Examination of Witnesses (Questions 781
WEDNESDAY 23 NOVEMBER 2005
23 NOVEMBER 2005Mr
Ferdie MacanFhailigh, Mr Jim Millar, Aoda«n Mac Póilin
and Mr John MacIntyre
Welcome, thank you very much for coming in. You perhaps know the
position with us, that we have already presented and published
one report on the BBCand it is the BBC that we are particularly
concerned about and concerned with. This is the second part of
our inquiry where we are going into a number of areas which we
did not have time to devote to in the first part. I think it might
be useful, to get this conversation going, if you would all introduce
yourselves and say what you are doing and what your role is. So
why do we not start from you, Mr MacanFhailigh, and move down
to Mr Miller?
Mr MacanFhailigh: My name is Ferdie MacanFhailigh
and I work for Foras Na Gaeilge. We are one part of the cross-border
language body, the other part being the board of Ulster-Scots,
which is represented by Jim, here. We were set up on 2 December
1999it came out of the Good Friday Agreement. We have an
all Ireland remit in promoting the Irish language. We advise governments,
government departments, statutory bodies and public organisations.
We also provide funding for projects and groups that promote the
Irish language, and we support Irish-medium education, the teaching
of Irish, and we are also involved in the development of new terminology
for the Irish language, the production of dictionaries and the
production of teaching materials for both Irish-medium education
and the teaching of Irish as a subject.
Mr Mac Póilin: I am Aoda«n Mac Póilin;
I am the Director of the Ultach Trust, an organisation set up
in 1990 to promote the Irish language throughout Northern Ireland
with government funding. We are the first organisation to get
government funding spent specifically to promote the language.
We have a very strong cross-community ethosthat is code
for one of my jobs being to try to sell the Irish language to
the Protestant and Unionist community. We have had some success;
we take the credit for the growth in the number of Protestants
who claim knowledge of the language. It has gone from 5000 odd
in 1991 to almost 11,000 in the 2001 consensus. So we take the
credit, whether we deserve it or not, for that. We are quite a
small organisation but because we were sort of respectable we
took it upon ourselves to try to advise government, and the very
first thing that we did was to publish a report on Irish-medium
broadcasting, Irish-medium television, which came out in March
1990, and we have produced five reports since then. So the broadcasting
area is one we are particularly interested in.
Mr MacIntyre: I am with the Ulster-Scots Heritage
Council. I am on the board, I am not a full-time worker, and I
work for a living! I did not mean that pejoratively. The Heritage
Council is an umbrella group which covers language but it also
covers all aspects of culture, dance, music and all that sort
of thing. There really is very little being done in relation to
Ulster-Scots, and public funding has not come down to us to do
any of the things which my two colleagues have been describing
for the Irish language. There is a committee sitting at the moment
to set up an Academy for Ulster-Scots, to engage in a whole language-planning
programme. As well as that, I am a member of the Ulster-Scots
Language Society and sit on their committee. I also sit on the
Board at the Ulster-Scots Academy, which is a voluntary community
academy, self-financed. I am also Vice President of the European
Bureau of Lesser Used Languages, and I was President of the UK
Committee of the European Bureau.
Mr Millar: My name is Jim Millar. I am the recently
appointed Director of Language and Education at the Ulster-Scots
Agency, and the aim of the Agency is to promote the study, conservation,
development and use of Ulster-Scots as a living language. The
Agency is the other part of the cross-border language body that
Ferdie alluded to earlier.
Let us start with some basic questions. What proportion of the
community in Northern Ireland are Irish language speakers?
Mr MacanFhailigh: According to the last census
figures there are 10.3 per cent of the population of Northern
Ireland who have a command of Irish; that is 167,490.
When you say a "command" of Irish, does that mean they
speak it as a first language?
Mr MacanFhailigh: The census is a very blunt
instrument. The question is asked, "Can you read, write,
understand, speak?" and you tick the box. The census does
not go into usage or the level of command; it is a very, very
In your experience would the 167,000 be at the top end of how
you would define it?
Mr MacanFhailigh: Yes, it would be at the top
Q785 Lord Maxton:
Just on that very point, we did get a slightly different definition,
that those who speak it fluently were about 75,000 and the rest
had some knowledge and usage of it.
