A Critical Analysis of the status of the Irish Language

Intro 2013, I wrote this paper in 2003. Unfortunately, I think that it still stands.

Ciarán Dunbar, 22/08/13 

A Critical Analysis of the status of the Irish Language in Northern Ireland with comparisons to Welsh and Scottish Gaelic.

1          Introduction


This essay seeks to critically analyse the status of the Irish language in Northern Ireland. To this end a number of key areas have been addressed.
  • The GFA and the European Charter for Regional and Minority Languages have been purported to be great steps forward for the Irish language but what impact have or can they have for the Irish Language in Northern Ireland and what is their true meaning for the status of the language in Northern Ireland?
  • There has been much debate concerning Irish medium education as this sector continues to grow continue but what is the actual status of Irish in the education system?
  • What is the status of the Irish Language in broadcasting?
  • What is the status of Irish in the judicial system?
  • How does social-linguistic position and the legal and policy contexts of the Irish language in Northern Ireland and compare to the status of Welsh and Scottish Gaelic?
There is a substantial Irish speaking community in Northern Ireland, demonstrated for example by the census figures and the number of children attending Irish medium education.
The Irish speaking community are those for whom the Irish language is in everyday use but the Irish Language also has a resonance beyond those who use the language daily as their primary language as there are many for whom the language is of great heritage value and of great interest without being their normal medium of communication. There are of course many people who although they may themselves not be fully fluent in Irish are aspiring to be Irish speaking and/or are aspiring for their children to be Irish speaking. There are also those who despite being fluent Irish speakers have little opportunity to use their Irish regularly.

1.1        The 1991 Census and the Irish Language in the North of Ireland.

The 1991 census revealed that 142,003 people in Northern Ireland claim some knowledge of Irish, some 9.45% of the total population. These figure breakdown as follows.
Geographical Spread.
Where are those who have knowledge of Irish in Northern Ireland?
The Western Region
( Limavady, Derry, Strabane, Omagh, Fermanagh.)
33,650 people claimed some knowledge of the Irish language.
23.70 % of the total no. who claimed knowledge of the language in N.I.
The Southern Region
(Dungannon, Armagh, Craigavon, Banbridge, Newry and Mourne.)
40,117 people claimed some knowledge of the Irish language.
28.25% of the total no. who claimed knowledge of the language in N.I.
The Northern Region
(Coleraine, Moyle, Ballymoney, Larne, Carrickfergus, Newtonabbey, Ballymena, Magherafelt, Cookstown, Antrim.)
23,960 people claimed some knowledge of the Irish language.
16.87% of the total no. who claimed knowledge of the language in N.I.
The Eastern Region
(Belfast, Castlereagh, North Down, Ards, Lisburn, Down.)
44,567 people claimed some knowledge of the Irish language.
31.39% of the total no. who claimed knowledge of the language in N.I.
The Eastern Region not including Belfast.
15,649 people claimed some knowledge of the Irish language.
11.02% of the total no. who claimed knowledge of the language in N.I.
28,918 people claimed some knowledge of the Irish language.
20.36% of the total no. who claimed knowledge of the language in N.I.
Religious Affiliation
126, 626 of those who claimed a knowledge of Irish also stated that they were Roman Catholics, 89.17% of the total.
9, 831 of those who claimed a knowledge of Irish either stated that they had no religious affiliation or did not state any religious affiliation, 6.92% of the total.
5,546 of those who claimed a knowledge of Irish stated that they were of a Protestant denomination. 3.91% of the total.
Age group% per age group claiming knowledge of Irish.
(0 – 15)     22.91%
(15 – 24)   24.54%
(25 – 34)   17.38%
(35 – 44)  13.07%
(45 – 54)   8.66%
(55 – 64)   6.56%
65 +          6.87%
Sex of people who claimed a knowledge of Irish.
Females 66,643    49.66%
Males    67,559    50.34%
Prior to the 1991 census the “Preliminary Report of a Survey of Knowledge, Interest and Ability” provides the only indication of the number of Irish speakers in Northern Ireland. The survey produced the following statistics.
  1. Children aged 3-15 years.
11% of children surveyed had some knowledge of Irish.
24% of those used Irish at home occasionally.
5% of those with an ability in Irish used the language daily in a home setting.
Using the 1991 census as a reference point, these figures infer the following:-
Approx. 36,789 children in Northern Ireland have some Irish Language ability.
Approx. 8829 of those use Irish occasionally in a home setting.
Approx. 1840 of those with an ability in Irish used the language daily in a home setting.
  1. Adults aged 16 – 69 years.
11% claimed a knowledge of Irish.
6% claimed full fluency.
84% claimed that they never used Irish in a home setting.
15% claimed to use the language occasionally in a home setting.
1% claimed to use the language on a daily basis in a home setting.
Using the 1991 census as a reference point:-
Approx. 113,722 persons claimed knowledge of Irish.
Approx. 6823 persons claimed full fluency.
Approx. 17,058 persons claimed to speak Irish occasionally in a home setting.
Approx. 1137 person claimed to use Irish on a daily basis in a home setting.
These statistics are of course 15 years out of date but remain the most recent attempt at a numerical analysis of the Irish language community. It must be remembered that the number of children being educated through Irish for example has increased dramatically since 1987. There is every indication that the number of Irish speakers in Northern Ireland has increased considerably in the last 15 years.
Mac Giolla Chríost (2000) has proposed a figure of “functional Irish speakers” numbering 40, 000 to 45, 000 and of body of people commanding a full fluency in the Language numbering 13,000 to 15,000 based on the 1991 census.[1]
The 1991 Census figures also reveal that Irish speakers exist in reasonable concentrations in Derry, Belfast, Newry and Mourne, Magherafelt and Dungannon.
The 2001 Census figures indicate that some 10.35% of the population of Northern Ireland have some knowledge of Irish, some 167,459 people, a percentage rise from 1991 of 17.93%. 4.64% or 75073 persons claimed to possess the full range of language skills, i.e. understanding, speaking, reading and writing. A further 31712 persons claimed an ability to speak Irish but without having full literacy.

