to a Sinn Féin cumann, the naming of which was announced at the party’s Ard-Fheis. The Sinn Féin members of the Committee would probably explain the system better, but my understanding is that the party comprises small local branches, which are named after IRA volunteers; one was given the translation of the name of an IRA man. Regardless of unionists’ reaction, it is an argument with a political party. The Irish language and the Irish-language community sector are not political.

We are a community sector; we are not responsible for what either nationalist or unionist political parties do. I am happy to continue this conversation, but Sinn Féin can probably explain it much better. I am not aware of any Irish-language community-sector organisation that is named after an IRA volunteer, either in English or in Irish.

Mr Shannon:
It may be helpful if POBAL were to disassociate itself from those groups — that may be a way of endearing yourselves to unionists. You will not get £290 million from the Assembly to spend on the Irish language; that is not going to happen.

Mr Brolly:
The situation with that group is exactly how Janet described it. What Jim is referring to is a political grouping of Sinn Féin that we call a “cumann”. All over the country, North and South, Sinn Féin’s fundamental unit of organisation is a cumann. That group was set up as an Irish-speaking cumann; its members all had a common interest in the Irish language, but it is a political rather than a cultural group.

The Chairperson:
It may be useful for Sinn Féin and the DUP to have that dialogue as well.

Mr McCartney:
Maidin mhaith; tá fáilte romhaibh. Níl ach cúpla ceist agam oraibh. Sinn Féin fully supports the creation of an Irish language Act, and we will work towards achieving it during the lifetime of this Assembly.

Your presentation says that you are conducting a two-year research project on the special needs of bilingual children; what is its remit? Is the underlying assumption that there was a gap in special needs provision in the past?

Since ‘Kings’ was mentioned, I would like to know whether research has been done into the demographic make-up of the audience for Irish-language broadcasting; for example, for TG4 programmes such as ‘Laochra Gael’ and the subtitled programmes that Janet mentioned. ‘Laochra Gael’ in particular appeals to an audience beyond Irish speakers because it is about Gaelic footballers and hurlers. Do Irish-language programmes about Irish culture appeal to people who are interested in Irish culture but who may not speak the language?

Lord Browne:
You referred to the provisions in the European charter. However, the Minister said in the Assembly and at the recent POBAL conference that further legislation could undermine good relations and prove counterproductive. Do you agree that it is better to promote the Irish language in the way that the Minister suggested by developing a strategy in accordance with the European charter for minority languages?

Secondly, do you agree that it would be better, and possibly less contentious, to allow the Irish language to develop naturally rather than by trying to impose it? If you did that, you might find more unionist people wanting to take up the Irish language and become interested in it.

Ms Muller:
In relation to the special needs project, a huge difficulty is that there are no diagnostic tools for Irish-speaking children with special needs; the diagnostic tools that exist are all based on the development of a monolingual child. That affects Irish-speaking children, but it also affects children who are bilingual in Chinese, Indian, Polish, Russian or any other language.

We hope that our research will produce some general findings that can be transferred to other languages as well, so it has a very broad scope. We have been looking at the number of children in Irish-medium education who are statemented and what intervention and support mechanisms are available for them, primarily from the Department of Education but also through health workers. We are also looking at how a health provider or educational provider who speaks only English deals with a bilingual child when there is a shortfall in the available mechanisms and whether the sometimes very imaginative and effective techniques that those workers use are as good as they can be.

We are also looking at how teachers deal with the provisions gap, and we are trying to spread information about good practice. Furthermore, we are looking at training and support issues for teachers and health providers.

The Chairperson:
Raymond and Janet, please be brief because we are running out of time.

Mr McCartney:
Does the diagnosis of dyslexia for a primary-four or primary-five child in a bunscoil affect their parents’ decisions when the child is ready to move to the meánscoil?

Ms Muller:
It depends on the circumstances. We tend to use some terms generally; however, research shows that each child is different. Different health and education board areas have different provision and support for the child. It is a tricky situation.

The Chairperson:
Janet, please be brief when answering Wallace’s question.

Ms Muller:
The Minister said that he wants to look at the European Charter for Regional and Minority Languages as a framework to progress the Irish language. That is a legislative framework. The Minister, therefore, does not have a problem with protecting the Irish language through a legislative framework; he is happy for that to happen by way of pre-existing legislation. Members should consider the Minister’s argument, and they might find that there is a strong case for legislative protection.

Lord Browne also mentioned the good relations aspect. The Minister has a view on that, but it is not shared by the Community Relations Council, for instance. The consultation on the Irish language Act contains a quote from the Community Relations Council, which said that:

“The task of political leadership in divided societies is to turn issues previously understood as the property of one side into opportunities to establish new links, partnerships and new appreciations for the entire community. The quid pro quo of rights in this area is that our languages are understood as the possession of the whole community, without violence and aggression or particular political connotation, and that steps to embed rights should be accompanied by active efforts to ensure real opportunities to participate in language activities for all.”

We support those remarks and believe that they should be considered by all.

Mr D Bradley:
There is a difference between the special needs of bilingual children and bilingual children with special needs. Are you talking about the latter?

Ms Muller:
Yes, and we wanted the research to be as broad as possible. The area of children with special needs is complex and one on which the Department of Education wanted us to focus. The main emphasis of the research at this stage is on children experiencing special needs. As Raymond implied, the challenges facing a child in the Irish-medium sector who is identified as having difficulties are greater than those faced by a child in an English-medium school because of the gaps in provision and diagnostic tools. There will be greater pressure on parents to decide whether they should take their child out of Irish-medium education. That can have serious complications and consequences for a family that has several children in the Irish-medium education sector. If they take one child out of the Irish-medium education sector, the language transmission in the family will be broken, and that will cause unnecessary emotional pressure.

The Chairperson:
We have to hurry, because there are gymnasts downstairs who are waiting patiently.

Mr D Bradley:
There is an interesting anomaly between the situation in the Republic of Ireland and that in the North. A recent survey noted a low representation of children with special needs in Gaelscoileanna in the South. Will you be looking at the comparatives between the North and South?

Ms Muller:
Yes, and we hope that the research will identify the need for further research, as we want to extend that. However, there is a big question mark over the under-reporting of special needs, and we do not know why. We will have a clearer picture when the results are known. It may exist because families find that the level of personal support in smaller classrooms in Irish-medium education is of great benefit to Irish-speaking children and to children who are experiencing difficulties.

Mr McCartney:
When will the report be ready?

Ms Muller:
It will be ready for the Department by the start of September.

The Chairperson:
Go raibh maith agaibh for your presentation. We are glad that it has been recorded by Hansard, because we will want to reflect on your comments.

Séamus, you mentioned good examples of community development, such as the Carntogher project near Maghera. Would you write to us giving examples of community development and outline what exactly is taking place in Carntogher and Belcoo? I was surprised to hear Belcoo mentioned.

Mr Mac Aindreasa:

The Chairperson:
That is great. Once again, go raibh maith agaibh. Thank you.

Find MLAs

Find your MLAs

Locate MLAs


News and Media Centre

Visit the News and Media Centre

Read press releases, watch live and archived video

Find out more

Follow the Assembly

Follow the Assembly on our social media channels

Keep up-to-date with the Assembly

Find out more

Useful Contacts

Contact us

Contacts for different parts of the Assembly

Contact Us