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'Planning Issues for Irish Language Policy: 'An Foras Teanga' and 'Fiontair Teanga'' by D. MacGiolla Chríost (2000)

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Text: Diarmait MacGiolla Chríost ... Page Compiled: Martin Melaugh

The following paper has been contributed by the author Diarmait MacGiolla Chríost. The views expressed in this paper do not necessarily reflect the views of the members of the CAIN Project. The CAIN Project would welcome other material which meets our guidelines for contributions.
This paper is copyright Diarmait MacGiolla Chríost (2000) and is included on the CAIN site by permission of the author. You may not edit, adapt, or redistribute changed versions of this for other than your personal use without the express written permission of the author. Redistribution for commercial purposes is not permitted.

Planning Issues for Irish Language Policy:
'An Foras Teanga' and 'Fiontair Teanga'

by Diarmait MacGiolla Chríost


The translation into policy and practice of the commitments to the Irish language in the articles of the political agreement in Northern Ireland [NI] is a critically sensitive issue in the region. As recently as October 2000 David Trimble, leader of the Ulster Unionist Party [UUP] indicated that language matters were to become an area of conflict:

Michael McGimpsey (Minister with responsibility for linguistic diversity) knows that culture is going to be a political battleground. He will ensure fair play for our Scots and English heritage. (reported in The Irish Times 7th October 2000)

This paper is not intended as a substantial exposition of recent research on the Irish language in socio-political context. This is accomplished elsewhere (Mac Giolla Chríost, forthcoming). Instead, empirical information on the sociology of the language is deployed in this paper so as to highlight the most salient features of the Irish-speaking population in NI. It is the primary goal of this paper to inform policy issues with a view to identifying mechanisms for realising the effective implementation of commitments made to the Irish language in the region as a part of the Agreement (NIO, 1998). Haarmann's framework for language and ethnicity in a network of ecological relations and, in particular, the basic model of ecological relations (Haarmann, 1986), provide the theoretical context in which the significance of the results with regard to language planning is measured. One of the newly created institutions resulting from the political settlement in NI, the implementation agency the North/South Language Body [in Irish An Foras Teanga], is highlighted as body with a pivotal role to play in the short to medium term for the Irish language in the region. The multi-levelled and consociational features of the dynamics of An Foras Teanga are highlighted as features which may serve to ensure that language issues do not become ensnared in broader political concerns. It is also argued that the successful management of the politics of the Irish language must be coupled with the effective delivery of policy at local levels. This is critically analysed with regard to the Welsh model of Mentrau Iaith [Language Initiatives]. It is suggested that a similar strategy could be adopted in NI and that such Fiontair Teanga would succeed in realising the positive engagement between the new regional institutions of government in NI and local Irish-speaking communities.

The Irish Language in a Network of Ecological Relations: Variables for Planning

It is to be understood from Haarmann that intervention in the field of language planning will be more effective if the ecology of the language to be the subject of this planning is understood. One is confronted by some limitations in seeking to accomplish this. Haarmann, for example, recognises that his treatment of some pertinent issues is not definitive and that the model of ecological relations requires further elaboration (Haarmann, 1986: vii & 257). Also, the empirical evidence relating to the Irish language in social context in NI, upon which one might rely, is not as comprehensive as one would wish it to be. The relative complexities in developing an understanding of the nature of the Irish-speaking community in NI from the available data are more fully explored elsewhere (Mac Giolla Chríost & Aitchison, 1998; Nic Craith, 1999; Mac Giolla Chríost, forthcoming). That said, the results of recent research, including the analysis of the 1991 Census data, make it possible to begin to trace the ecology of the Irish language in NI and to identify a number of variables which require the careful attention of policy makers and planning agencies. These are outlined according to the categories defined by Haarmann (1986:11-16).

