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Gaelic legislation a poisoned chalice

Reading Brian MacLochlainn's interesting article, "Why a languages Act would be a total disaster for Irish" (Comment, July 3) confirmed something I have thought for some time: that those Irish language activists campaigning for the introduction of an Irish Language Act may be well-advised to be careful in what they wish for.

Living as I do in Co Donegal, I have long been struck by the robustness of Irish at grassroots level in Northern Ireland, where growth of Irish-medium education and the strength of Gaeltacht communities in Belfast, Slaughtneil and Carentoher is beyond anything comparable in the Republic.

Here, since 2003, the Languages Act has required public bodies to use Irish on official stationery and obliges them to publish certain documents in Irish and English.

It also gives citizens the right to engage with public bodies in Irish and prohibits the charging service users for translations.

Despite this statutory protection of Irish, its status as a spoken language of community life continues to decline. In 2002, the third Coimisiun na Gaeltachta report said that in some Gaeltacht areas Irish had ceased to be a community language.

Another report, in 2015, predicted that, based on current rates of decline, Irish may cease to be the language of day-to-day discourse in all Gaeltacht areas within 10 years.

The lesson to be drawn from the contrasting fortunes of Irish in both jurisdictions seems clear. Put simply, it is that voluntary grassroots engagement with language can create vibrant communities of speakers, but that legislative protection in the absence of such engagement will fail abjectly to promote Irish.

It seems to me that a standalone Irish Language Act of the kind being argued for by many of its proponents would be deeply divisive, while doing little, or nothing, to advance Irish as a spoken language.

On the other hand, an inclusive Languages Act, primarily aimed at directing resources towards the promotion of Irish and Ulster-Scots at grassroots level would be fair, equitable and might actually improve the fortunes of the Irish and Ulster Scots-speaking communities.

Conal Gillespie

Quigley's Point, Co Donegal

Belfast Telegraph Digital


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