£2 billion over 20 years - the real cost of an Irish Language Act Gerry Adams won’t talk about
Price tag on Sinn Fein’s pet project could end up dwarfing the expense of RHI debacle, writes Nelson McCausland
In recent weeks there has been a lot of talk by Gerry Adams and others about an Irish Language Act and it is one of their top political demands. But they rarely spell out what it really means and they never talk about the cost. Either they don’t know or they don’t want to admit it, so perhaps I can help them.
When former Sinn Fein Culture Minister Caral Ni Chuilin launched her consultation on an Irish Language Act in 2015 she was interviewed on Radio Ulster and was asked how much it would cost.
She replied: “We don’t know what the cost is going to be.” Two years later and Sinn Fein has still failed to provide the costs.
Sinn Fein wants Irish to be made an official State language alongside English, and that would be set down in the Act. It also wants Irish to be placed alongside English in the Assembly, the court system, public bodies and everything from buses to road markings.
You may remember those documents produced by Sinn Fein Education Ministers and sent out to every school in Northern Ireland. They were bilingual, in Irish as well as English, and you got them whether you wanted them or not.
It often held things up because translation takes time, but that didn’t matter to the cultural warriors of Sinn Fein. It had a point to make. That was schools, but its plan is to roll that sort of thing out across every area of public life.
It would require detailed work to get an exact figure, but we can get a good estimate by looking at the costs associated with the Welsh Language Act, which is a model often referred to by Irish language activists.
We can start with local councils. Torfaen in south Wales is a small council with a population of just 91,000.
In order to meet its obligations, it employs four Welsh language officers and estimates that the total cost per year is around £868,000.
With larger councils in Northern Ireland, it would be reasonable to estimate a cost per council of around £1m. Across the 11 councils alone, that would be an annual ongoing cost of £11m year after year.
Then there is the cost to Government departments and public bodies, such as the Housing Executive, Education Authority and Library Authority, as well as the PSNI and the Court Service.
Moreover, translating technical and legal documents requires very special language skills.
It cost around £10m in training translators when Irish was made an official EU language.
So, we are talking about an annual cost that can be estimated at around £100m a year. That is £2bn over the next 20 years.
In case anyone imagines that this will be optional, Sinn Fein is demanding an Irish Language Commissioner with legal powers to police the Act and compel the entire public sector to meet the Irish language obligations imposed on it, with Irish/English documents, Irish/English websites, Irish-speaking staff and simultaneous translation.
This would undoubtedly generate legal challenges, with litigants claiming legal aid. Language warriors and lawyers would have a field day at the expense of everyone else.
It also proposes Gaeltacht areas in Northern Ireland similar to those in the Irish Republic.
There, the road signs and most other things are in Irish only and some housing is only available to people who speak Irish.
Such areas also receive preferential public spend and have their own oversight body, Udaras na Gaeltachta.
Of course, there would be hundreds of jobs created for Irish speakers across all our councils, departments and public bodies. Remember that little council in Wales with four Welsh language staff.
At present it is talking about the public sector, but remember that the public sector is just the starting point, and that the private sector would be next.
It’s no wonder Sinn Fein and the SDLP don’t want to talk about the cost.