Ethnodemographic Variables

The Irish-speaking community is of a modest size. The results of recent research show that the functional Irish-speaking community is much smaller that the total number of Irish-speakers identified in the NI census of 1991. The data on levels of ability in speaking Irish indicate that c.33% of adults and c.37% of young people claim better than average ability. If such levels of ability can be taken to mean that these respondents are functional Irish-speakers, and if this survey is taken to be representative of the Irish-speakers of NI as a whole, it gives a body of functional Irish-speakers of the order of 40,000 to 45,000, with some 13,000 to 15,000 (c.10% of the Census population of Irish-speakers) possessing fluency in the full range of language skills. The analysis of the 1991 census data shows that this modest Irish-speaking community is dispersed across NI. Although fragmented, this Irish-speaking community is characterised by a number of emergent cores of Irish-speakers which can be identified in a number of locations in the region. The urban centres of Belfast and Derry and the more rural locations of the areas of Dungannon, Magherafelt and Newry and Mourne all contain relatively high concentrations of Irish-speakers, commonly constituting over 30% of the total population in some parts. The ethnic heterogeneity of NI does not facilitate the transcending of this fragmentation as the ethnic mosaic which is NI means that local Irish-speaking communities and networks are largely confined within small, clearly defined socio-political enclaves. Other results indicate that actual use of the Irish language is limited to closely defined and personally immediate networks of Irish-speakers. Key tasks must be to increase the size of the functional Irish-speaking community by improving the language skills of those who claim some proficiency in the language and also by gaining greater numbers of newcomers to the language from across traditional ethnic and socio-political divides, where levels of goodwill exist. The diffuse geography of the Irish-speaking communities in NI suggests that local, community-based language planning activities would be more effective than a regional, macro approach to intervention in the field.

Ethnosociological variables

The historical fact of the segemented cultural division of labour in Ireland (Hechter, 1975) and the inimical attitude of the Unionist dominated Stormont government to the Irish language in NI (Andrews, 1997) are major factors in shaping the contemporary condition of the language in the region. In the light of this, the preponderance of Irish-speakers in certain of the higher socio-economic classes is a phenomenon of significance. This would indicate that the language possesses some instrumental value, despite the fact that the results of recent reseach show that Protestants and young non-Irish-speakers do not perceive the language to have such currency. The over-representation of Irish-speakers in the very lowest socio-economic class as well suggests a polarity of experience within the Irish-speaking community. This polarity of experience does not appear to inform negative perceptions of the instrumentality of the Irish language, rather, it appears to be the case that perceptions of linguistic instrumentality are cross-cut by socio-economic status. It is in the lower and in the top socio-economic classes that the most affirmative responses to the instrumentality of the language are to be found. Some results suggest that adult females are significantly more persuaded of the instrumentality of Irish than are their male peers. Gender also appears to be a factor of wider significance in understanding the nature of the Irish-speaking community in the region. The greater representation of females than males in this survey reflects a pattern, noted in the 1991 Census data, that females are more likely to be actively engaged in language matters than are males. The greater involvement of females in the language will be critical in strengthening the reproduction of the language in the domain of the home. Recent results also suggested the females were generally more optimistic regarding the future prospects of the language and were keener to see greater levels of government intervention in the field and a more substantial presence for the language in the education system. It is also suggested that adult females were more prepared than any other section of the survey population to see the further politicisation of language issues. A further issue is the low level of inter-marriage between Catholics and Protestants in NI. This phenomenon is an important factor in preventing greater levels of inter-group empathy in the region (Whyte, 1986) and is also another contributory factor to the more limited development of the Irish language among Protestants: the results of the survey show that the intergenerational transference of the language as the mother-tongue in NI exists to some extent among Catholics but not among Protestants.