Mr MacanFhailigh: As I said, the census is a
very blunt instrument; it does not ask for the level of usage
or the level of command.
Mr Mac Póilin: Some analysis has been
done of it. The best analysis was done by a man in Wales called
Diarmait MacGiolla Chríost, and his analysis comes out
with something where he has between 30,000 and 40,000 at the top
level of fluency and another 30,000 or so with moderate fluency
in speaking. A large number of people have a receptive knowledge;
it is always easier to understand a language than to speak it.
So the rest of that would be people with different levels of comprehension.
So Lord Maxton's point about 75,000 being fluent probably is not
a bad estimate?
Mr Mac Póilin: I would be reasonably
happy with that. In terms of broadcasting and comprehension of
an audience, you would of course put it higher.
What about Ulster-Scots?
Mr MacIntyre: The official figures are between
35,000 and 100,000. 35,000 was a survey done in 1999. There have
been four pieces of work which have been done by the voluntary
sector and we consider it to be probably close to 100,000 speakers.
We are talking about native speakers, people who learn it in the
home, learn it from their parents and the previous generation.
People do not learn Ulster-Scots in school, they do not learn
it through the media, it is simply generationally transmitted.
There is no census figure?
Mr MacIntyre: No. We wanted a census but it
was not given to us. It depends where you draw the boundary. Those
are, we would consider, native speakers who would be fluent and
would probably use it every day in the home.
Would you use it every day in the home?
Mr MacIntyre: Not every dayI live in
Belfast, and my childrenbut I would use a lot of the words
every day, particularly with the children because they do not
have a good knowledge of it anyway, and even my knowledge is not
great. On top of that most English speakers would have some knowledge
of it; they would probably have maybe 100, 200 words, and they
would unconsciously use a lot of the grammatical constructions
that come from Ulster-Scots. So, for a lot of English speakers
Ulster-Scots can be accessible; it is not like a totally differentiated
language where you cannot access it. So it depends where you draw
the boundary, but if you are being purist and within a native
speaking population then you are looking at that figure, 35,000
Mr Millar, could you tell me a bit about the language itself?
Mr Millar: The language of both English and
Scots and indeed Ulster-Scots originated from the same old English
dialects. Northumbrian Anglo-Saxon or old English was a basis
for Scots. While Mercian Anglo-Saxon became the basis for English.
So up until the 1600s in fact Scots was a completely separate
diplomatic language from English. At the advent of the Union of
the Crowns in 1603 what happened was that English became the priority
language and so it became the language of State, in fact, and
as a consequence of that, it meant that Scots became undervalued,
and obviously after the period at the time of the Plantation,
when a large number of Scots came to Ireland, they brought with
them their own spoken language. So Ulster-Scots is a spoken language
and it is a language, as John has quite rightly indicated, that
has passed down through generations, in much the same way as Scots
in Scotland has. So it is a separate language from spoken English.
When was it last taught in a school?
Mr Millar: It has not been taught in schools,
that is the difficulty.
For the last 400 years or whatever?
Mr Millar: Yes, I would say that would be correct,
and in fact there has been a continual process by which children
who have used the vernacular and people who have used Ulster-Scots
in schools in Northern Ireland have been encouraged not to use
it and there has been a complete erosion of Ulster-Scots. The
big difficulty that John has alluded to as well is that we do
not have any real figures of how many Ulster-Scots speakers we
have in Northern Ireland. The figure of 100,000 came from a piece
of research that was conducted in 1963 by Professor Bob Gregg,
who indicated and has researched that there was somewhere in the
region of 100,000 people in three distinct areas: that was in
East Donegal, the central part, which included Coleraine to Antrim,
and there was another section in Northdown. That piece of research
did not do any survey work to find out how many native speakers
there were outside of those areas. But since 1963 there has been
no real significant research. The piece of work that John referred
to, that survey that said there were 35,000 speakers, that was
the N.I. Life and Times survey, but that was conducted in 1999.
What was asked there was, "Do you speak Scots or Ulster-Scots,
or do you know someone who does?" That represented something
like two per cent of the population in Northern Ireland who regarded
themselves as Ulster-Scots speakers, and that roughly in 1999
meant about 34,000 people.
Chairman: I am going to allow my colleagues
to come in, and I want to come on to the BBC and what they are
doing, but there may be some points coming out of this.