2          The Irish Language in the Republic of Ireland

1.43 Million or 43.5% of the population of the Republic of Ireland claim to have some level of ability in the Irish Language. The Irish is used as an everyday language in the Gaeltacht areas, located for the most part on the west coast of Ireland. Approximately 82,715 persons live in the Gaeltacht areas according to the 1996 Census, of this number 76.3% claim a knowledge of Irish.

The Irish Language is national language and with English one of the two official languages of the Republic of Ireland and it is recognised as a European ‘treaty’ language.
Article 8.1 The Irish Language as the national language is the first official language.
Article 8.2 The English Language is recognised as a second official language
Whilst the languages are co-official in practice it is more appropriate to view the Irish language as the national language and English as the official language. This has certainly been the interpretation of the Irish judiciary.
I think that the reference to the Irish language as the ‘national’ albeit aspirational rather than factual in Article 8.1…[2]
The status of the Irish language in the Republic is unique in that it is both an official and minority language and is not easily comparable to the Irish language in the north. 

3          The Status of Celtic Languages in Britain.

In order to assess the status of Irish, it is necessary to make comparisons with the other ‘celtic’ language in the context of the U.K. Scots and Ulster-Scots are also regarded as minority/regional languages but neither have as yet achieved the status of Welsh, Scots Gaelic or even Irish. Specific comparisons and conclusions will be formulated in the relevant sections. However the following statement from the U.N economic and social council highlights the necessity for comparison in the status of these languages.
The Committee notes that the Irish language in Northern Ireland does not appear to receive the same degree of financial support and status as Gaelic in Scotland and Welsh in Wales, and expresses its view that such discrimination is unjustified.[3]

3.1        Scottish Gaelic

Like Irish, Scottish Gaelic has suffered a great decline but is now experiencing a revival of fortunes. The 1991 census reported 65,978 speakers of Scottish Gaelic in Scotland or 1.35% of the total population concentrated in the traditionally Gaelic speaking Western Isles. Comunn na Gáidhlig which was established in 1984, is a government-funded body established to co-ordinate the development and promotion of Gaelic throughout Scotland. 

3.1.1     Scottish Gaelic and Education

There are over 50 Gaelic medium units in Scottish primary schools catering for approximately 1,500 pupils. Scottish Gaelic is taught as a subject in a small number of primary schools and in 35 secondary schools. A degree of Gaelic medium education is provided in a small number of secondary schools. Approx. 2,600 children between the ages of 3 and 5 attend Gaelic medium nursery schools.[4]

3.1.2     Scottish Gaelic and the Media

Under the provisions of the Broadcasting Act 1990, and the amendments of the Broadcasting Act 1996, the Gaelic broadcasting fund was established. This fund is managed by the Gaelic Broadcasting Committee (Comataidh Craolaidh Gáidhlig) and is charged with providing funds for the production of 200 hours of Gaelic programmes per year. This provision is in addition to 1-1.5 hours per week that the independent stations are obliged to produce themselves.
The BBC is under no statutory commitment to broadcast in Gaelic. It broadcasts around 90 hours of Gaelic medium programs per year under the terms of its Royal Charter.
The BBC also produces, Radio nan Gaidheal, the Gaelic medium radio channel which broadcasts for 45 hours per week.
Scottish Gaelic has a negligible presence in the print media amounting to the occasional article in the West Highland Free Press. There are a number of periodical also published in Scottish Gaelic.

3.1.3     The Legal and policy context of Scottish Gaelic (Aside from broadcasting and Education)

Scottish Gaelic has no official status in Scotland although a Gaelic language Bill has been recently introduced to the Scottish Parliament by a Scottish Nationalist MSP.
The British Nationality Act 1981, recognise Scottish Gaelic as one of the languages, knowledge of which, fulfils the linguistic requirements (along with Welsh and English) for naturalisation as a British citizen.
It is possible that Scottish Gaels could be constituted as an ‘ethnic group’ and thus covered under the Race Relations Act 1976 which could provide Scottish Gaels with a measure of protection in certain equality issues.
…A plausible case can be made that these groups [indigenous language communities], especially the Gaelic community, should be recognised as distinct ethnic groups under the statute and given appropriate protection.[5]
The Crofters Holding Act 1886 and the Crofters Act 1993 which superseded it requires that one member of the four person Crofter’s Commission should be a Gaelic Speaker. One member of seven in the Scottish land court is also required to be a Gaelic speaker under the provisions of the Scottish Land Court Act 1993. Scottish Gaels have no right to give evidence before any court  in Gaelic unless they are monoglots. This was established by the Taylor vs. Haughey case 1982.[6]
The U.K government has signed 39 paragraphs of Part 111 of the European Charter for Regional and Minority Languages in respect to Scottish Gaelic.