Ethnopolitical variables

The most important factor in this context is the partial autonomy which has been devolved to NI and is characterised by a consociational sharing of political power by the various political parties from across the ethnic divides in the region. A feature of the recent socio-political conflict in NI has been the marked alienation of many sections of the population from the various institutions of government. The myriad socio-political relationships between individual, group, society and state in the region have the potential to be transformed as a result of this recent political settlement, and it is certain that the Irish-speaking community will also feel the weight of these changes to political culture as the range of new institutions are shaped to better reflect the diversity of aspirations and identities in NI. Recent survey information on language attitudes reveals a complexity of attitudes towards the role of government in language issues and the embedding of the Irish language in society in NI. There is some evidence that considerable polarisation exists regarding the desired extent and nature of government intervention in this field and that this polarisation conforms to the archetypal divisions in the region. There is other evidence again that suggests broad levels of support and attachment to the Irish language which confounds these traditional cleavages and, where polarisation is manifest, it centres on points of detail in relation to possible government policy and intervention in particular. The unfolding political framework will be critical in shaping the institutional status of the Irish language and in reinforcing the reproduction potential of the language. Commitments made as part of the political settlement in NI to extending administrative usage of Irish and to the funding of Irish-medium education will, if fulfilled, raise the status of the language in the region. Policy and planning initiatives should be proactive in this process of transformation as many individuals from across the traditional socio-political cleavages in NI make various positive identifications with the Irish language. An Foras Teanga will be of central importance in this regard and also in approaching the increasingly pressing issue of language rights. In attempting to successfully achieve the over-arching language policy and planning goals An Foras Teanga will have to engage with the local Irish-speaking communities, the critical nodes in the Irish-speaking network.

Ethnocultural variables

The two main ethnic groups in NI, the Irish and the British, can be distinguished because of their specific cultural traditions. Despite differences in ethnocultural patterns, the social distance (Haarmann, 1986: 14) between the two groups is not strong in some key areas. One of the more important of these is the Irish language. An historical overview (Mac Giolla Chríost & Aitchison, 1998), as well as the results of recent research (Mac Giolla Chríost, forthcoming) show that many from various groups positively engaged with the language in the past and that many from the two ethnic groups make positive identifications with the language today. The Irish language is an important vehicle for cultural exchange in interethnic contact in NI. The promotion of the interests of the Irish language and of the Irish-speaking community require that the cultural and political organisations which take upon themselves such a rôle and be informed by the full range of identifications which are made with the language. The ausbau status of the Irish language is also of some relevance in this context as some Unionists are attracted to the Ulster dialect of the language. During an interview on a current affairs progamme (Let's Talk broadcast 23rd June 1998 BBC2 NI) David Trimble made clear his preference for the promotion of the Ulster dialect of Irish by those involved in the Irish language movement. He did so, presumably, because this would reinforce a view of the particular nature of Ulster in contrast with the rest of Ireland. The management of the identity of the Ulster form of Irish is a key task. This might include promotional and/or educational campaigns, or, perhaps, the production of teaching materials, especially for adult learners of Irish, which are in the Ulster dialect and reflect the plural identity of Ulster and NI.

Ethnopsychological variables

Haarmann points out that the ethnopsychological variables which effect group behaviour can only be detected indirectly (Haarmann, 1986: 26). Factors of this nature and their potential influence can be read in relation to the results of this survey regarding issues of attitude and in particular the perceptions of ethnic group ownership of the Irish language. The evidence shows that attitudes towards this issue are immensely complex. According to Irish nationalist rhetoric the language is central to definitions of the being Irish. Attitudes towards the language among unionist British-identifiers are also filtered through various categorisations and identifications which, for many of them, are grounded in assumptions which conform with traditional Irish nationalist views on the language. Yet, the majority of the respondents in the survey, including among Irish-speakers, did not regard being Irish-speaking as constituting an enhanced sense of being Irish. In some contexts this might be seen as something which weakens the vitality of a language but in the immediate post-conflict situation in NI this is a potentially useful feature of the language. Too close an identification with a particular ethnic group alienates other-ethnic group members from the language. It is a strength of the language that it authenticates a range of senses of group identity in NI, albeit differentially. This could be nurtured. The maintenance of the language should be seen as a measure of the vigour of the new forms of non-inimical ethnic interaction. In a recent survey two sections of the population proved exceptional in this respect. Adult females and Irish-speakers claiming the highest levels of ability in the language were more likely than any other section to assert the view that speaking Irish made one more Irish. The ethnopsychological factors implicated in the dynamics of interethnic group relations in this study are informed in part by a very public discourse on language-identity relationships which conforms to the traditional socio-political rhetoric in NI; but at a deeper level a very significant range of nuances in attitude, which confound the socio-political stereotypes of this discourse, may be discerned.

