How could Taoiseach Enda Kenny have appointed a junior minister with a special responsibility for the Gaeltacht, who lacks an essential qualification for that job – fluency in the State’s first official language? And how could Joe McHugh, who is the Minister of State with that responsibility, have accepted the portfolio? Mr McHugh is hopeful that he can quickly master the language and he yesterday invited the public to “join him on his journey” as he improves his knowledge of the language . Good intentions are, however, not good enough at this level.
Charles Haughey, as minister for health, once produced what he described as "an Irish solution to an Irish problem", by controlling the availability of contraceptives – for which he was rightly ridiculed. More than three decades later, Mr Kenny and Mr McHugh have produced a variation on that theme: an Irish solution to the Irish language problem.
Will Mr McHugh, in carrying out his duties – which include promoting the Irish language and handling Gaeltacht affairs – need to employ an interpreter? In the Oireachtas, where a simultaneous interpretation system is available to those who are linguistically challenged, he may use earphones to minimise his embarrassment. As one of its statutory duties, the department is required to submit a report each year to the Houses of the Oireachtas regarding the implementation of the Official Languages Act. Mr McHugh might use that opportunity to report progress made in his language learning efforts.
Irish speakers deserve better treatment than this. A feature of the Cabinet reshuffle has been the Taoiseach's focus on geography, gender and generation as key criteria in ministerial selection. Mr McHugh's appointment – aged 43 – came in the latter category, where he succeeded a fellow Donegal man, Dinny McGinley, aged 69, as Minister of State in that position. Mr McGinley, however, had one attribute that his successor lacks – and that Mr Kenny ignored in making his selection – fluency in Irish.