Q793 Lord Maxton:
As someone who lives in Scotland I could almost define myself
as a Scots speaker, despite my accent, despite the way I was brought
up, despite the way I speak because in your terms I use words
and expressions which are from the Scottish language rather than
from the English language. My three sons, born and brought up
in Lanarkshire, speak, I suppose, what you might term Lanarkshire-Scots,
but they were not taught itthey were never taught it at
school. There is Ayrshire-Scots; there is the Burns language.
I do not see what the difference is between that sort of Scots
and your sort of Scots. Is there a difference? People in Scotland
do not tend to speakthere are a few but not very many.
Mr Millar: There are. In fact there are a number
of regional variations of Scots, yes.
Q794 Lord Maxton:
There are, yes, but no great drive to make it part of the curricula
and have it taught or to have it broadcast, as far as I am aware.
Mr Millar: With respect, I think that is not
entirely accurate. I suppose it really depends on who one speaks
to, but I speak to a number of people who are very keen on actually
retaining this language, and I think it has a certain significance
in Northern Ireland that perhaps it may not have back in Scotland.
I think the difficulty about our language is that if we lose this
languageand that is why the BBC has such an important part
to play in this, and it is not like a building being knocked down
because we can rebuild the buildingsif we lose Ulster-Scots
in this community then it has gone. It is a part of a cultural
tradition, a cultural heritage, it is part of our history, and
that is why it is so important.
Q795 Lord Maxton:
Why would it be gone in the modern technological world? There
is no reason why we should not these days ensure that it is recorded.
It may be that eventually it might die outand one would
hope maybe notbut essentially you could form a massive
database of all the information, you could get the best present
Burns' speakers in Scotland and record all the Burns' poems and
so on and also get native speakers to speak it and talk about
it and then record it, and once you have that you still have it.
Mr MacIntyre: The danger is it will stop being
used as a community language because of the pressures on it. It
is not taught in school, it is only in occasional programmes on
the media; it has no status because the "establishment"
do not give it any status. It tends to be the people who are least
touched by education that speak it the most and are the most fluent
in it. There are also political and social issues in here as well.
The Ulster-Scots community are coming under very strong assimilationist
pressures here, not just in the use of English but also in Irish
as well, and there is a will there to try and maintain that identity.
Our situation is very different from Scotland; in Scotland you
are the majority population there, you are not under the same
assimilationist pressures that we are under. So it is really about
trying to ensure some sort of community cohesion here, getting
tolerance, about avoiding division, avoiding misunderstanding
and avoiding resentment. All those negative factors come into
play here and that is what this is about.
Let us go from that, which is very useful, to what BBC Northern
Ireland can do about it, basically. Let me ask you both in turn,
do you actually think that BBC Northern Ireland's current provision
is adequate for the different communities here? What about the
Mr Mac Póilin: As you know, the UK is
a signatory of the European Charter for Lesser Used Languages
and the Irish language community was more or less unanimous in
accepting that the radio broadcasting service for Irish speakers
in Northern Ireland was adequate; there are absolutely no complaints
That is roughly about five hours a week in the BBC?
Mr Mac Póilin: Yes, 250 hours a year.
And there was again universal agreement that the television service
was woefully inadequate.
Which is almost five hours a year, as I understand it.
Mr Mac Póilin: Yes, on a good year.
Mr MacanFhailigh: In 2004 it was five hours.
Mr Mac Póilin: The year before that it
was three, the year before that it was two, the year before that
it was 26.
We can take it that it is not a high priority.
Mr Mac Póilin: It is not very high. One
of the difficulties for the broadcasters in this is the fact that
less used language broadcasting has to come out of the BBC budget,
basically, and has to fight for a place within the budget. And
if you add the number of Irish language programmes within the
current budget then you have to cut something else, and there
is going to be a loss. So the burden of the submission that we
made to you and to Ofcom and all the other bodies was that the
languages needed protection through the Charter. This is what
happens in Scotland, this is what happens in Wales, that the Charter
gives the BBC a duty to provide this, and that then protects them
and means that they do not have to fight with all the other services.
It also means that we are not depriving any of the rest of the
community of their service, if it is brought in as requirement
from Westminster and if there is a budget line set aside for it.