Interactional variables

The Irish language in NI has a very low public presence. The broadening of this presence has been frustrated, in part, by a legislative framework which, while designed to protect against discrimination on the grounds of religious belief or political opinion is not appropriately sophisticated for effective application to language matters. Certain ethnopolitical variables (see above) may well have a substantial positive impact on this state of affairs. Government commitments on the Irish language in education, the media and administration, made as a part of the recent political settlement in NI, promise as much. Results from a number of studies (Mac Giolla Chríost, 2000) suggest that there is some scope for extending the public presence of the Irish language. Intervention on behalf of the Irish language in public domains however, must be an initiative which commands the support of the Assembly in NI as there are clear indications of some sensitivities on this issue among certain sections of the population, largely Protestant, British-identifying and of low/mid socio-economic status. Other results indicate that certain types of intervention are more likely to be acceptable and desirable than others. A public profile for the language in the day-to-day affairs of the Assembly itself could serve to facilitate the extension of the Irish language beyond its present almost complete restriction to domestic and private domains. Also, other results, again, show that within the latter domains the use of the language is largely confined to tightly defined and personalised networks of Irish-speakers. Effective intervention at this level requires that local Irish-speaking communities take ownership of language policy and planning via agencies which are both based within and led by local communities.

Ethnolinguistic variables

A number of language specific characteristics come into play as factors in the ecology of the Irish language in NI. Linguistic distance (Haarmann, 1986:15) is a factor of some influence. The relative distances between the Irish, English and Ulster-Scots languages in NI variously effect the status of Irish and Ulster-Scots. The relatively short distance between English and Ulster-Scots causes many not to recognise the latter as a language at all, but to regard it as a degenerate variation of English. The relatively large distance between Irish and English means that it is easily recognised as an distinct form of language. Some useful work has been completed by Maguire (1991) on other language specific characteristics. Maguire shows that the Irish language as spoken in west Belfast is very heavily influenced by English language vocabulary and syntax. This feature of the Irish language as spoken in NI has made it vulnerable to politically motivated attacks on the purported revived and artificial nature of the Irish-speaking community in NI. The very low public profile of native speakers of Irish in the region, that is of Irish as a mother tongue, serves only to reinforce this vulnerability. Increasing interaction with the extensive pool of native Irish-speakers in the Ulster Gaeltacht of Donegal could help to address this. The varied levels of competency in the range of language skills among Irish-speakers is also a factor in understanding the condition of the Irish language in NI. In this study the literacy profile of the Irish-speaking population is shown to compare with that of other regions in which very long term language shift appears to be being reversed.

Policy Framework and Planning Options: An Foras Teanga and Fiontair Teanga

Aspects of the commitments to the Irish language on the part of the UK government in the Agreement (NIO, 1998) reflect concerns which are informed by a top-down (Kaplan, 1989) approach to language planning. The statements in relation to the domains of education, public administration and the broadcast media (NIO, 1998: 19-20) anticipate, to some extent, macro-level language planning. That said, given the heterogenous ethnic geography of NI (Graham, 1997: 200-201), whereby Catholics and Protestants as well as Irish-speakers and non-Irish-speakers are unevenly distributed throughout the region, and attitudes towards the language fluctuate in large part in relation to this variegated socio-cultural landscape, the Agreement rightly anticipates that the implementation of much of goverment policy would not be effective were it largely driven a top-down, state-centered approach. Instead, it is stated that language planning activity will take place with regard to `the desires and sensitivities of the community’ (NIO, 1998: 20), and in locations `where people so desire it’ (NIO, 1998: 19), thus inviting engagement with language issues in local communities. Such a strategy in which greater emphasis is given to a bottom-up approach (Kaplan, 1989), suggests that the critical nodes already alluded to in the Irish-speaking network may come to function as the focal points of language planning activities in NI.

