From Shaw’s Road to Shaw’s Bridge

Running a school should not be like pulling teeth - it should be positively supported by the state. Yet the reset that people rightly expected from the GFA has not delivered... what is it about the response to IME that is so threatening, so repulsive that it must be hidden from public view?
From Shaw’s Road to Shaw’s Bridge
Alt le fáil i mBéarla amháin


My report for CAJ/Conradh na Gaeilge - Irish education and the ‘Statutory Duty’: From the point of view of rights - was formally launched at the recent Comhairle na Gaelscolaíochta conference at Shaw’s Bridge. The conference location presented a striking book-ending for IME over the past 50 years. It was impossible not to reflect on the 50 year journey from the first gaelscoil in Bóthar Seoighe – the heart of the west Belfast Gaeltacht - to the conference venue at Shaw’s Road in south Belfast. This is a short journey – physically – some three miles. The conference was characterised by a confident, positive Irish language community completely at home in a space that is more usually associated with unionist press conferences. Indeed, for some attendees Shaw’s Bridge itself might be most immediately identified as the site of the 12th July celebrations in Belfast. But the event represented a different kind of mórshiúl for the athbheochan. For all the symbolism, there was no sense of triumphalism, only a quiet confidence in the contemporary language movement and its growing school community - and a very large ballroom full of (mostly) young gaeilgeoirí.

This physical journey – from Shaw’s Road to Shaw’s Bridge - reflects the enormity of the cultural and political change involving IME over the last half century. The bunscoil was set up under threat of prosecution by the Ministry of Education at Stormont. And the state did little to change this kind of anti-Irish hostility during the Direct Rule period from 1972-1998. The GFA promised to reverse this negative history. My report focuses on what has happened over the past twenty years or so since. As the report suggests the 1998 statutory duty was supposed to ‘reset’ the relationship between IME and the post-GFA state. And over the last twenty five years we have seen a remarkable rapprochement. IME is now mainstreamed in a way that was probably unthinkable to either the Stormont Ministry of education or the Shaw’s Road Gaeltacht. We should not underestimate the enormity of this transformation. At the same time however there is a sense in which every gain still has to dragged from the state. Running a school should not be like pulling teeth - it should be positively supported by the state. Yet the reset that people rightly expected from the GFA has not delivered. Fiche bliain gan rath?

If evidence were wanted for this pervasive anti-Irish attitude it is found immediately on the public-facing policies of the DE and the EA. Both agencies – now responsible for a growing IME sector – continue to operate an English-only policy. As the report observes there is more Manx on the Isle of Man department of education home page than there is Irish on that of either the Department of Education or the Education Authority. This begs the question why? – what is it about the response to IME that is so threatening, so repulsive that it must be hidden from public view? Here the notions of linguicide and gaelophobia help to begin to frame this experience. Contemporary attitudes draw on centuries of sustained anti-Irish language ideology and policy. Of course this point takes nothing from the reality that lots of people in DE and EA are working hard to support IME. Criticising the institutions and their policies is not the same thing as dismissing all of that work. But as was signalled to the EA at the conference, all the good work is immediately compromised by its English-only branding – it immediately relegates this work too to the IME ghetto. As some of our respondents suggested, this renders IME ‘a dirty little secret’ to be hidden from public view in order to protect the sensibilities of un-identified Gaelophobes. Behind this is the half-uttered reality of the threat of terror – the notion that Irish cannot be seen because of what it might provoke from various paramilitary organisations. Taking this current ghettoization of IME as asymbolic staring point, the report emphasises the need for a further fundamental reset in the relationship between the NI state and the IME community. So that is the broad context of the report – we find ourselves some of the way along an extraordinary journey that has a lot further to go.

An tuairisc

The terms of reference from CAJ and CnaG commissioned a report into the:

effectiveness of the Department of Education and the Education Authority in relation to the teaching of Irish and in particular delivering on their statutory duty to encourage and facilitate Irish-medium Education in view of the legal framework and applicable international standards

The methodology was based on desk-based research including interviews with key respondents or faisnéiseoirí within the sector. This group comprised some thirty individuals working in different roles within IME, mostly involved in teaching but others working on Bord na Gobhnoirí. It included people teaching at all levels across the sector and a number of retired teaching professionals.

The Statutory Duty followed the commitments of the Good Friday Agreement on Irish language education. The GFA made a key commitment to, ‘place a statutory duty on the Department of Education to encourage and facilitate Irish-medium education in line with current provision for integrated education’. From the IME perspective, the relationship between IME and the state was to be reset in context of peace process. The British government realised their commitment in law through Article 89 of The Education (Northern Ireland) Order 1998. This gave specific effect to this commitment as a new ‘statutory duty’ (in Irish ‘an dualgas reachtúil’):

89.—(1) It shall be the duty of the Department [of Education] to encourage and facilitate the development of Irish-medium education.