3.2        Welsh

3.2.1     The Welsh language

In the census of 1991, 527,500 claimed a knowledge of Welsh. Welsh speakers are concentrated in the west and north of Wales. The Welsh language has like all the Celtic languages sufferred a decline in fortunes. However, the position of the U.K government towards Welsh has been more favourable than its attitude to either Irish or Scots Gaelic. Welsh is without doubt the most secure of the Celtic languages today, both in a social-linguistic sense and with regards to legislation and support of the regional government.
The Welsh Language Board was established in 1988 as an advisory body with the aim of promoting the Welsh Language. The Welsh Language became a statuatory body under the terms of The Welsh Language Act 1993, its functions are therefore legally defined by this Act and it has statutory power derived from this Act. [7]

3.2.2     The Welsh Language in Education

More than 25% of children in Wales were attending Welsh medium schools in 2001. A total of 51,087 children were taught in Welsh medium or bi-lingual schools in the same period.
The rest of Welsh school teach Welsh as a second language. Welsh is a compulsory subject for all school pupils up to the age of 14 and is a National Cirriculum subject as defined by the Education Act 1988.[8]

3.2.3     The Welsh language in the Media.

Welsh television is provided for by a public television channel S4C. S4C was established in 1982 under the terms of the Broadcasting Act 1980. The channel broadcasts 32 hours of Welsh language programing per week. S4C digital incorparates the Welsh language programing of S4C and broadcasts an additional 48 hours of Welsh language programing per week. There is also a public radio station, BBC Radio Cymru, which broadcasts 24 hours a day, and the privately run Radio Ceredigion.

3.2.4    The legal and policy context of Welsh

The status of Welsh in Wales is defined by the Welsh language Act 1993, the Welsh language act 1967 and the Welsh Courts Act 1943, and by the European Charter for regional and minority languages.
Welsh, it has be shown by the Jone’s case 1986, is not protected under the race relations act as Welsh speaking people have been not been deemed to constitute a racial group.
We cannot believe that, for example, a Mrs Jones from Holyhead who speaks Welsh as well as English is to be regarded as belonging to a different racial group from her dear friend, a Mrs. Thomas from Colwyn Bay who speaks only English.[9]
Like Scottish Gaelic a knowledge of Welsh fufills the linquistic requirements of naturalistion under the British Nationality Act.
The Welsh Language Act 1993 does not confer any official status to the Welsh Language but it does build on the measure of recognition given to Welsh in the Welsh language Act 1967. It clearly states that Welsh and English are to be treated on the basis of equality. The Act established the Welsh language board in an attempt to facilitate this aim. The purpose of the Act is described in its introduction.
An Act to establish a Board having the function of promoting and facilitating the use of the Welsh language, to provide for the preparation by public bodies of schemes giving effect to the principle that in the conduct of public business and the administration of justice in Wales the English and the Welsh languages should be treated on the basis of equality, to make further provision relating to the Welsh language, to repeal certain spent enactments relating to Wales, and for connected purposes.
The Welsh language Act is unique in the context of the U.K. It constitutes not only a commitment to equality but it also provides for specifies actions to be taken with respect to this commitment, outlined as follows.
·      The Establishment of a Welsh Language Board.
·      Placing a statutory duty on public bodies to treat Welsh and English equally.
·      Granting Welsh speakers the absolute right to use Welsh in Legal proceedings
The right to use Welsh in the courts has existed since the Welsh Language Act 1942.
…it is hereby enacted that the Welsh language may be used in any court in Wales    by any party or witness who considers that he would otherwise be at a disadvantage by reason of his natural language being Welsh.
This right was enhanced by the Welsh language act 1967 by dictating “the Welsh Language may be spoken by any party, witness or other person who desires to use it.” The right to use Welsh in court was made absolute by the Welsh Language Act 1993.
The U.K government has signed 52 paragraphs of part 3 of the European Charter of Regional and Minority Languages with respect to Welsh.

4          The Legal Status and the Policy context of the Irish Language

4.1        Introduction

The status of Irish Language in the context of Northern Ireland is dictated by…
·      The International and European Policy Context
·       The Good Friday Agreement.
·       The Education (Northern Ireland) Order 1998.
·      The European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages
The Northern Ireland Act 1998 (Section 75) does not specifically mention the Irish language but does have implications for the language and is therefore dealt with in the relevant section. The Irish Language has no official status in Northern Ireland. It must of course be pointed out that no language has “official” status in the United Kingdom, although English is de facto the official language it is not technically recognised as such due to the uncodified nature of the United Kingdom constitution.
Irish is recognised in the context of the Good Friday Agreement and the U.K has ratified 36 paragraphs (out of a minimum of 35) of Part III of The European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages with respect to the Irish Language. This compares to 52 paragraphs in the case of Welsh and 39 paragraphs applying to Scottish Gaelic.
Although The Justice Act 1737 legislates against Irish it does not recognise the language. It therefore does not directly define the status of Irish and has been dealt with in section 6.1.1.
There exists no legislation outlawing discrimination on the basis of language in the North of Ireland.
Unlike Welsh and Scottish Gaelic, a knowledge of the Irish language does not fufill the linguistic requirements for citizenship through naturalistion under the British Nationality Act .
Responsibility for issues concerning the Irish language in Northern Ireland rests with the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure and the Department of Education. Under the terms of the North/South Language body established under the terms of the Good Friday agreement, Foras na Gaeilge was established to promote the Irish language North and South of the border as was the Ulster Scots agency to promote that. It does not have the statutory functions of the Welsh Language board. The Ultach Trust is a government funded body with the central aim of widening ‘the appreciation of the Irish language ..with the central aim …to promote the language on a cross community basis.’[10]

