Select Committee on BBC Charter Review Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 781 - 799)


23 NOVEMBER 2005Mr Ferdie MacanFhailigh, Mr Jim Millar, Aoda«n Mac Póilin and Mr John MacIntyre

  Q781  Chairman: 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 BBC—and 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 1999—it 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 ethos—that 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.

  Q782  Chairman: 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.

  Q783  Chairman: 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 blunt instrument.

  Q784  Chairman: 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 end.

  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.

  Q786  Chairman: 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.

  Q787  Chairman: 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.

  Q788  Chairman: 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.

  Q789  Chairman: Would you use it every day in the home?

  Mr MacIntyre: Not every day—I live in Belfast, and my children—but 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 and 100,000.

  Q790  Chairman: 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.

  Q791  Chairman: When was it last taught in a school?

  Mr Millar: It has not been taught in schools, that is the difficulty.

  Q792  Chairman: 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 it—they 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 speak—there 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 language—and 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 buildings—if 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 out—and one would hope maybe not—but 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.

  Q796  Chairman: 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 Irish language?

  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 about that.

  Q797  Chairman: 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.

  Q798  Chairman: 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.

  Q799  Chairman: 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.

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