Where only fluent Irish speakers need apply

Sat, Dec 21, 2002, 00:00

If you want planning permission in certain Gaeltacht areas, you'll haveto make sure your Irish is up to scratch, if current proposals are accepted.What impact would the new rules have, asks Lorna Siggins.

A young native Irish-speaker emigrates to the US, marries a US citizen, has children. The couple decide to return to his native heath and build a house on his father's land. They plan to send their children to the local school, where they will be educated as Gaeilge.

The planning permission meets the criteria for one-off housing, but the application is still refused. Why? Because the land is within the "Cois Fharraige" area of south Connemara, and the Irish-speaking ability of the man's wife and children isn't up to scratch.

It is just one of the anomalies in Galway county's new draft development plan, which now includes a provision that planning permission will be given only to applicants fluent in Irish. The standard of spoken Irish is to set under guidelines approved by the Institiúd Teangeolaíochta Éireann in Dublin.

If accepted, the measure will apply to an area stretching from Barna, outside Galway city, to Carna in south Connemara. In other areas of the Connemara Gaeltacht, where the language is not so frequently spoken, applicants for planning permission will have to commit to supporting and promoting Irish.

The Minister for Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs, Eamon Ó Cuiv, who is also a Galway West TD, appears to be supportive in principle of the proposal, which was tabled by Fine Gael councillor and Údarás na Gaeltachta member, Pól Ó Foighil.

"People might say it is discriminatory, but I am only discriminating against people who should be speaking Irish but aren't doing anything to promote the language," says Ó Foighil. "Yet they aren't slow to avail of grant aid in the area."

In practice, the proposal could prove to be unworkable - and could have a negative impact on the language. Several years ago, attempts by residents of Carraroe in Co Galway to block local authority housing on grounds that the language would be threatened, received a negative reaction within Galway city.

"Fascist" and "a bit Bosnian" is how some residents of the city area described the current proposal when canvassed for a reaction this week.

However, the approach does have some attractions for An Taisce. It is already exercised about the spread of once-off housing in rural areas, and is concerned that the Galway County Draft Development Plan has relaxed the criteria for planning permission for single rural dwellings. Ironically, this was agreed by the same county councillors to inject life into areas which have been affected by depopulation.

Under the amended list, not only sons and daughters, but also brothers, sisters, grandchildren, legally separated or divorced spouses, nephews or nieces of the landowners and landholders, and local residents, would qualify. Special consideration would also be given to people working in the area.

If the Irish provision applies to the south Connemara area, it will act as a brake on development, An Taisce says.

"Of course it could have constitutional implications," Derrick Hambleton, chairman of An Taisce's Galway branch, told The Irish Times. "It is a rather draconian approach, similar to the attempt in Clare to restrict new houses to residents of that county. Ironically, the real problems with over-development are in the north Connemara Gaeltacht, where the language is weaker - and where the strict provisions wouldn't apply. So we'll be looking at this closely and making a formal response."

A language impact statement, which under the new proposals will stipulate the standard of Irish required by an applicant, is already an integral part of the existing county development plan, as Albert Comer, director of planning at Galway County Council, points out. The statement is required from all applications to build single houses, housing schemes, hotels, guesthouses, factories, business centres, third-level colleges, Irish colleges and businesses.

"Proficiency is not a mandatory requirement currently, but the statement is taken into account," he explains.

Both the Minister's department, and Údarás na Gaeltachta, could find themselves being drawn into individual planning applications if the statement took on the form of a compulsory qualification. Údarás na Gaeltachta already has a consultancy role under the existing county plan, and for the last 12 months it has been preparing language impact statements for industrial developments wishing to locate in the Gaeltacht area.

"We have the expertise to do that," Pádraig Ó hAolain of Údarás says. "But individuals wouldn't have that experience, and you can see a situation where they would be approaching us for help. It could make it all quite complicated. And the people who could be most affected would be English-speakers already living in the Gaeltacht who want to build on their land."

The Minister for the Environment is making no comment, as the plan is still in draft form. It is due to be put on display on January 8th, and there will be a month for formal submissions. Deadline for the new five-year plan is May 2003. The Equality Authority is also making no comment, but it would appear that it would not be outlawed under the Equal Status Act if it could be argued that the language is in trouble.

And the language is still in crisis, in spite of measures taken over the years, and incentives which still exist (see panel below). The first-time buyers' grant will continue to apply in Gaeltacht areas. A study published earlier this year by the Gaeltacht Commission found current State policies were failing to protect the language, and it called for a new "language reinforcement strategy" for every Gaeltacht community.

The study said that Gaeltacht areas where use of the Irish language is declining should be given seven years to reverse that trend or lose their Gaeltacht status altogether. It published details of the extent to which the language is under threat. It says that of 154 District Electoral Divisions (DEDs) in the Gaeltacht, only 18 have a 75 per cent population that speaks Irish daily. Some 12 of these are in Co Galway, four are in Co Donegal and two are in Co Kerry.

If the criterion for redrawing Gaeltacht boundaries is that 80 per cent of the community must be Irish-speaking, as was the case in 1926, then only 14 DEDs would be eligible for Gaeltacht status, it said.

The report analysed the findings of both the 1991 and 1996 censuses, and noted that the change in questions posed in the 1996 census may be the reason for the increase in percentage of Irish speakers identified in the Gaeltacht at that time.

"As no safe basis of comparison is available at present, the data produced by the next two censuses will be of particular importance," it states.

It was for this reason that it recommended granting a seven-year period to all Gaeltacht areas to allow for increased usage of Irish. Areas which managed to increase the percentage of Irish-speakers to more than 40 per cent will be given another seven-year period of grace.

An analysis of the commission's report by Donnacha Ó hEallaithe, a mathematics lecturer at the Galway-Mayo Institute of Technology, for Foinse, the Irish-language weekly, and Raidió na Gaeltachta, noted that large areas of Co Galway could lose their Gaeltacht status if the commission's proposal was accepted by Government.

Ironically, Barna - which is within the new draft plan proposal - was one of the areas identified as being at risk by Ó hEallaithe.

He also noted that the Furbo DED, location for both Údarás na Gaeltachta and Roinn na Gaeltachta (the sub-section of the Department of Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs to which the Gaeltacht Commission reports) , is "borderline" at 43.6 per cent of daily Irish speakers.