4.2        The Irish Language and the Good Friday Agreement.

There can be no doubt that the provisions for the Irish Language in the G.F.A were welcomed by Irish Speakers. It was a landmark event that undeniably represented a significant step forward for Irish speakers in the North of Ireland as it was the first time in the history of the state that the Irish language had received any form of recognition and that any commitments had been made with regards to the language. The provisions for the language are reproduced in their entirety in the following extract from the G.F.A.
3. All participants recognise the importance of respect, understanding and tolerance in relation to linguistic diversity, including in Northern Ireland, the Irish Language, Ulster Scots and the languages of various ethnic communities, all of which are part of the cultural wealth on the Island of Ireland.
4. In the context of active consideration currently being given to the U.K signing the Council of Europe Charter for Regional or Minority Languages, the British Government will in particular relation to the Irish Language, where appropriate and where people desire it:
·      take resolute action to promote the Language;
·      facilitate and encourage the use of the language in speech and writing in public and private life where there is appropriate demand;
·      seek to remove, where possible, restrictions which would discourage or work against the maintenance or development of the language;
·      make provision for liasing with the Irish Language Community, representing their views to public authorities and investigating their complaints;
·      place a statutory duty on the Department of Education to encourage and facilitate Irish medium education in line with current provision for integrated education;
·      explore urgently with the relevant British authorities and in co-operation with the Irish broadcasting authorities, the scope for achieving more widespread availability of Teilifís na Gaeilge in Northern Ireland;
·      seek more effective ways to encourage and provide financial support for Irish Language film and television production in Northern Ireland; and
·      encourage the parties to secure agreement that this commitment will be sustained by a new Assembly in a way that takes account of the desires and sensitivities of the community.
The provisions of the GFA are fundamentally an expression of sentiment and possible intent. The GFA contains only one single concrete commitment, to “place a statutory duty on the Department of Education” with regards to Irish medium education. This was brought into effect with Article 89 of The Education (Northern Ireland) Order 1998.
The other provisions are highly ambiguous, open to interpretation and vulnerable to opposition.
While the spirit of support for language policy development emerges strongly from the relevant paragraphs of the Agreement, virtually every sentence contains at least one ambiguous or qualifying term, which could be the subject of debate as to its precise meaning[11]
Whilst the GFA expresses goodwill and intent for the language, it does not guarantee the rights of Irish speakers. The quotation above highlight the use of terminology such as “seek to encourage, seek more effective ways, explore urgently,” demonstrate the ambiguity of the provisions. From a legal point of view, aside from a single concrete commitment, none of the provisions can be viewed as statutory commitments. The government is under no legal obligation to fulfil these commitments and Irish speakers cannot seek their fulfilment through the courts as Tom Hadden, Professor of Law at Queen’s University Belfast confirms:-
As with the ratification of the European Charter, however, these commitments are not directly enforceable in the courts.[12]
From the point of view of this research the political context of the GFA is not the issue. The provisions for the language are essentially a “fudge”, and are essentially political manoeuvres as part of a wider political process. They bare little resemblance to established Linguistic statutes such as the Welsh Language Act. The GFA is no guarantee of the linguistic rights of Irish speakers. It is necessary to enact domestic legislation in order to turn the sentiments expressed by the GFA into reality.

4.3        The Irish Language and the European Charter for Regional and Minority Languages.

4.3.1     Introduction

The European Charter for Regional and Minority languages is a Council of Europe convention which sets out to promote lesser used autochomous European languages. Part II of the charter sets out the general principles which the signatories agree to whilst the articles of part III involves the specific measures that the government agrees to carry out with respect to the minority language.
The U.K government has ratified part II of the charter to apply to Irish and Ulster-Scots in Northern Ireland and has ratified 36 articles of part III from a minimum of 35 to apply to Irish. Irish speakers have welcomed the ratification of the Charter despite the minimalist approach adopted by the U.K.

4.3.2     The effectiveness of the charter

It is important to point out that the Charter does not commit the government to any new approach. The Charter merely reflects the status quo. The articles ratified by the government are a ‘reflection of the actual situation.’
The Charter is completely subservient to domestic legislation and its’ commitments are not legally enforceable.
…ratification of the charter does not give users of any minority language any direct right to enforce the commitments which have been accepted.[13]
In other words although a public body may be ‘obligated’ to fulfil the commitments made by the charter, in reality they can chose to ignore these ‘commitments’ safe in the knowledge that they are not at risk of legal action.  It would be necessary to introduce legislation in order to give effect to the commitments made by the charter.
The Charter itself does not concern itself with minority/linguistic rights nor does is it concerned with minority communities, it concerns itself only with the minority languages themselves.
The Charter is carefully crafted to achieve its aims. It does not even speak of linguistic communities. It is addressed at languages. But all living languages exist because people use them and if languages are accorded rights, those who use them will also become beneficiaries.[14]

4.4        Public bodies and the European Charter

Article 10 of the European Charter for Regional and Minority Languages relates to the obligations of Administrative Authorities and public services. The Untied Kingdom chose to ratify 10 paragraphs or subparagraphs out of a possible 20 to apply to Irish.

