Tuesday, 11 October 2011

Gagged for Being a Gael

The Belfast Telegraph reports that the SDLP's Dominic Bradley has had Assembly speaking rights withdrawn for a week after he refused an order by Deputy Speaker Roy Beggs to sit down for having the temerity to ask a question in Irish. The Speaker himself, the UUP's William Hay, then "took up the issue and wrote directly to Mr Bradley, informing him he will not be called on to speak again for the rest of this week unless he apologises."

The newspaper incorrectly maintains that Members are required to translate into English anything said in Irish. In fact any translations are offered as a courtesy — with the result that those who exercise their right to use Irish have only half the time available to anglophone Members. Assembly Standing Order 78 states only that "Members may speak in the language of their choice."

The case highlights two issues: the fact that Unionist prejudice towards Irish has been carried over into what is the ostensibly neutral office of the Chair; and the deficient knowledge of Standing Orders exhibited not only by a newspaper but by the Speaker of the House and one of his Deputies. Even if one takes the generous view that Mr. Hay's sanction was as a result of Mr. Bradley's challenge rather than the crime of speaking Irish without offering a translation, the fact remains that it was Mr. Bradley rather than Mr. Beggs who correctly interpreted the Standing Orders of the Assembly.

Back in November 2009, the Blether Region reported on a similar incident, also involving Mr. Bradley. It seems that there has been no progress since. The expense of retaining simultaneous interpreters for the sole benefit of the Chair and Clerk continues, with no account being taken of the translation needs of ordinary Members. Meanwhile, those who speak Irish in the Chamber are summarily gagged in contempt of the legal protections offered by Standing Orders.

The truth is that unwritten conventions simply muddy the waters, breeding ignorance and reinforcing prejudice. Surely it is now time to withdraw this "courtesy" entirely.

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