Thursday, 29 April 1999
Dáil Éireann Debate
8. Mr. Wall asked the Minister for Arts, Heritage, Gaeltacht and the Islands the progress, if any, made towards a bilingual society over the past ten years; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [11153/99]
9. Mr. Howlin asked the Minister for Arts, Heritage, Gaeltacht and the Islands if a bilingual society is a policy objective of the Government; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [11152/99]
17. Mr. Spring asked the Minister for Arts, Heritage, Gaeltacht and the Islands her views on the level of success achieved since the foundation of the State regarding the restoration of the Irish language; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [11154/99]
The core policy goal of my Department in relation to the Irish language is to reverse the decline in the use of the language as the principal means of communication in the Gaeltacht and to extend its use in the rest of the country. A supporting objective to that policy goal is to encourage the expansion of the use of Irish and the delivery of State services through Irish on a countrywide basis.
While no specific decision has been taken by this or previous Governments that the policy objective of the State is that Ireland should be a bilingual society, the thrust of policy in recent years has been to encourage the expansion of bilingualism throughout the country. In the Gaeltacht, of course, the policy remains that Irish should be the principal means of communication.
The North-South language body dealing with the Irish language opens up new and exciting possibilities on an all-Ireland basis to promote bilingualism and, indeed, this development was  widely welcomed when the Bill was before the Oireachtas. It is difficult to measure the extent of the progress made in the past ten years towards achieving a bilingual society as there are no relevant statistics available. There has undoubtedly been some progress judging from the number of pupils who have passed through the education system, the growth in the number of Gaelscoileanna and those attending Irish classes and courses in the Gaeltacht and the activities of the voluntary Irish language organisations.
Regarding my views on the level of success achieved since the foundation of the State in the restoration of the Irish language, it is a little facile of the Deputy to expect me to cover this matter adequately in reply to a parliamentary question which must of necessity be brief. There has been considerable progress, as evidenced in the census returns. In the period 1926 to 1991, the number of people returned in the census of population as being able to speak Irish increased from 540,820 or 19.3 per cent of the population aged three years and over to 1,095,830 or 32.5 per cent of the population. Between 1986 and 1991, the number of Irish speakers increased by 53,129 or 5.1 per cent, while there was a decline of 39,755 or 1.4 per cent in the number of non-Irish speakers. A new question on ability to speak the Irish language and frequency of speaking Irish was introduced in the 1996 census. The returns showed that 1,430,205 people aged three and over or 39.5 per cent of the population claimed to be Irish speakers. This progress is in no small part due to State policy in promoting the language through the education system and on a broad front through State assistance generally, combined with the efforts of the Irish language organisations.
Mr. O'Shea: I want to be accurate in my interpretation of what the Minister of State said. I understand the achievement of a bilingual society is not a policy objective of the Government. Despite the fact that he has already stated there is an uncanny resemblance between the census returns and the experience of offices of his Department regarding use of the Irish language, does he agree the information the census provided is subjective and, therefore, of doubtful value in terms of assessing the level of spoken Irish, either in the Gaeltacht or in the Galltacht? Does he agree there is a consensus within the education sector that the standard of Irish at leaving certificate level, for example, has been deteriorating? We can bandy about statistics but the language is in decline. Does he agree that, unless we have an open and honest national debate in which the language is not treated as a sacred cow but as one of our national treasures with the  potential to enrich our lives, we will not reverse a trend which causes concern to those involved in the revival of the language?
Éamon Ó Cuív: I have always been a little sceptical about the number of Irish speakers compiled by the census, although they are the only comparative figures I have. I do not have the figures for the number of people who speak Irish daily because the question was not asked. Therefore, the only comparative figures we have are for the number of people who have some Irish.
There is some validity to the figure of 39.5 per cent. I always start and end the speeches I make in Irish as I travel around the country. The majority of people seem to understand what I say because they laugh at the appropriate moment. A large number of people have a comprehension of Irish.
Éamon Ó Cuív: There seems to be a large number of people who understand Irish which would not have been the case 100 years ago. More people would have spoken Irish every day then and a number would have had no English, but there would also have been many who did not know any Irish. That n has changed in the past 100 years because of education policies.
However, I am concerned about what I perceive as the decline in the standard of Irish in schools. I am puzzled by this because the Department of Education and Science has allocated many resources to it. It is valid to ask why people who spend 13 years learning Irish do not know it when they finish school. I launched a package yesterday for the idirbhliain based on Ros na Rún. With all the facilities available, learning the language should be easier. It is attractive if one can watch nice programmes on television as a way of learning a language. We should compare this with the way we had to learn it in the classroom years ago.
More interesting information is available from the last census, but I do not have comparative figures. I have examined the figures closely and, allowing for the bulge in figures because of schoolchildren who say they speak Irish every day because they speak it in class, it appears about 104,000 people speak the language every day. I wish to correct the figure of 70,000 which has been bandied about. That relates to people over 19, but those between three and 19 who also speak Irish every day at home and not just in school must also be included. They are legitimate Irish speakers. It is fair to say there would not have been 100,000 people who used Irish every day 30 to 40 years ago. On the basis of documentation available at the time, that would not appear to be the case.
 If one studies the speech patterns of older people on the margins of the Gaeltachtaí and how little Irish they know, the meath na Gaeltachta has not been that considerable considering the huge pressures on the language. Times have changed and those huge pressures on the language and the Gaeltachtaí are of major concern. In that context, there is a need for radical steps to see how the Gaeltachtaí, which are tobar na Gaeilge, can be retained as Irish language communities. I have no doubt the language will survive, but Irish language communities are a different issue. I am concentrating on them at present. Huge forces are affecting them, one of which is economic success which, while a good thing, poses a challenge.
I have no fear for the Irish language, taking into account the number of speakers in the country who speak it on a daily basis. The level of competency in Irish among the population at large, the balance of the 39.5 per cent, is perhaps questionable. However, there is no question about the survival of a dispersed Irish language community. When I was asked this question in Scotland I said that the Irish language is like the grass growing in tarmac; every time people think they have got rid of it, they find it sprouts again. I have no fear for the future of the Irish language into the new millennium.
There is a need for a national debate. I am disappointed at society's unwillingness to recognise that it should have two official languages, Irish and English, living side by side. It is towards that end and to ensure final and full recognition by the major institutions, not only State institutions, and a complete change in mindset that I am introducing a language Bill. It will do what has been done in other countries with major and minor languages, for example, Canada, Wales, the Basque country etc. It will put the two languages on a much more equal footing in terms of official recognition.
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