Irish language policy, as framed in the Agreement, is intended to facilitate the broad socio-political goal of achieving the resolution of the conflict in NI (Mac Giolla Chríost, 2000). It is the case that fractious relationships between the state and the people governed by the state have been at the heart of this conflict (Whyte, 1990). In a general sense these tensions between the state and people, in which legitimacy and authority have been contested, are issues of power. It is rightly claimed (Kaplan & Baldauf, 1997: 195-215) that language planning impacts upon the reticulate mediation of power in society, this is especially the case in societies experiencing or coming out of ethnic conflict. Also, according to Kaplan and Baldauf, language planning activity will be most effective through engaging with the discourse of the speakers of the language being planned:

Power is about the agency use of language planning for social, economic and political ends as opposed to the social aspects of discourse, the condition of language in actual use. To put it another way, while language can and will be planned, language planning is most effective when it is adopted as part of the discursive strategies of language users. (Kaplan & Baldauf, 1997: 196)

Language planning activity in NI must be informed by the discursive strategies of Irish language users in the region. O’Reilly notes the adoption of three discursive strategies by various individuals and organisations engaged with Irish language activity in NI, centering on the concepts of decolonisation, cultural identity and civil rights (O’Reilly, 1999). According to O’Reilly the discourse of decolonisation is to be most closely associated with Sinn Féin and the politics of traditional, Irish republicanism. This discourse has been overshadowed by the discourse of cultural identity in what O’Reilly describes as the public transcript of many Irish language activists and organisations, funding agencies and the British government. The predominance of this discourse is reflected in the partial institutionalisation of the language in this context as reflected in the form of UK government-funded bodies such as the Cultural Traditions Group and the Ultach Trust. Rights discourse is described as being as widespread in its adoption among Irish language activists and organisations as is cultural identity discourse. Part of its usefulness, it is claimed, lies in its suitability for fusion with either the discourse of cultural identity or that of decolonisation. It was not noted to be a feature of the public transcript, as O’Reilly puts it, of the UK government. Language planning acitivity should therefore engage with these discursive strategies, not on their own terms but in the context of the unfolding institutional and policy frameworks. The nature of the political agreement reached in NI in 1998 and the subsequent evolution of events have dramatically altered the place of the Irish language in the socio-political landscape of the region and also, the significance of the discursive strategies of Irish-speakers and government alike.

Part of the contemporary complexities with regard to language planning in NI is the revival of interest in Ulster-Scots [or Ullans], a dialect of the Scots language in Scotland which has been recognised by the European Bureau for Lesser Used Languages as an official autochthonous lesser-used or regional language in NI. Mac Póilin (1998a), writing in the period following the signing of the Agreement and prior to the drawing together of the Implementation Bodies Agreement (NIO, 1999), was concerned that the two languages would be drawn into the political landscape in such a way that they would serve merely to reinforce traditional political tensions. The potential for the specific translation of the broader socio-political conflict in the region into domains of culture was first highlighted by Miller (1994). He noted the origins of such a shift in the late 1980s in relation to the work of the Community Relations Council. Surmising his line of argument very briefly, it appeared that the simple structuring of core cultural values in the institutional framework for the two main cultural traditions in NI would serve merely to reinforce the political divide as political representatives of the two traditions set crude measures of government support for their communities through the support given to project bids from cultural activists within their electorate. The solution, as Miller saw it, lay in addressing issues of power: `In the community relations approach all cultures are equal; in reality, some cultures are more equal than others.’ (Miller, 1994: 76) A recognition of this reality side-steps simplistic readings of parity of esteem (Ó Muirí, 1999). The fact of the incorporation of both languages into the legislative framework communicates the parity of esteem afforded to them both in general terms, but the broader remit for the Irish language reflects the greater awareness of the Irish language across society as a whole in NI and the historical pressure in key domains.

