Wednesday, 25 November 2009

Found in Translation?

The current Northern Ireland Assembly first met on 1 July 1998. The Blether Region wonders how many people could have predicted then that more than 11 years later the use of Irish during its sittings would still be a bone of contention.

Language is mentioned in the Assembly's Standing Orders only twice. Standing Order 78 confirms that "Members may speak in the language of their choice", which seems clear enough, while Standing Order 80 states that the Official Report "shall be a record of the proceedings in the language spoken", i.e. that it will not be issued in a fully bilingual edition produced by a team of translators as is the case in Wales.

At the end of yesterday's Oral Questions to the Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure, the Strangford MLA Simon Hamilton raised the following point of order.

"During Question Time, Dominic Bradley asked a question initially in Irish, which he translated into English. In so doing, he took well in excess of one minute. Will you convey to the Speaker a request that guidance be issued to the effect that, if Members are intent on being as self-indulgent as Mr Bradley, they exercise the same brevity in asking their question that is expected of the rest of us?"

The obvious solution to the issue of the time lost translating into English what one has just said in Irish was articulated by Sinn Féin's Barry McElduff.

"… some time ago, I asked the Speaker to investigate the practical feasibility and possibility of extending the availability of the headsets that the Speaker or Deputy Speaker and Clerks have access to. The Speaker was asked to look into that matter. No additional time would be required for translation if the headsets were available to all Members."

The fact that the simultaneous translation system of which the Speaker and Clerks avail themselves for policing purposes has not been extended — at what one can only imagine would be fairly modest cost — to the Members themselves must surely be the result of an unspoken compact that suits all parties. Nationalists can allow their Gaeilgeoirí to shine while enjoying the benefits of creative ambiguity when it comes to the linguistic skills of their other MLAs. SDLP Members can avoid the dilemma of whether to compete with Sinn Féin in the cultural Nationalist stakes or tread softly around Unionist sensibilities. MLAs from that last camp, who have difficulty getting beyond the side issues of political symbolism and community patronage in debates on linguistic diversity, can refuse their enemies in the culture wars the acknowledgment that headphones hanging from seat-backs would entail and, by halving the time available to Irish-speakers, effectively limit use of the language in the Assembly.

The danger of a rota among DUP MLAs, if such exists, to complain whenever Irish is used is that, while it no doubt plays well to voters and riles opponents, it also makes Barry McElduff's suggestion ever more attractive. Standing Orders confirm that Members offer English translations only as a courtesy, and courtesies can be withheld. The major cost of simultaneous translation is the salaries of interpreters rather than the hardware. At a time when relations between the two largest parties are so bad that fresh elections may have to be held, it is a brave MLA who would press the issue. Of course, were simultaneous translation, and bilingualism, to become an integral part of the Stormont system, it might provide us with a preview of Unionist reactions to what an early election might very well bring: the prospect of a Sinn Féin First Minister.

1 comment:

  1. SDLP Irish language spokesperson Dominic Bradley said the DUP’s campaign of pettiness against the Irish language in the Assembly underlines the need for language rights to be enshrined in law.

    He said: “In the latest case in point I put a question to Minister Nelson McCausland on lack of progress in implementation of the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages. I asked it first in Irish and then in English. Right on cue, Simon Hamilton of the DUP rowed in with a point of order about me taking more than one minute to ask the question. I don’t think I went over a minute, and even if I did there should be latitude for bilingual questions. The irony is that Mr Hamilton is a constant offender when it comes to lengthy diatribes disguised as Assembly questions.

    “But this is nothing to do with timing and everything to do with the DUP’s campaign of extreme pettiness against the language and every manifestation of Irish culture. It demonstrates just how much we need a rights-based approach to the language issue laid down in legislation as I am seeking to do in my private member’s bill for an Official Languages Act.”

    Dominic's Bill, which has been lodged with the Assembly, can be seen at
    SDLP Press Office


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