Why are Irish language groups protesting?

Some fear that Irish as a daily spoken language is in grave peril

Several Irish-language organisations, led by Conradh na Gaeilge, have organised large rallies, including one in Dublin attended by 10,000 people. The latest was held in Connemara yesterday to coincide with the last day in office of the Coimisinéir Teanga, Seán Ó Cuirreáin. He resigned early as language commissioner because of his frustration with the State’s commitment to the first official language.

Ó Cuirreáin and the Irish language movement believe this Government – and the “permanent government” of public servants – have displayed a marked indifference to the language’s fate. They argue that Irish as a daily spoken language is in grave peril and that we are nearing the day when then the last of the native speakers is born.

What is the basis of those criticisms?
There are a number of grounds. Outside of the education sphere, the State's approach to the Irish language encompasses two documents, one legislative and one political. The legislation is the Official Language Act, introduced by former minister Éamon Ó Cuív, which gave a statutory basis for the first time to the rights in respect of the language enshrined in the Constitution.

In short, anybody who wishes to engage in Irish with the State or any of its agencies or bodies is entitled to do so. Some provisions of the Act – such as the requirement for bodies to translate into Irish annual reports and other important documents – became the subject of harsh criticism. As far back as 2004, Fine Gael's John Deasy was identifying huge translation costs for documents that were never read in the Irish form.


However, one of the roles of the Coimisinéir Teanga was to ensure the Irish language obligations were being honoured. Among the more egregious cases he highlighted were the absence of Irish-speaking gardaí in the Donegal Gaeltacht of Gweedore (subsequently fully addressed by An Garda Síochána) as well as Revenue's practice of having press releases translated into Irish in batches every three months to save costs, which rendered them pointless.

The Act has seen some positive developments, particularly in relation to signage (and some documents). Both TG4 and Raidió na Gaeltachta are important contributors, and new movements such as Gaelscoileanna and Irish language activity on social media have become so widespread that they cannot be ignored at the political level.

The second document was the 20-year strategy for the Irish language, now in its third year of operation. Its aim is to increase the number of daily speakers from 83,000 to 250,000. Mr Ó Cuirreáin said recently that after the first three years that “it would be difficult to meet anybody who thinks the target is realisable”.

How does the Government compare with previous administrations in its attitude to Irish?
Unlike previous governments, the Minister with responsibility for Irish, Dinny McGinley, is a junior rather than a senior minister. A lack of interest is evident across Government. A recent decision by the Department of Public Expenditure to end the 6 per cent bonus for Irish in Civil Service entrance exams was portrayed as a further nail in the coffin. Ó Cuirreáin has argued that under current rules it will take 28 years to increase the percentage of Irish speakers in the Department of Education (a key department) from a miserly 1.5 per cent to 3 per cent. Allied to that is a programme for Government commitment to consider getting rid of obligatory Irish for the Leaving Cert and a sense among language activists of antipathy towards the language within the public service.

So was yesterday's march important?
Irish language groups, such as Conradh na Gaeilge, say that the Irish speaking community is getting angry at its second-class status.

Harry McGee

Harry McGee

Harry McGee is a Political Correspondent with The Irish Times