4.5        Public bodies and Section 75

Section 75 of the Northern Ireland places a statutory requirement on Public bodies to…
            …have due regard to the need to promote equality of opportunity.
Whilst the Act makes no mention of Irish or Linguistic minorities, the public bodies covered by section 75, are now obliged to meet the provisions signed for the Irish Language in the European Charter for Regional and Minority languages relating to public authorities.

4.6    The Implementation of the Charter

It appears that the U.K government has not only taken a minimalist approach to the ratification of the charter but have also interpreted the articles ratified in a minimalist way.
Apart from the minimal number of provisions selected, in a number of cases the specific measures adopted for the Irish Language are the ‘weakest’ of the options available.[15]
…with regard to the use of the Irish in the administration (covered under Article 10 of the Charter), the measures selected to apply to Irish imply a minimal level of service for Irish speakers.[16]
Gorman (2002) reported widespread failure to implement the provisions of the Charter especially in relation to Administrative Authorities.

5          The Irish Language and Education

5.1        The Irish Language in Education the North of Ireland

There are 2188 children from a total of 1369 families being educated through Irish at 28 Irish Language primary schools and 2 secondary schools in Northern Ireland.[17] There are an additional 700 children attending Irish Medium nursery education.
Irish is also taught as a subject in almost all of Northern Irelands’ Catholic and Integrated schools. The language has a negligible presence in the state education system. This insures a Protestant population, as the census figures reveal which are largely unaware of Irish, a fact that undoubtedly contributes to an understandable suspicion of the language and unease towards it. It college is taught as a subject in both Northern Irelands’ Universities and in St. Mary’s teacher training.

5.2         Article 89 of The Education (Northern Ireland) Order 1998

Article 89 of the Education Order 1998 is the sole existing piece of domestic legislation that relates to the Irish Language. It places a statutory duty on the Department of Education to promote Irish medium education in line with the promotion of integrated education.
As a result of the Order, the criteria for the establishment and recognition of Irish medium schools were changed, making it much easier for Gaelscoileannato receive recognition and funding. It also required the creation of a promotional body, established in August 2000 as Comhairle na Gaelscolaíochta.
The Irish medium education sector has expanded rapidly in recent years. This piece of legislation is undoubtedly a good example of how a concrete legal commitment can impact on the fortunes of the language.
The right to be educated through Irish is not however guaranteed by legislation. It could be argued that a right to be educated in ones national language is implied by Article 2 of The Human Rights Act 1998 (The enactment of the European charter of Human Rights into domestic U.K law)
            Article 2, Right to education
No person shall be denied the right to education. In the exercise of any functions which it assumes in relation to education and to teaching, the state shall respect the rights of parents to ensure such education and teaching in conformity with their religious and philosophical convictions.

5.3        Irish as a subject in English Medium Schools

Whilst, there can be no doubt that the focus of Irish speakers is on the Irish medium sector, the importance of Irish as a subject in English medium schools cannot be overstated. For the vast majority of Irish speakers in Northern Ireland today, the Irish learnt at an English medium school is at least a very important, if not the most important factor in their linguistic acquisition. For example, the vast majority of teachers currently teaching in Gaelscoileanna, are and will be for the foreseeable future, people whose linguistic foundations were laid in English medium secondary schools.
This position of Irish in English medium primary schools contrasts sharply with Wales and the Republic of Ireland where Welsh and Irish respectively are compulsory subjects up to the age of fourteen in Wales and to age sixteen in the Republic. Whilst there is no demand for Irish to be a compulsory subject in Northern Ireland, the right to learn Irish is denied in English medium primary schools.
Irish is not taught in the state schools of Northern Ireland. Whilst the situation is complicated by the politics of the Six Counties, any opportunity to learn or at least be introduced to the language is denied to school children of both Protestant and Catholic backgrounds who attend the State Schools of Northern Ireland.
Irish is not a compulsory subject in Northern Ireland as Welsh is in Wales. Whilst, there is no demand for Irish to be made a compulsory subject there is no statutory right to be taught Irish.
Irish does not have the same status as other taught languages in the curriculum: –
The current Northern Ireland Curriculum requires schools at post-primary level to offer one of French, German, Italian or Spanish; only then may they offer Irish as a choice.[18]
Irish does not have equal status with other languages in the Curriculum. It is clear that the language itself is relegated in importance, it is not regarded as a modern European language never mind as an indigenous language. Opportunities to learn the Language are stunted, and the language stigmatised in the eyes of pupils as a result of a status in the curriculum, which is discriminatory.

6          The Irish Language and the Judicial System

6.1        Introduction

Irish speakers have no right to use Irish in the Courts; in fact the opposite is true. It is illegal to use Irish in the courts and testimony in Irish is inadmissible. The Irish language is effectively banned in the courts by The Justice Act 1737.

