Twenty years after the Good Friday Agreement, the Irish language sector is in better health than ever
In spite of suffering budget cuts of 25% over the past decade, Foras na Gaeilge, the all-island language body, says Irish has never had a higher profile
Twenty years on from the Belfast Agreement that resulted in the establishment of Foras na Gaeilge, the all-island Irish language body, the Irish language landscape in the north has changed radically.
The Irish language revival in the 1980s and 1990s in the north was primarily focused on Irish-medium immersion schools, and few sources of state funding existed to support fledgling language initiatives emerging where Irish-medium schools had been established.
The Belfast Agreement recognised that Irish was a key dimension in the peace process and the establishment of Foras na Gaeilge transformed the landscape.
It legitimised support for Irish and, through the establishment of Comhairle na Gaelscolaiochta and Iontaobhas na Gaelscolaiochta, regularised support for Irish-medium education.
Foras na Gaeilge and these two Irish-medium schools' bodies provided government in the north with a way to fund and support Irish.
In the early years following its establishment, Foras na Gaeilge established several community-based language initiatives that provided a framework and infrastructure for the development of Irish.
Most of these were community initiatives, conceived and maintained through high levels of voluntary commitment and, while impressive in terms of their achievement, were unsustainable in the longer term without state funding.
They included Culturlann McAdam O Fiaich in west Belfast; an Gaelaras, now Culturlann Ui Chanain in Derry; and Raidio Failte, the community radio station in Belfast, now housed in new, purpose-built premises on Divis Street.
The creation of the all-island organisation ensured funding and long-term sustainability for these and other projects.
Foras na Gaeilge also provided much-needed funding for several small, voluntary Irish language organisations previously maintained through goodwill and very meagre resources. These were able to flourish with annual funding from Foras na Gaeilge.
While funding for these projects was welcomed, providing a boost to the language, there was little evidence of coherent language planning in the design of the funding structures, or in the initiatives that initially emerged.
Foras na Gaeilge essentially funded organisations that demonstrated the ability to manage funding efficiently and good corporate governance structures.
No formal analysis of the needs of the language or the language communities in either jurisdiction preceded the establishment of the Belfast Agreement language structures. As a result Foras na Gaeilge became the vehicle for governments to streamline ad hoc funding arrangements and, in the early years following its establishment, both governments transferred several previously funded language projects to Foras na Gaeilge.
With an eye to expedience, this was done with little reference to language planning or to the needs of language communities.
Foras na Gaeilge thus inherited responsibility for as many as 19 Irish language organisations and several language initiatives. In some cases organisations had similar aims and objectives and competed with each other.
The Irish language sector was a disorganised one and little cognisance was taken of the potential advantages of cross-border approaches or economies of scale. In subsequent years Foras na Gaeilge's analysis of the needs of language communities, coupled with strategic planning on the part of both governments, began a focus on language priorities - an approach based on language-planning rationale, rather than ad hoc initiatives. This welcome departure unfortunately coincided with the economic downturn.
Cuts in funding by both governments following the economic collapse in the south, and reductions in public funding in the north, resulted in Foras na Gaeilge's funding being cut by around £5m since 2008, a reduction of around 25%.
Notwithstanding the inevitable pressures that come with such a reduction in funding, the Irish language landscape in the north has continued to develop.
Foras na Gaeilge now funds language development officers in 14 different communities in the north to support their Irish-medium school communities.
Foras na Gaeilge funds new pre-school initiatives. Several communities have developed Irish language childcare projects to support parents raising their families with Irish. A planned, coherent approach has ensured that the Irish-medium organisations Comhairle na Gaelscolaiochta and Iontaobhas na Gaelscolaiochta have been enabled to maximise return on their own investment in the Irish-medium sector.
Foras na Gaeilge's funding strategy, based on language-planning principles, has allowed the Irish language capital investment fund, An Ciste Infheistiochta, to maximise return on capital investments, where development officers funded by Foras na Gaeilge support capital projects.
Continuing support for staffing in the Culturlanna in Belfast and Derry has allowed those projects to become flagships for language development across the island and become best practice pathfinders for minority language development in the south and abroad.
Staffing support for the community radio station Raidio Failte has allowed it to benefit from Government capital investment and to extend its influence beyond Belfast.
Foras na Gaeilge has developed all-island approaches to several programmes, including funding for summer camps, youth activities, publishing and writers, drama groups, festivals and literary events.
Projects in the north have fared well under this approach. Foras na Gaeilge has also funded staff at An tAisaonad Lan-Ghaeilge, at St Mary's University College, to produce Irish-medium resources and it facilitates all-Ireland collaboration on Irish-medium classroom resources between the CCEA and the Department of Education and Skills in the south.
In addition to this all-island approach, supporting publishing, online media and Irish-medium resources, our flagship online dictionary and terminology initiatives - focloir.ie and tearma.ie - have served Irish language communities throughout the island well. Language communities benefit irrespective of their location.
The all-island approach, while it has much to commend it from a language-planning perspective, is not Foras na Gaeilge's only approach.
Our funding programmes for Gaeltacht scholarships for school pupils; our funding for the East Belfast Mission's Turas project to promote Irish in Protestant/unionist communities; and funding to support development officer posts in local councils are focused on the north only, recognising that these are areas of specific need.
In place of the 19 support organisations once funded by Foras na Gaeilge, it now funds nine organisations. Since 2014, six lead organisations are funded to support the development of Irish in the community throughout the island.
With offices across the country - in Belfast, Armagh, Newry, Meath, Dublin and Galway - these organisations receive a substantial share of Foras na Gaeilge's budget to develop their capacity in their specific specialisms in a planned, long-term strategy.
The six lead organisations work closely together in partnership, each with a distinct role that addresses specific language needs in the community, with a focus on developing language social networks and community development structures that can be built on over time.
This approach has brought particular dividends is respect of language awareness across the island and particularly in the north, where the Irish language has never had a higher profile in the community and in the media.
Because of the success of these structures and of Foras na Gaeilge's funding strategy, expectations are rightly increasing in relation to language activities, rights and opportunities.
Funding cuts to the Foras na Gaeilge budget of around 25% in the last 10 years have not been addressed, although demand for funding continues to increase across the country.
Challenges exist and must be addressed by both governments in relation to Irish. Lessons learned illustrate clearly that well-planned approaches based on the strategic needs of the language and the communities wishing to embrace it serve us best.
Sean O Coinn is chief executive of Foras na Gaeilge