Belfast Telegraph

Janet Muller: What does Pobal's closure say about the state of Irish language provision?

The Belfast-based advocacy group is set to wind up - five years after Sinn Fein's Caral Ni Chuilin and the Dublin government axed its core funding. Its chief executive, Janet Muller, asks if all-Ireland umbrella body Foras na Gaeilge is now capable of delivering on its commitments

Janet Muller, chief executive officer of Pobal, joins Irish language campaigners at a protest over Stormont's failure to introduce an Irish language strategy
Janet Muller, chief executive officer of Pobal, joins Irish language campaigners at a protest over Stormont's failure to introduce an Irish language strategy
Caral Ni Chuilin

By Janet Muller

Last week, the committee and staff of Pobal issued a public statement to let people know that, after 21 years, it was being forced to close its doors due to lack of funding.

During the 1970s, a diverse range of small Irish language groups had grown up in the North to try and meet the needs of the growing Irish-speaking community.

Pobal was established in 1998 as an umbrella group to bring a voice to those struggling against all odds to strengthen and protect the language.

This was a unique role which no other organisations were fulfilling for small groups in the six counties.

Like most - if not all - of its member groups, at the time Pobal had no state funding, surviving on voluntary efforts for two years before finally winning European Peace funds and then being awarded a small grant from the Republic's Department of Foreign Affairs under Peace and Reconciliation.

Pobal was quick to impact on both the public and government sectors and the public mind. Through an innovative advocacy and awareness-raising programme, it firmly established the image of the Irish language in the North as a human rights issue and made common cause with Irish language groups throughout the island and with the speakers of other threatened languages internationally.

It was not until the period following the Good Friday Agreement that Pobal was eventually awarded a small government grant from the Central Community Relations Unit for basic office equipment.

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When the all-island body Foras na Gaeilge was founded, Pobal was included (eventually) for core funding, one of only seven groups in the North to access this, along with 12 groups in the South.

From 2001, Pobal continued to hold centre stage. It worked with a wide range of key players to put forward influential proposals for an Irish language strategy at Stormont.

It carried out unique all-Ireland research into the special needs of bilingual children. It created original and innovative work in the arts, in schools and in the community.

Growing out of this work was the realisation that comprehensive legislation to protect the language and define the services to be provided was the best way forward.

The campaign for the Irish Language Act was grounded in community need and, working with international experts, Pobal itself organised community consultations to agree proposals for legislation with Irish speakers.

The quality and high profile of the work was instrumental in obtaining commitment in the St Andrews Agreement in 2006 that the British Government would introduce an Irish Language Act - a promise subsequently reneged upon, leading to criticism and a full programme of advocacy work directed at both the local political parties and Westminster parties, and at international opinion as well.

Pobal led delegations to Stormont, Leinster House, Westminster and the House of Congress in Washington, DC. In 2007, 2009, 2011 and 2014, international human rights bodies, including the Council of Europe and the United Nations, endorsed Pobal's work and its calls for comprehensive legislation to fulfil the St Andrews commitment.

However, in 2014, Foras na Gaeilge, under direction from the culture and arts ministers at Stormont and at Leinster House, ended core funding to all the organisations based in the six counties previously in receipt of core funding, in favour of six Dublin-centric organisations.

These "lead organisations" were to undertake all the work previously carried out by 19 groups throughout the island.

Fifteen of the Irish language organisations were highly critical of Foras na Gaeilge's proposals; of the lack of evidence presented that this approach would be better, of the lack of transparency in the way it dealt with the groups, of the obvious risk that existing work would be duplicated, of the attack on independence and co-operation, and of Foras's highly flawed process itself.

The organisations based in the six counties raised the lack of infrastructure for the Irish language here in comparison with the South, where many government bodies already have obligations to promote Irish.

They warned of the potential for loss of experience and expertise in all organisations, but especially for those in the North, and the danger that, unless northern organisations were treated fairly, senior decision-making would be removed to Dublin.

Funding from other sources would be endangered, they said, if core funding was removed by what was in effect the primary funder of the Irish language sector.

However, Foras pursued its approach and, for whatever reasons, the ministers North and South signed off on the ending of funding, including axing it for every one of all the northern groups. Several organisations were forced to close immediately.

Since this time, Pobal, with only one part-time staff member instead of the six full-time workers it previously employed, has continued to undertake a comprehensive and challenging work programme with a small capacity building grant from Belfast City Council and drawing on organisational reserves to cover all other costs.

In recent weeks, as a result of Pobal's work, we announced that five cross-party Westminster MPs had written to Karen Bradley to call for the Irish Language Act to be enacted at Westminster if local parties continued to fail to agree.

In addition to high-profile signatories from Plaid Cymru, the SNP and the Labour Party, two Conservative Party MPs also signed the letter - something of a cross-party coup and a testament to hard work and commitment to the issue.

With the announcement that, for the fourth year running, there would be no increase in our grant aid, the difficult decision to close Pobal was taken - exactly five years after the axing of Foras na Gaeilge's funding.

Earlier this year, Foras na Gaeilge commissioned a five-year review of the effectiveness of the six lead organisations (although without consulting with those whose funding was removed).

It is disturbing - though not entirely surprising - to learn that it then abruptly ended the contract of the consultant it had employed and has since refused to publish the results of his draft report.

Recent publicity over the alleged mismanagement of the Social Investment Fund here provides a useful reminder that investment of public funding into the voluntary and community sectors is a serious matter, impacting on services, policy, community confidence in fairness and social cohesion.

Foras na Gaeilge, under all-Ireland ministerial control, was set up to signal a new beginning for the Irish language.

Perhaps it is time to examine to what extent it is meeting any of its commitments in this respect.

Janet Muller is chief executive of Pobal

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