The consociational coupling of the respective interests of the Irish language and the Ulster-Scots language under the Implementation Bodies Agreement carries with it the risk of affirming sectional interests in the languages and of institutionalising the political conflict. Through this agreement a cross-border implementation body for language, to be known as `The North-South Language Body’ (in Irish An Foras Teanga, in Ulster-Scots Tha Boord o Leid) is to be established (NIO, 1999: Article 1). The two separate parts of this body have the function of serving the interests of the two languages. The remit for the Irish language includes the promotion of the language in general, encouraging, facilitating and advising upon the use of the language in private and public domains, supporting Irish-medium education and undertaking research and the development of corpus status. This is also clearly set in the context of Part III of the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages (NIO, 1999: Part 5). The remit for Ulster-Scots is much narrower, being confined to the `promotion of greater awareness of the use of Ullans and of Ulster Scots cultural issues, both within Northern Ireland and throughout the island.’ (NIO, 1999: Part 5) The necessity of such action is reflected in the low status of Ulster-Scots and in the ambiguity surrounding its status as a distinct form of language at all (Mac Póilin, 1998b). This has remained the case despite activity to promote the language including the publication of an Ulster dialect dictionary (Macafee, 1996).

The sections on the `Exercise of Functions’ and `Structure’ are critical in understanding the dynamics of An Foras Teanga. Two distinct agencies of the body will service the needs of the two languages. According to this legislation, 16 members with a perceived interest in the Irish language will be appointed to the board of An Foras Teanga by the North-South Ministerial Council (NSMC), the body with overall responsibility for the range of cross-border implementation bodies. These members will exercise the functions of the Irish language agency, and a Chairperson for the agency will be appointed by the NSMC from their number. The other 8 members of the board of An Foras Teanga including a Chairperson for the Ulster-Scots agency will be similarly appointed, in this case due to their perceived interest in the affairs of Ulster-Scots. These two Chairpersons will serve as joint Chairpersons of An Foras Teanga.

Beyond such details regarding the language agencies there lies greater potential for the successful management and even resolution of the conflict. The institutional suture in which the two languages find themselves may well serve to foster co-operation between representatives of the two languages and to arrest the potential for competition between these groups, thereby decreasing the vulnerability of both of the languages to inimical political interest. Favell and Martiniello (1999), in a discussion of the governance of Brussels, highlight some of the possibilities in such systems. The inherent advantage of consociationalism is described as follows:

Whilst the consociational elements of Belgian politics perpetuate a situation of permanent `crisis’ and potential gridlock between two rival linguistic communities, it also ensures that progress is only made at the mutual benefit of both parties and is never zero-sum. (Favell & Martiniello, 1999: 9-10)

The potential risk of the complete internalisation within élite organisations of decision-making, and the resultant distancing from popular participation, is a matter of concern. The multi-levelled feature of the proposed structure of governance for NI must have a critical rôle to play in this. This feature includes a number of proposed new institutions - the Northern Ireland Assembly, the North-South Implementation Bodies, the North-South Ministerial Council and the British-Irish Council - and would anticipate working relationships with existing local polities. For An Foras Teanga the translation of macro-policy on the Irish language to micro-levels across NI requires that a local hurdle be overcome on the measurement of local demands and sensitivies. That said, it is in this complex interlocking and overlapping of powers and competencies that Favell and Martiniello see further opportunites:

Producing different kinds of access points for actors and the expression of interests, which also widen the potential forms of interest representation and aggregation, enabling new forms of non-traditional and unconventional political activity to find a place and take root. (Favell & Martiniello,1999: 9)

Thus, those promoting the interests of Ulster-Scots could forge energising linkages with the Scots language community in Scotland. Likewise, the dynamics of the Irish-speaking community in Northern Ireland could be informed by conceptions of an island-wide Irish-speaking population characterised by regional and local variations in the nature of the different Irish-speaking communities in NI and in the Republic of Ireland and, also, within and outwith the Gaeltacht. Such structures would also be a useful vehicle for the operation of informed connections with Celtic-speaking communities elsewhere in the UK, and, in this way, language planners at micro-levels in Ireland could fashion dynamic synergies with their peers in other parts of the Celtic UK.

