Speech by FG Leader, Enda Kenny, at the Young Fine Gael Annual Conference

The Fine Gael Leader Enda Kenny, TD, today (Saturday) attacked the Minister for Education and Fianna Fail for their attitude to the Irish language. He was speaking at the Young Fine Gael Annual Conference in the Ramada Hotel, Limerick Junction. He said that it was time for an open and honest debate. It was also time for an end to Minister Hanafin and her party’s conservative, negative and dishonest approach to reform and it was time for the Minister to end her Comical Ali approach to the language.

FF part of the problem…not part of the solution

“It’s time that we acknowledged that the Irish language is in trouble. Some of that trouble is the product of Fianna Fáil’s attitude to the language. In simple terms, Fianna Fail is part of the problem, not part of the solution. It is only when we remove Fianna Fail from Government that an honest, open and realistic attitude will develop towards the language.

If the Irish language is to survive and indeed grow in usage, there must be a fundamental change in approach.

It must cease to be used as a political tool to fight political battles. There is no party in this State as adept as Fianna Fail in making a political football out of issues around the language.

Last November I highlighted some stark facts about the language especially in our secondary schools and called for an open and honest look at the issue. Within twelve hours the Minister for Education had launched a political attack on me without even taking time to read or reflect on the merits of any suggestions that I made.

Within weeks Fianna Fail took their attack to the European stage when the Fine Gael Party and myself were attacked in a completely inappropriate way at a European function.

In recent weeks, the Minister for Education again criticised Fine Gael in the Dáil and used an emotive term, “the murder machine” to characterise our attitude to the language.

Fianna Fail Don’t Own the Language

I have no problem with political attacks. They are part of the cut and thrust of the political life we live. However, these attacks were not based on the merits or otherwise of the points that were made.

They were based on a political ideology that the Irish language somehow belongs to Fianna Fail and only Fianna Fail.

These attacks say much more about the Minister for Education and the Fianna Fail ethos than they do about Fine Gael. It shows that the largest Party in the State is against reform. Against adopting progressive ideas. Against admitting that policies which have been pursued, over the decades, have failed the Irish language.

We will only reform and revive the Irish language and promote its use across our society if we first of all accept the reality of where are at the moment.

Facts the Minister Ignores

Let me set out some facts for the Minister for Education:

· Even though our young people receive, on average, 1,500 hours of education in Irish, many are leaving school without any reasonable command of the language.

· Despite the fact that they learn Irish all through their schooling, only 3 out of 10 students of Irish attempt the honours paper in the Leaving Certificate.

· Thousands of leaving cert students don’t even turn up for the exam every year.

· An average of 66 second level schools have had an Irish inspection in the past two years. At that rate every second level school will have an Irish inspection every decade

· Over 8,000 second level students are granted an exemption from Irish on the basis on “learning difficulties”. This suggests that parents are using the exemption scheme to have their children drop Irish

· There has been no revision of the second level Irish syllabus since 1995

· A report which shows shocking decline in the quality of Irish in our primary schools has been withheld by the Minster for a matter of months.

An Honest Debate, New Ideas

Now more than ever we need an honest debate on Irish, with new ideas for the reform and renewal of the language. For this reason, I am holding a conference on Irish on Saturday, March 11th.

This public conference, 21st Century Irish, brings together speakers from an educational and political background, both national and international. I want this conference to be a sounding board for a new approach to Irish, an approach that not only seeks to support the language, but one which is rooted in the educational needs and achievements of our children and young people.

Certainly, there will be opposing opinion at this conference but, most importantly, there will be an open and honest debate. This is in sharp contrast to the approach of Minister Hanafin, who simply doesn’t want any debate on this matter. For her, it’s easier to demonise different viewpoints, and liberally scatter political insults, than face the facts.

The Irish language desperately needs a real engagement with a reforming agenda. The decisions we take now will have ramifications for the language for years to come. Our agenda must involve a root and branch reform of the curriculum.

Let me outline a few ideas that I believe should be pursued.

New Ideas

We need to radically skew the weighting of both the Junior and Leaving Certificate courses in favour of spoken Irish with up to 50% of the marks in each exam being related to oral ability. If young people can use the language to communicate with each other, if they have the skill and the vocabulary to talk about the things that interest them, then we will see a major shift towards the usage of Irish outside the classroom.

We need a second level curriculum that is loaded with topics that are modern, relevant and useful, not dated, irrelevant and obscure.

We also need to support schools where the teaching of Irish may be running out of steam. A new Language Support Corps, a flying squad of highly trained and motivated individuals, should be established to spend 3 or 4 week periods at individual schools, bringing with them a range of new ideas on how to teach Irish through drama, music and sport. This would invigorate the teaching of Irish to levels never before seen, levels only dreamed about.

I have seen some very exciting ideas for a national proficiency scale for the Irish language. This ten point scale would allow every citizen have their competence assessed and use modern teaching methods and modern technology to gradually improve their proficiency at a pace that suits themselves. Many people have the cúpla focal but feel intimidated about trying to go further. Having a state recognised proficiency scale, backed with a mix of progressive teaching tools, would provide a safe environment for improving language skills.

A National Strategy

Above all we need a Government that will produce a National Strategy for the Irish language. A Strategy that makes a clear and honest assessment of

· where we are,
· what the Government wants to achieve for the language,
· what Government can do and what we want and expect others in society to do to support us.

A National Strategy will ensure that all bodies and all initiatives working for the Irish language have a clearly defined role and a clear sense of purpose.

It is time for an open and honest debate. It is time for an end to Minister Hanafin and her party’s conservative, negative and dishonest approach. It is time for the Minister to end her Comical Ali approach to the language.

We will only see genuine reform when we remove Fianna Fail from office and put in parties who will be open and honest about the problems faced by the language. Fianna Fail is part of the problem not part of the solution”.

Author: Stephen

Cork born and bred, proud European and Irishman. Involved in many organisations and politics. Also writes for SpirtualityIreland.org and UCC Express.

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