Select Committee on BBC Charter Review Minutes of Evidence

Memorandum by Foras na Gaeilge

  Foras na Gaeilge is the Cross-border Irish language Body set up under the British-Irish Agreement Act 1999 and the Northern Ireland Act 1998. The remit of Foras na Gaeilge is to promote the Irish language and culture throughout the island of Ireland.


Foras na Gaeilge welcomes the opportunity to present its case to the Select Committee on the BBC Review. Foras na Gaeilge acknowledges and values the central role that the BBC has played in the broadcasting of the celtic languages and culture of the UK. Foras na Gaeilge appreciates that the preservation of Public Service Broadcasting in the digital age is an important issue and vital to ensuring high-quality services that are not commercially viable. Foras na Gaeilge asserts that the licence-fee provides all involved with a suitable means to safeguard and maintain the principle of cultural diversity in our society.

  Foras na Gaeilge was disappointed and dismayed with the Government's Green Paper on the BBC Charter Review which totally ignored the Irish language. There were significant recommendations in relation to Welsh and Scottish Gaelic that only served to reinforce the sense of disbelief within the Irish speaking community and particularly, in light of the fact that the following have supported and highlighted the need to underpin the provision of a Public Service Broadcast for the Irish language community in Northern Ireland:

    The British and Irish Governments in the Good Friday Agreement, The Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe, The European Bureau for Lesser-Used Languages, The European Charter for Regional and Minority Languages, An International Committee of Experts (Comex), The Broadcasting Council of Northern Ireland, and Ofcom.


  The Irish language has no protection in Northern Ireland in relation to Public Service Broadcasting whereas Welsh Language Broadcasting is not only protected but also, defined by Statute—500 hours of programming to be broadcast on S4C. Similarly, BBC's Scottish Gaelic broadcasting service is protected by a ring-fenced portion of the licence-fee income and also, supplemented by income from the Gaelic Broadcasting Service. Irish language programmes can be made only by displacing a part of the existing English-medium service—a situation that is unsatisfactory to all concerned.


  Ofcom has identified and highlighted the BBC's lack of support for Irish language broadcasting in the past and it has proposed that the matter be rectified through the renewal of the BBC's Charter:

    Historically, the BBC has spent less per head on serving its Irish-speaking audience than on the Gaelic and Welsh-speaking populations. We welcome its introduction of a regular factual strand in the Irish language, SRL, and would expect Charter Review to result in sufficient funding for BBC Northern Ireland to be able to continue and expand this commitment. (page 100, our emphasis).


  Foras na Gaeilge welcomes this proposal and does so on the basis that as television licence-fee payers the Irish speaking community are entitled to a service comparable to that provided by the BBC to other indigenous language communities. Far more funding is being spent per capita by the BBC on Welsh in Wales and Gaelic in Scotland than on Irish in Northern Ireland:

BBC television service 2001-02 (from license fee
Spend per speaker

Northern Ireland

  Note: BBC Scotland is also supported by the Gaelic Broadcasting Fund, which provided an additional £3 million in 2001-02.


  The Good Friday Agreement of 1998 has the legal force of an international treaty. In the Agreement, the British Government committed itself to:

    "seek more effective ways to encourage and provide financial support for Irish language film and television production in Northern Ireland".


  The European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages was ratified by the UK on 27 March 2001. Irish, along with Welsh and Scottish Gaelic, was included under Part III of the Charter, the higher level of provision. In Article 11, in the section on Media, the British Government made the following commitment to the Irish language in Northern Ireland:

    "to the extent that radio and television carry out a public service mission . . . [the Government undertakes] to make adequate provision so that broadcasters offer programmes in the regional or minority languages" [Paragraph 1a (iii)].


  An International Committee of Experts examined the performance of the UK in relation to the Charter and published its report in 2004. Their report, addressed to the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe, found "shortcomings in the services in Irish, particularly regarding television", and stated:

    —  "The Committee of Experts considers the undertaking fulfilled in relation to radio but not currently fulfilled in relation to television" (page 53)


  The Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe received the report, and on 24 March 2004, passed the following resolution (Recommendation RecChl(2004)1:

    "[The Committee of Ministers] recommends that the authorities of the United Kingdom take account of all the observations of the Committee of Experts, and, as a matter of priority . . . improve the public service television provision in Irish" (p.70)


  It is of the utmost concern to Foras na Gaeilge that the Ofcom recommendations and those of the other organisations mentioned above in relation to the Irish language have been totally ignored in the BBC's Green Paper.

  The occasional oblique reference to regional cultural needs is not sufficient to cover over the magnitude of the injustice. It is the firm view of Foras na Gaeilge that Government must demonstrate its commitment by clearly defining the BBC's responsibilities to Irish in Northern Ireland as part of its stated aim to safeguard the cultural heritage of the indigenous Celtic languages in the UK in the reviewed Charter. Foras na Gaeilge endorses and welcomes the position of the Government and Ofcom who place significant emphasis on the requirement to reflect the UK, its nations, regions and communities, and on the BBC's role in strengthening cultural identity and raising awareness of:

    "different cultures and alternative viewpoints, through programmes that reflect the lives of other people and other communities within the UK".

  These principles are further recognised in the Green Paper:

    "Devolution has changed the political fabric of the UK, and the BBC should continue to provide a larger amount of dedicated programming in and for each of the devolved nations (Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales) (page 41)."

  Foras na Gaeilge therefore asks that the Committee take the following points into consideration:

    1.  The BBC's clear public service broadcasting responsibility to provide a dedicated Irish language service for (a) Irish-speaking licence-fee payers of Northern Ireland; (b) Irish-speakers in other parts of the United Kingdom;

    2.  The BBC's responsibility to enable non-speakers of Irish to gain an understanding of the Irish language and its attendant culture;

    3.  The BBC's responsibility to enhance its television, internet and educational provision to a level that reflects its public broadcasting remit.

3 May 2005

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