EU costs on Irish Language show how we export our illusions and hypocrisy

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By Eamon Delaney 

Last week, it was revealed that the European Commission had overspent its €220 million translation budget and had to supplement the cost from other sources. One small but telling reason is the cost of translation into the Irish language, which almost nobody is listening to or even reading in Brussels, which is twice the average rate for other languages. At €43 per page, it is almost twice the €22 average cost.

Irish has been a full official language of the EU since 2007, after intense lobbying by out then Government. The campaign ate up a lot of credit only one year from our ignominious bank bailout when we really needed some EU help and understanding.

Naturally, our language demand created much puzzlement and dismay among Europeans who knew very well just how little it was actually used in Ireland. How often have we encountered tourists, or Irish people or immigrants, in Dublin or elsewhere, bewildered by the fact that the bus timetables and announcements, and street signage, are so prominently in the Irish language when almost no-one appears to be speaking it ?

In Brussels, it is even more the case. Irish ministers rarely speak Irish at the EU, and even Sinn Fein rarely does. However, Irish language campaigners have estimated that almost 200 full time jobs for Irish translators will be created when, incredibly, Irish becomes a full working language of the union in 2020.

This is all madness and shows our continuing denial and pretence around the Irish language. Bad enough to be imposing this pretence and charade on Irish life and society, but we are now exporting it to Europe.

Indeed, our superficial fig-leaf to the Our National Language is all too emblematic of the hypocrisy and falsehood which we do so well in this country.

Yes, it is great to hear Irish voluntarily spoken, and sung and recited. I grew up in a bi-lingual household and spent much time in the Connemara Gaeltacht so I know how rich it can be. But I also grew up valuing freedom and choice and doing things because you wanted to do them.

Today, like many, I have lost all patience with the continuing compulsory nature of the State’s policy, and pretence, on the Official Tongue. Especially when resources are scarce and we have become an open multi-national society in which immigrants are trying to integrate and move on, and not face archaic obstacles. But our ‘language policy’ hangs over society like something from North Korea : tokenistic and omnipresent.

In many way, it is the last of our official illusions. We once had an illusion we were a Republic when we were a Catholic nationalist State, unwelcoming to northern Protestants. We once told the world we were a devout and Godly people when we were devoid of spirituality and our Christianity was a social compulsion.

Now we continue to cling to some De Valera notion that we are an Irish-speaking nation, when we clearly are not, and Irish only thrives as a minority sport in Gaelscoileanna, but not much else. Even the Gaeltacht areas have shrunk dramatically.

However, in my local library, I pick up official booklets on community and arts events, all in both languages and thus twice the size they need to be. Utility information is the same. All just to make us feel national and virtuous. Why ? It’s crazy, and costly.

At least, we are now spared the ‘cupla focal’ that our public figures used to trot out before every event – like prayers at mealtime – to let us know they were true Gaels.

That charade has been dispensed with but we still have the silly focus on the fact that our Gaeltacht Minister, Joe McHugh – yes, a special Gaeltacht minister: why? – did not speak Irish. The Opposition but also much of our media pursued him over it and so Joe had to go on an Irish course and, in fairness, he now speaks Irish quite fluently. But the whole episode was silly.

Silly too were the predictable attacks on the Minister for ‘not doing more’ to increase Irish usage, as if there was some way that the Government could force people to speak Irish, or entice them to do so, when they clearly would prefer not to.

It is a fake debate and even the Irish language lobby groups, who have been forceful, know very well that the language will remain a dwindling minority occupation. But it’s a charade that has been going for years, and it wont change soon.

And so we had ludicrous calls last week for boycotts of the Bank of Ireland, and pickets from Sinn Fein, because the bank had discontinued its Irish Language option at ATMs – because less than 1% were using it !

But at least the bank was able to change the service. Actual State services cannot, for fear of offending the angry Irish language lobby, even though probably less than 1% of people use such official services through Irish.

And so the pretence continues. Even our new Taoiseach Leo Varadkar got in on the act as Transport Minister when, in the midst of austerity, he wanted to begin changing all our road signage from the existing system, with Irish in italics, to one where the two languages had absolute parity.

I slammed the then proposal as a costly, vanity exercise done to appease the language lobby and Leo’s own quixotic ways (he does love these big proposals) and said it was actually dangerous as drivers were already used to an existing system and such a change could create real confusion.

Crucially, there was no demand or request for this mad proposal but it was driven by meddling bureaucrats – and elements of the Irish language lobby who seem to believe that the way to create the growth of the Irish language is to impose it on all the population regardless of how they feel.

Leo got upset. And Fianna Fail’s Eamon ‘Dev Og’ O’Cuiv also got upset when I said that Leo was emulating him. It was O’Cuiv, after all, who spearheaded the costly proposal to get huge amounts of our official documentation translated into Irish. O’Cuiv also tried to get the Kerry tourist destination Dingle renamed as Daingean, but the locals, mindful of their brand, rightly rebelled.

O’Cuiv and his sort mean well, but increasingly his idealism is like that of his famous grandfather (pictured above), completely out of step with modern Ireland and, indeed, with a globalised Europe which has less truck with nationalist shibboleths and more faith in bread and butter issues, and letting the people set their own ways.

This article first published in the Times, Irish edition, 6 September 2017.