The development of community-based planning initiatives in the Irish language, akin to the Mentrau Iaith of Wales, could form an intergal part of such synergies. These Fiontair Teanga would serve to cultivate the Irish language in locations where the critical mass of Irish-speakers rises from 20% upwards, including the western parts of the cities of Belfast and Londonderry and the rural nodes in the Irish-speaking network in Newry and Mourne LGD and Dungannon LGD. That is not to say that such initiatives might not be successfully established in other parts of the region, merely that these are the locations for which the strongest cases might be made.

The strength of the Mentrau Iaith in Wales is that they are community-based initiatives which have originated from, and continued to evolve according to, the desires and sensitivities of local people in relation to the place of the Welsh language in their particular community. Mentrau Iaith are engaged in a holistic form of language planning at micro-levels. For example, they offer advice and support relating to the use of the Welsh language to public, private and voluntary organisations; they ensure opportunities for people, especially children and young people, to socialise through the medium of Welsh; and they also provide services in developing projects for tourists, for non-Welsh-speakers and Welsh learners. By 1999 there was a network of 20 Mentrau Iaith across Wales, financed by the Welsh Language Board, local authorities, National Lottery charities, European funds and other sources (Bwrdd yr Iaith Gymraeg, 1999). Some of these Mentrau Iaith, such as that in Pembrokeshire, service areas comprising the territory of whole Unitary Authorities; in contrast Carmarthenshire, for example, contains within its boundaries several such Mentrau.

A further advantage of the Mentrau Iaith is their flexibility. There is no single model, each Menter reflects its local situation and responds to the social and language needs of its local community. According to Williams and Evas (1997), in proffering advice to the Welsh Language Board, the main reasons that Mentrau Iaith should be supported in the Welsh context are as follows:

In situations which are characterised by strong language potential but weak socio-linguistic networks, they offer a significant socio-psychological fillip for maintaining the Welsh language in contexts which would otherwise lead to fragmentation;
In respect of their remit as local language planning bodies, they can function as a focus to create a new set of partnerships between central government (in the form of the Welsh Office), the Welsh Language Board, local government, statutory public bodies, health trusts and a variety of other voluntary agencies and private companies, so as to extend opportunities to use Welsh. (Williams & Evas, 1997: 30)

Fiontair Teanga in NI could imitate this pattern and be the hubs for the development of the Irish language at a local level in the region. This would give to the language a community-based and holistic form of language planning which would be economically engaged and socially inclusive. Local adaptations would be necessary but the main elements of the general rationale for Mentrau Iaith would equally apply to Fiontair Teanga. In the Irish context these could be to create social conditions that will nurture positive attitudes towards Irish and an increase in its use; to normalise the use of Irish as a medium of social and institutional communication; and, to highlight the close relationship between language and attitudes which relate to quality of life issues, the environment and the local economy.

Beyond these, adaptations in the intended functions of Fiontair Teanga would be necessary in order to address the socio-political and linguistic nuances of particular locations and contexts in NI. Possible aims for Fiontair could include to encourage and facilitate community [including cross-community] ownership of the language; to increase levels of awareness of the language among non-Irish-speakers; to broaden accessibility to the language across the community as a whole; to increase opportunities to use the language beyond the domains of the home and school; to offer practical help to families whose language of home is not Irish but whose children attend an Irish-medium school; to offer practical help to learners of Irish as a second language; to liaise with local employers with regard to expanding the role of Irish in workplaces; to liaise with other Irish language agencies in the field so as to facilitate a holistic approach to language planning issues; to increase the public profile and status of the Ulster dialect of Irish; and, to strengthen networking between the local Irish-speaking communities and the Gaeltacht of Donegal.

