Irish language: 'It has been very shocking to the community to lose two newspapers in six months'

Janet Muller

INTERVIEW. Janet Muller speaks to Nationalia. She is the Chief Executive of Pobal, a partnership that coordinates and supports the groups in favour of Irish language in Ireland. Muller explains the current state of the Celtic language, especially in the m

Nationalia: Two Irish language newspapers -Lá Nua and Foinse- closed down during the last year. Is it a sign of declining public usage of Irish or just another consequence of the current economic downturn which is especially affecting the print media?

Janet Muller: It is a sign that it is difficult to maintain such an intensive project as a newspaper, particularly in the case of Lá Nua, which was a daily paper and had never been properly supported by the state throughout its entire existence. It is extremely ironic that the paper, which had nonetheless survived for twenty years was closed down after the Good Friday Agreement and the St Andrews Agreement and through the decision of the all-Ireland body for the Irish language to end its funding. The other paper, which was a weekly has now started again in a different form and is being distributed as a weekly supplement with an English language paper. It has been very shocking to the community to lose two newspapers in six months and while some positive developments are happening in the media, these are being mainly community-driven rather than brought about through careful collaboration and co-ordination between the community, the funders and the states.

How was this loss perceived by the Irish society? Do you think there is support for further public spending on the language? Are there significant differences between both sides of the border regarding this issue?

This is a mixed picture. There is wide support for Irish throughout Ireland, even amongst those who do not necessarily want to use the language themselves or have their children educated through it. However, there is an ethnic and colonial history in Ireland and in the North, the British government has neglected and politicised the Irish language (most recently in 2007 when it failed to fulfil its commitment on the Irish Language Act and used this as a bargaining ploy with the unionist parties) and some political parties who have stoked hostility towards the Irish language to make themselves appear ‘stronger' to their electorate. The circumstances of the language North and South are very different. In the South the language has constitutional protection as well as the Official Languages Act 2003. The community sector is longer established and has a different relationship with the state than the sector in the North has. Although Irish is one language it exists in vastly different situations north and south and this must be recognised.

Foras na Gaeilge in July announced the funding of a new weekly paper from November 2009, while some months earlier it had promised to provide funding amounting to 400.000 € a year for a new weekly newspaper and an on-line news service. What is the state of those projects? Which media -not only print- are currently available for Irish speakers?

The community without much funding has started some new news services. There is the online newspaper, Nuacht 24 and a new magazine, Nós, neither of which are funded by the state. Both are lively projects which draw on community resolve. The Irish government in the south has an Irish language television station, TG4 and an Irish language radio station, Raidió na Gaeltachta. Both can be received in the North (sometimes with difficulty) but neither gets any funding from the British government. There is no legislative provision for Irish in broadcasting legislation for the North (in contrast, there is legislation and provision for Welsh in Wales and for Gaelic in Scotland). There are several community Irish language radio stations, North and South, but they broadcast on a localised basis. There is no all-Ireland produced and run radio service. In the North, the only provision made for Irish comes in the form of funding for the Irish Language Broadcasting Fund, which is a time limited fund for television production. It is due to end in March 2011.

Beyond the area of media and communication, could you sum up in a few words the content and the state of the linguistic policies of both administrations? What about the Language Act in Northern Ireland?

The current policy in the North remains unwritten. Neither of the nationalist parties took responsibility for the Assembly's Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure, preferring to make other choices, so it is held by the Democratic Unionist Party who have consistently opposed Irish language legislation or provision. Three consecutive DUP Ministers since 2007 have shown a very negative attitude to the development and needs of the Irish speaking community. In the south, there is no legislative commitment to an all-Ireland approach and the current government will shortly publish a twenty year development plan for the south only. At the same time, an Irish government commission has proposed disproportionate cuts to public spending on the Irish language in spite of this current government being more sympathetic to the language than many previous ones.

UNESCO recently listed Irish Gaelic as a 'definitely endangered' language. According to Pobal, what does Irish need in order to regain speakers and ensure its future?

An agreement by the states to promote and protect it. Adequate legislative protections. Human and financial resources. Effective planning and policy frameworks and infrastructure. The full and active support of the community and its empowerment.

Gaining official status and State recognition is the goal of most activists of minority and endangered languages, as this is considered to be the easiest way to language protection and, even more importantly, recovery of the public space. But Irish within the Republic of Ireland has not been an example of that. Why?

This is a key question and there are different attitudes as to why this is the situation in the south.

What are Pobal's current actions and priorities?

Our work has two aspects, advocacy and community development. We give strategic direction to the community in the specific circumstances of the north, and work on an all-Ireland basis too. We have just developed an all-Ireland arts strategy for Irish language arts and have pioneered work on the special needs of Irish speaking children in immersion education North and South. We lobby and empower the community in campaigns for the Irish Language Act and services in Irish. We monitor the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages and other international legislation. We support our member groups and give advice and information to Irish speakers on a whole range of issues. We are working at present to try and ensure that the small and inadequate protections and provisions for Irish agreed under the Good Friday Agreement are not dismantled without proper guarantees and mechanisms being put in place. This is very challenging at the current time and in a political context that does not focus on the importance of the Irish language and the empowerment of the community. At the same time, our community has gone through much hardship and particularly in the north, it has learned to rely on itself and use imagination and determination as its main strengths. This is very important, but it should also be noted that ten years after the Good Friday Agreement, our circumstances in relation to the Irish and British states and the Northern Assembly remain uncertain.