6.1.1     An Act that all Proceeding in Courts of Justice within this Kingdom    shall be in the English Language (1737)

The primary aim of the Act was supposedly to insure that the common people could comprehend legal proceedings but an effort to recognise the needs of monoglot Irish speakers, who constituted the vast majority of people in Ireland at this time. It claimed to seek to counteract the use of what would now probably be called legalese, as well as Latin and French. The Act begins with this statement of intent: –
Whereas many and great mischiefs do frequently happen to the subjects of this kingdom from the proceedings in courts of justice being in an unknown language;
There is no mention of Irish or any other Celtic language in the Act, although their prohibition is undoubtedly implied in the term “…any other tongue or language whatsoever.”  The fact that the Irish language is not even mentioned, despite its position as the language of the vast majority of people throughout Ireland, irrefutably demonstrates that the purpose of the Act was a poor attempt to…
protect the lives and fortunes of the subjects of this kingdom more effectively than heretofore from the peril of being ensured, and brought into danger, by forms and proceeding in courts of justice in an unknown language.
The Justice Act of 1737 legally entrenched the position of the English Language as the language of the courts in Ireland as the English language alone was to be used in all legal proceedings. The effect of this Act in Ireland, was the opposite of its stated intent. It legally barred the Irish language from the courts thus rendering the administration of justice an impossibility to all but a small minority in Ireland. 
This Law was undoubtedly a major setback for the Irish language and the Irish people.  It has effectively remained in force to the present day. It is impossible therefore for the UK government to ratify any of other provisions in Article 9 of the Charter, as they would contravene this Act.
 It is true that permission to speak Irish in court was briefly granted in the Ó Fiaich case in 1984[19]. Similar accommodation was not forthcoming a week later in the case of Seán Ó Canáin. An tUasal Ó Canáin attempted to defend himself in Irish, his defence was ignored by the magistrate and an tUasal Ó Canáin was fined. Ó Canáin was denied therefore a chance to defend himself and the opportunity of a fair hearing, one of the most basic human rights simply because he insisted on speaking his own language. An tUasal Ó Canáin refused to pay the fine and was subsequently sentenced to fourteen days imprisonment.[20]

6.2        The European Charter and the Judicial System.

The UK government signed only one paragraph (paragraph 3) of Article 9 of the European charter in relation to Irish and the judicial system.
this can hardly be viewed as complying with the principles outlined in part two of the charter…[and] offers very limited scope for the promotion of Irish in the judicial system.[21]
Paragraph 3 of Article 3 states: –
The Parties undertake to make available in the regional or minority languages the most important national statutory texts and those relating particularly to users of these languages, unless they are otherwise provided. At this stage not only has this work not been undertaken it is not even clear which government department is responsible for the implementation of this provision. [22]
The 1737 Justice Act blocks the government ratifying any more provisions of the charter relating to the legal system even if the will existed.
Irish speakers cannot access the justice system as Irish speakers and must use the English language. Irish speakers, especially native Irish speakers and those who have been educated through Irish are disadvantaged by the prohibition of Irish from the courts and the cultural rights of Irish speakers in the judicial system are denied.
This ban contrasts starkly with the case of Welsh, whose speakers are also universally bilingual with English but where the right to use Welsh in the courts was enshrined by the Welsh Courts Act (1942) and made absolute by the Welsh Language Act 1993.
It also contrasts with the treatment of speakers of immigrant languages who are entitled to avail of interpreters at all stages of the judicial process under the aspics of Section 75 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998.
The Irish Language is effectively banned from the Northern Ireland Courts. This is direct, institutionalised discrimination

7          The Irish Language and the Media and Arts

7.1        The Print Media and the Arts.

There is a daily Irish Language newspaper, Lá, based in Belfast and a weekly Galway based newspaper, Foinse. A number of local newspapers also carry regular articles in Irish. There is a professional Irish Language theatre company, Aisling Ghéar. There is a considerable amount of creative writing in Irish and the Irish Language has a considerable presence in the Irish traditional music scene and in Gaelic games.

