Thursday, 10 February 2011

Constitutional Means

The Irish Examiner has printed a letter from Pádraig Mac Fhearghusa, editor of Feasta and current President of Conradh na Gaeilge, and Éamonn Mac Niallais of Guth na Gaeltachta, on Enda Kenny's controversial plans to make Irish an optional subject for the leaving certificate.

There is no doubt that the language will suffer greatly if the proposed change is introduced. The greatest obstacle to the revival of Irish has not been the fact that children are being made to learn it but that successive Governments have failed to provide Irish-medium services, in which context the 1970s abolition of the Irish requirement for entry to the Civil Service that the letter-writers mention is of some relevance.

Even in those days, of course, Ireland was failing to meet its obligations to the first national language. That being so, the language requirement was quite rightly seen as a pointless — and hypocritical — impediment to open recruitment. Rather than making Irish more relevant to the Civil Service by providing increased services through the language, however, the response was to abolish the requirement.

Thirty-seven years later, the language has still not been made useful enough to ensure intergenerational transmission. And instead of taking steps to make it so, the probable future Taoiseach is set on repeating the mistake made when the Civil Service requirement was abolished.

In a Northern context, it could be argued that the segregated school system's denial to Unionist children of a chance to learn Irish is a mild form of child abuse, involving as it does the excision of a part of their identity and probably permanent damage to their ability to appreciate basic aspects of the world around them such as history, toponymy, personal names and native literature. Even in the South, however, there is no guaranteeing that students will not terminate their study of the language prematurely, many for frivolous reasons, and with many regretting their choice as adults. After all, a large body of research tells us that adolescents learn languages more easily and with more chance of the knowledge actually sticking.

The other parties oppose Kenny's plans. Back in 1995, the then Government raised eyebrows when it wrote into the Constitution the exact arrangements under which divorce would be tolerated. In practice, this meant that it would be very difficult for any subsequent Government to reduce the four to five years of legal separation that would be required before a divorce could be granted — an ignorant intrusion into people's private lives, perhaps, but most likely a long-lasting one.

Some readers may be aware that the Spanish Constitution stipulates a right to learn regional languages but a duty to learn Castilian — an instance of the same tactic being used against the Basque and Catalan Administrations, which might otherwise very easily make the "national" language optional.

But what if those in favour of Irish were to follow suit here? A right to learn English and a duty to learn Irish would be entirely in keeping with the languages' respective positions in Bunreacht na hÉireann, and while one could argue that those currently commencing university studies already have an adequate command of the language, obviating the need for universal provision, that is hardly true of schoolchildren.

The Blether Region believes that such a constitutional amendment in favour of Irish would also be likely to attract the support of the people.

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