The research measures the success of this commitment in terms of its historical and human rights contexts. This includes:

  • Overview of Education policy towards the Irish language historically
  • International standards and the domestic NI legal framework
  • Documenting obstacles faced by IME
  • Teaching of Irish in EME

When we examine the question of how successful the statutory duty has been there are two obvious conclusions – first, the sector is transformed. There has been significant mainstreaming. Second, there is a huge distance to go – the resetting has been far from perfect. Over this period there has been a complex bedding down of issues – but perhaps two key moments. First the 2011 Treacy judgement made it clear that the duty should have ‘practical consequences and legislative significance’ – it was more than an aspiration. It was the responsibility of the state to develop the sector not simply to resource it. Second, the shift from a nationalist to a unionist minister of education in 2016 illustrated the limitations of GFA rights protections. This political change would stress test the ability of institutions to transcend the profound political differences between ministers. Generally, however, this failed. Symbolically the branding of the department and the new EA became English-only, undercutting all the previous advances and denying the reality of IME within the broader education sector. More specifically the research engaged with the question of how well the statutory duty has worked since 1998. In particular, it sought to document obstacles faced by IME. These include:

  • Obstacles faced in planning and developing of Irish Medium Schools
  • Teacher training and capacity
  • Special Educational Needs (SEN)
  • Resources (online and others)
  • Secondary level IME

In terms of these issues the broad conclusion is that the state has routinely failed to develop the IME sector. Related to this, there is a widespread sense of fatigue across the sector that reflects a wider sense of dissatisfaction with the implementation of the statutory duty. There remains a deal of work to be done in terms of finally realising the commitment made to the Irish language community in the GFA. It is important that all interested parties – including DE, EA and the IME community – now commit to a fundamental review of IME provision in the context of the statutory duty.

Conclúidí an fhiosrúcháin agus moltaí ar an bhealach chun cinn don ghaelscolaíocht

The report does not attempt to anticipate the outcome of a fundamental review of IME provision in the context of the statutory duty. This is primarily, of course, a matter for the IME community alongside the DE and EA and other state actors. But the report suggests that the outcome should see a further reset of the relationship between the statutory education authorities and the Irish language community. The report provides a rights based context for that reset but it emphasises that this must be a process led by the IME community and the statutory education sector.

It bears emphasis, however, that this is only the starting point of IME development across the Six Counties. The statutory duty will only be met at the point at which every child in the north has a meaningful choice to experience IME at every stage of their educational career. This goal would be an ambitious but not unrealistic target for the actualisation of the statutory duty promised in the GFA.

Towards this end the report makes a number of Recommendations:

  • A mechanism is needed for assessing how effectively DE is implementing the statutory duty.
  • DE itself – in partnership with interested parties – should review of the work of the statutory duty. The Review of Education promised as part of the NDNA should explore the role of sectoral bodies.
  • Existing good practice analysis and policy needs implemented – in this regard the Department of Education’s own Review of IME in 2008/Irish Medium School Leaders Working Group 2016 already provide a template.
  • The IME statutory duty in the GFA was explicitly modelled on the existing Integrated Education (IE) statutory duty. The IE duty was recently significantly reinforced by the passing of the Integrated Education Act (Northern Ireland) 2022. Therefore, we should expect a swift reciprocal strengthening of the IME statutory duty.

The ‘New Brunswick model’

Finally, the research suggests that any reset in the relationship between the state and IME should situate educational language rights in the context of a wider recognition of the rights of ‘linguistic communities’. This draws on the example provided by New Brunswick– the only bilingual province in Canada. Adjusted to the six counties context, this model would suggest something like the following commitment:

The English linguistic community and the Irish linguistic community in NI have equality of status and equal rights and privileges, including the right to distinct educational institutions and such distinct cultural institutions as are necessary for the preservation and promotion of those communities.

There are, of course, many differences between the north of Ireland and Canada. But this model begins to offer a vision of scale of the reset on Irish language issues required by the NI state. Moreover, this is a ‘unionist’ solution – it shows the scale of historical compromise on language rights that was necessary to avoid the partition of New Brunswick province. The key point about this is that language differences are much more profound than differences of ethos. So, while recent advances on the promotion of Integrated Education provide a useful comparator for IME, the comparison only goes so far. The kinds of issues that are addressed in the IME report illustrate the need for a more profound reset in the relationship with the state in Northern Ireland.

But this restates the most obvious point of the research. All of these educational language rights are already guaranteed in law and international human rights protections. This new deal was promised by the GFA. It should have happened in 1998; there can be no justifiable reason for it not to be delivered in 2022. By way of some reassurance to those who see some terrible portent in the public display of Gaelic in any form, I want to insist that it isn’t really that scary. I’m writing this from Edinburgh where all the police cars drive around with prominent equal bilingual signage in English and Gàidhlig – Police/Poileas - and the sky hasn’t fallen in yet. Seachnaíonn súil ní nach bhfeiceann.

An litir dhearg

Bí ar an eolas! Faigh ár nuachtlitir le bheith suas chun dáta leis na feachtais ar fad.