7.2        The Irish language and Broadcasting in Northern Ireland

There is a Irish language radio station, Raidió Fáilte, serving Belfast. Radio Fáilte has been broadcasting illegally since its establishment in February 2002 due to the refusal of the U.K Broadcasting Authority to grant a broadcasting license Fáilte. The direct result of this is that Foras na Gaeilge cannot grant funding to the station seriously undermining the stations potential. Irish speakers see the establishment of Radio Fáilte as a very significant development in the development of Irish as a community language on Belfast.
The Republic of Ireland’s national Irish medium radio station Raidio na Gaeltachta, can also be received in most parts of the Six-Counties and many people have access to TG4, the Galway based Irish medium television channel. The Good Friday Agreement ‘committed’ both the British and Irish governments to:-
explore urgently …the scope for achieving more widespread availability of  Teilifís na Gaeilge (TG 4)
Article 11, 2 of the European Charter relating to the media also requires that:-
Article 11,2.
The Parties undertake to guarantee freedom of direct reception of radio and television broadcasts from neighbours countries in a language used in identical or similar form to regional or minority language …
There has been little obvious result from this and proposed exploration and reception of TG 4 in Northern Ireland remains poor. The failure of the U.K government to guarantee reception of TG 4 in the North of Ireland represents a failure of the British government to implement it commitments to the Irish language made by international agreement.
The following comment succinctly sums up the policy of State broadcasting towards the Irish Language in its first fifty years.
From the outset, and for nearly fifty years, it was BBC policy in Northern Ireland to ignore the Irish Language.[23]
The first radio program ‘about’ the Irish language was aired in 1976.[24] The first program in Irish, Anois, broadcast in October 1981, 15mins once a week but Irish speakers were able to comment
Fifteen minutes a year equals thirteen hours a year – if it continues for a year. That is the equivalent of one week’s broadcasting in Scottish Gaelic or one day’s broadcasting in Welsh.[25]
The first television program in Irish on the BBC was not broadcast until 1991. In total 3 hours of Irish language television was broadcast in Irish that year.
There are three television channels based in Northern Ireland, U.T.V and two BBC channels. Northern Irelands independent channel, U.T.V does not broadcast any programmes in Irish. There are no Irish language programmes on BBC1.  The BBC broadcasts its occasional Irish language program on its second channel BBC 2. These are normally music based programmes or directed at children or people who are learning the language. There are as such, no public service television programmes in the Irish Language, i.e. weather reports, news programmes and educational programmes etc. broadcast on the B.B.C
In the 2001/2002 period16 hours were broadcast in Irish on the BBC. This is minimal by any standard but even more so when one considers that only 3 hours of this were original programming. The other 13 hours were taken up by “Now you’re talking” a program directed at learners of Irish. Whilst the program is generally well received, it was a repeat a program directed at language learners, defining this as Irish language programming is misleading. The BBC does not have any statutory quota of Irish Language programming to fulfil, in regard to either content or quantity. In fact the BBC is under no statutory requirement to broadcast in Irish at all.
The status of Irish in broadcasting compares very unfavourably with the status of Scottish Gaelic and Welsh. In both cases there is a statutory commitment to provide programmes in these languages as defined by The Broadcasting Act 1990 and The Broadcasting Act 1996 in the case of Scottish Gaelic and The Broadcasting Act 1980/1981 in the case of Welsh.
The Communications Bill currently before the House of Commons makes no reference to the Irish language, but makes considerable and comprehensive provision for Scottish Gaelic /Welsh. Provision for Irish was included in the initial government proposal, the ‘white paer’ but all mention of the Irish language were dropped from the Bill itself.
Both Scottish Gaelic and Welsh are provided for by stand alone public radio stations, Raidio nan Gaidheal and Radio Cymru respectively. Irish Language programs are broadcast as part of BBC Radio Ulster’s schedule in Northern Ireland.
The following table illustrates the differing volume of Public television and radio output in Irish, Welsh and Scottish Gaelic.
No. of people claiming knowledge (1991 Census)
No of Hours Broadcast per annum (Television)
No of hours broadcast per annum (Radio)
Irish (N.I)
234 (approx)
Scottish Gaelic
350 (approx)

Whilst there are differences in the social linguistic position of each language, which is reflected in the differing provision for Scottish Gaelic and Welsh, there is clear distinction between the amount of public broadcasting in Irish and the Scottish Gaelic and Welsh. For example, there is ten times as much radio programmes broadcast in Scottish Gaelic than in Irish although the census figures reveal that more than twice as many people in Northern Ireland claim a knowledge of Irish than claim a knowledge of Gaelic in Scotland.

This distinction in the volume of broadcasting and the lack of statutory commitments in regard to same is unjustified, unfair and amounts to discriminatory treatment of Irish speakers in comparison to the other two languages. There appears to be no immediate plans on the British Government’s part to rectify this situation. It is a denial of cultural rights amounting to direct and institutional discrimination.

7.3        The Equality Commission and the Irish Language in the Workplace

Whilst speaking Irish in the work place is not an illegal act, an employer can prohibit the use of the language with the backing of The Equality Commission.
The Equality Commission is responsible for the implementation and enforcement of equality legislation in Northern Ireland. The position of the Equality Commission on the Irish language in the workplace is outlined in the following extracts from correspondence between the Equality commission and POBAL, the Irish language umbrella group.
Employees who converse in Irish when in the company of others who do not speak the language in Irish, may be seen by those others as excluding them from the conversation, particularly in situations where non-Irish speakers are in a minority or vulnerable position. In such situations it may not be the use of the Irish language as such, but the act of excluding which gives rise to a problem in relation to a good and harmonious working environment and could well be a factor in allegations of discrimination contrary to the Fair Employment and Treatment Order.
However the context is important. Employees who converse in Irish when in the company of others who do not speak the language, may be seen as excluding others from the conversation, particularly in positions where the non-Irish speakers are in a minority or vulnerable.
…if an employer is aware that any of their staff are in a position where they feel vulnerable or isolated, then the employer should be particularly sensitive to anything which might add to that isolation or vulnerability. Other staff speaking a language not understood by the minority of staff would obviously be such a factor and an employer would be justified in taking steps to prevent such excluding behaviour, but it could be regarded by a Tribunal as having a responsibility to do so in those circumstances.
In summary, the use of the Irish language is not unlawful but the use of Irish can be legitimately prohibited by an employer under the auspices of the Fair Employment Code of Practice (section 5.2.2) which urges employers …
to promote a good and harmonious working environment and atmosphere in which no worker feels under threat or intimidated because of his religious belief or political opinion.
It would be the employer’s responsibility to prohibit the use of the Irish language if there were employees found to be in opposition to its use. The application of this position is that a minority of people or even an individual can effectively seek the prohibition of the Irish language in the workplace and an employer can prohibit his/her employees from speaking Irish.
The position of the Equality Commission uses a number of disingenuous arguments. In arguing that a private conversation in Irish excludes non-Irish speakers the commission ignores the fact that a private conversation is by its very nature exclusive to those taking part in it regardless of the language in which it is. The logical conclusion of this argument could mean that whispering excludes others and could be prohibited.  To deny Irish speakers the right to a private conversation in their own language, a privilege not denied to English speakers, is discriminatory as it unfairly favours English speakers.
The Commission referred to possible situations where non-Irish speakers could be in a ‘minority or vulnerable position’. As evident from the history of the Irish language in Ireland, the census figures and the position of the English language as a world language it is disingenuous to portray English speakers as a vulnerable minority as Irish speakers would normally constitute a small minority in a workplace in Northern Ireland. 