Drawing upon the Welsh experience, a critical feature of Fiontair Teanga, as language planning vehicles in NI, would be that their rootedness in local Irish-speaking communities would mean that the identification of language problems would arise from within the Irish-speaking population - that is, the language planning agenda would be set by local communities rather than by regional or central government. In this sense Fiontair Teanga would function as an integral component of what Jernudd describes as language management:

The language management approach to language planning represents a shift of focus from the concern of language planning concerned with finding optimal strategies for government-initiated action, to an interest in explaining how individuals manage language in communication, and uses this as the starting point for community-wide action. (Jernudd, 1993: 134)

According to some (Kaplan & Baldauf, 1997: 209-210), this approach to language planning inevitably places questions regarding language rights firmly on the agenda. This in turn invites the suggestion that it is O’Reilly’s rights discourse which will come to dominate the discursive strategies of the various agents and agencies engaged in the field of Irish language planning in NI. According to Kaplan and Baldauf language rights are not simply the rights of an individual speaker but something much broader:

Language is a community based attribute and respect for an individual’s language rights alone will not sustain a language. This community basis of language means that there is a role for language planning not only to allow individuals to sustain their language, but also the space in which to live it. (Kaplan & Baldauf, 1997:212)

Finding this space in its literal sense has been problematic for other similar language communities. The nature of devolution in the Spanish state has resulted in the Basque and Catalan languages in particular being restricted by territorially defined rights which ignore the geographical diversity of the language communities (Mar-Molinero, 1994; CILS, 1998). In some ways the contestation of public space in NI, into which the Irish language has been drawn (Mac Giolla Chríost, 2000), is deeply embedded. It is suggested (Ruane & Todd, 1996: 194-5 and 202-2) that the historical experiences of conquest and colonisation have submerged native Irish cultural signifiers and that, as a result, Irish nationalists have to excavate, in Seamus Heaney’s meaning of the word, the cultural landscape in order to trace their sense of identity in its structure and symbols. Unionists, it is argued, are determined that the public sphere appear and feel British and that this includes, among other things, the exclusion of the Irish language. Yet, as Nash (1999) points out in relation to the contemporary recovery of Irish placenames in NI, one of those submerged cultural signifiers, this excavation is more complex than the traditional dichotomies of socio-political rhetoric in the region:

Placenames can always be enlisted in essentialist articulations of identity, but what is so notable about contemporary approaches to them in Ireland is the expression of a critical but inclusive recuperation of located tradition. (Nash, 1999: 475)

The inclusivity of this language activity and its engagement with local communities would suggest that Fiontair Teanga would find fertile ground in NI. More particularly, the rootedness of Fiontair Teanga in local Irish-speaking communities would place these agencies in a position whereby they might best shape the translation of the language rights of individuals into the actual use of the language in the wider society. More broadly, the adaptation of this model by local Irish-speaking communities in the various parts of the Republic of Ireland - within and outwith the Gaeltacht - could also facilitate the necessary genuine encounter between the language policy of the state and local communities which, as yet, has not taken place (Johnson, 1997: 175-176). Such a shift in language planning activities would transform the approach adopted by the state in the Republic of Ireland, an approach which has only engineered limited success and is characterised by the potential circularity in its successive institutionalisation, de-institutionalisation and re-institutionalisation (Ó Murchú & Ó Murchú, 1999: 14).


The inclusion of the matter of the Irish language in the political settlement reached in NI in 1998 and the formalisation of a range of commitments to the language in the Agreement have raised the prospect of greater intervention in the affairs of the language in the region on the part of government. While the overarching framework for the implementation of these commitments has been set in place, the details of the planning strategy to be adopted have yet to be determined. Considering the diverse socio-political and ethnic geography of NI and the diffuse distribution of the Irish-speaking population in the region it would seem that a community-driven language planning regime such as is reflected in the Mentrau Iaith model currently operating in Wales could be an effective vehicle for the successful translation of commitments and aspirations regarding the Irish language into realities.


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CAIN contains information and source material on the conflict and politics in Northern Ireland.
CAIN is based within Ulster University.

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