8          Summary

The status of Irish differs from the status of Welsh and Scottish Gaelic and in my view unfairly so. The census figures, historical circumstances and the Irish language’s current position in society in Northern Ireland do not justify this differential treatment. The differing status of Irish and Welsh and Scottish Gaelic is a question of institutionalised discrimination. The status of Irish is much more similar to Scottish Gaelic than it is to Welsh in both a socio-linguistic sense and in its statutory position, although there are great difference in treatment even with Scottish Gaelic, particularly in terms of broadcasting provision.
The only solution to this statutory inequality would be to enact legislation to that effect, i.e. An Irish Language Act, guaranteeing the right to Irish medium education, the right to learn the language through the education system, the right to use Irish in court, the right of linguistic freedom in the workplace, the right to broadcast provision in the Irish language and the right to use the language to some degree when dealing with public authorities.
Many Irish speakers may have a cynical view of efforts towards legislation reform but the example of the Education Order 1998 and the many statutes relating to Welsh in Wales demonstrate irrefutably the value and impact of statutory commitments. Statutory commitments are also legal guarantees which are not subject to changes in funding policy, i.e. a statutory commitment to broadcast a set amount of television programs as exists for Scottish Gaelic is a much stronger guarantee than variable funding on the basis of departmental policy.
In conclusion, the reality is that the status of the Irish language is very low, it is prohibited from the judicial system, it can be prohibited from the workplace, it has a negligible presence in broadcasting, it is not given equality with other languages in the education system, it is mostly ignored by public bodies and its status compares most unfavourably with the other Celtic languages in the U.K constituting institutionalised discrimination. 

[2] Ó Tuathail, Séamas, Gaeilge agus Bunreacht, p. 69, (Baile Átha Cliath, Coiscéim, 2002.)
[3] UN Economic and Social Council (1997), Concluding Observations of the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, United Kingdom
[5] McLeod, Wilson, Autochthonous language communities and the Race Relations Act, 1998 in Web Journal of Current Legal Issue no. 1 @ http://webjcli.ncl.ac.uk/1998/issue1/mcleod1.html
[6] McLeod , Wilson, Official Status for Gaelic: Prospects and Problems, Scottish Affairs, 21 (1997), 95-118
[8] All figures are from the Welsh Language Board @ www.bwrdd-yr-iaith.org.uk/education 
[9] McLeod, Wilson, Autochthonous language communities and the Race Relations Act, 1998 in Web Journal of Current Legal Issue no. 1 @ http://webjcli.ncl.ac.uk/1998/issue1/mcleod1.html
[11] Rooney, Edward, Language Policy Implementation: A DCAL Civil Servant’s Perspective, p58 in Linguistic Politics; Language Policies for Northern Ireland, the Republic of Ireland, and Scotland, ed. John M. Kirk and Dónall P. Ó Baoill, (Belfast, Cló Ollscoil na Banríona, 2001)
[12] Hadden, Tom, Should a Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland Protect Language Rights?, p116 in Language and Politics; Northern Ireland, the Republic of Ireland, and Scotland, (Belfast, Cló Ollscoil na Banríona, 2000)
[13] Ibid, p115
[14] Ó Riagáin, Dónall, Language Rights/Human Rights in Northern Ireland, p45 in Linguistic Politics; Language Policies for Northern Ireland, the Republic of Ireland, and Scotland, ed. John M. Kirk and Dónall P. Ó Baoill, (Belfast, Cló Ollscoil na Banríona, 2001)
[15] Gorman, Teresa, The implementation of the Charter with regard to the Irish Language July 2001 – July 2002, p8, (Belfast, Pobal, 2002)
[16] Ibid
[17] Figures from Comhairle na Gaelscolaíochta
[18] McKendrey, Eugene, Irish and the Curriculum review in Northern Ireland,p. 137 in Language Planning and Education: Linguistic Issues in Northern Ireland, the Republic of Ireland, and Scotland, ed. Dónall P Ó Baoill and John M Kirk, (Belfast, Cló na Banríona, 2002)
[19] Committee on the Administration of Justice,  Staid agus Stadas na Gaeilge, p31(Belfast, CAJ, 1993)
[20] Broken Covenants; violations of international law in Northern Ireland, Report of the Northern Ireland Human Rights assembly, p171, (London, Liberty, 1992)
[21] Gorman, Teresa, The implementation of the Charter with regard to the Irish Language July 2001 – July 2002, p30, (Belfast, Pobal, 2002)
[22] Ibid p30
[23] Andrews, Liam S, BBC Northern Ireland and the Irish Language, p.25 (Belfast, An tUltach Trust, 1993)
[24] Ibid, p27
[25] Ibid, p35
[26] S4C
[27] S4C digital
[28] BBC Radio Cymru
[29] BBC Radio nan Gaidheal

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