What’s the Irish for boondoggle?

P. Kerim Friedman kerim.list at oxus.net
Thu Jul 8 14:52:38 UTC 2004

This recent post has attracted a lot of attention on the blogs. I don't
agree with its economic reductionism, but I thought it was worth
sharing with list members. It is worth reading in its original form,
especially for the extended discussion in the comments section which
raise some very important points not discussed in the post itself.



What’s the Irish for boondoggle?

Posted by Maria

It’s not every day that Fine Gael, the Progressive Democrats and Sinn
Fein agree on something. But they all say Irish should be an official
language of the EU, and complain that the government (which the PDs are
part of) hasn’t done enough to make this happen during the Irish
presidency. Our presidency of the EU is at best a partial success
because we haven’t managed to force the EU to spend an extra 50 million
euro a year to translate speeches and documents into a language that no
one actually needs them in. It’s the principle, you see.

Support for the Irish language is to Irish politics what honouring
families, ‘our troops’ and ‘freedom’ is to Americans; something you
hear a lot about in speeches, or occasionally as a sentiment invoked to
justify highly dubious policies. Or to put it another way, supporting
the Irish language is a bit like pornography; no one can really say
what it is, but we all recognise it when we see it. It’s just that we
all tend to see it a little differently.

But let’s take it as a given that supporting the Irish language is a
good thing. I certainly think so (though I think that speaking it is
even better). It’s a sign of huge cultural confidence that in the last
decade or so, speaking Irish is no longer the preserve of an aging,
dwindling and heavily subsidised minority on the west coast. The
gaelscoileanna (Irish-speaking schools) movement is sweeping through
the country, with dozens of new schools opening up and enrolling the
children of Irish and non-Irish speaking parents alike. In the last
couple of years, bi-lingual cafes have opened up in Dublin, and the
Irish-speaking tv station is no longer hopelessly uncool. Purists may
grumble that the phenomenon is bringing in all colour of faddists and
poor grammar into the Irish language movement, but the biggest benefit
of all may be that the language is finally becoming just another part
of Irish life, rather than something we venerate and set to the side.

Or it was until this campaign to make Irish an official language of the
EU. First off, what does it mean to be an official language? It means
that parliamentary debates have to be simultaneously translated into
that language, whether or not anyone who speaks it is there, and
whether or not they understand the language of delivery. It also means
that most official documents need to be translated into the language.
The upshot of it all is that about 150 people are hired to support each
new official language. If you (very unscientifically) divide the 1
billion euro a year translation budget by the current number of
languages (20), then an estimate for adding a new language is
E50,000,000. What, then, are the reasons to make Irish the 21st
official language of the EU?

Because we can.
The motto of the official campaign of Conradh na Gaeilge is ‘The Irish
Government has but to ask’. The logic seems to go that as Ireland has
been riding high throughout its EU presidency, we should take the
opportunity to shove through our own little demand. Or, as Dolores
O’Riordan might put it, everyone else is doing it so why can’t we?
There’s no counter-argument to this, of course, as it isn’t even an
argument so much as a call to opportunism. So let’s consider the case
for Irish on its stated merits.

The Maltese got it
Practically every flyer/letter/rant in favour of Irish mentions
Maltese, an official language spoken by the same number of people as
speak Irish; approximately 380,000. The situation of Irish is indeed
similar to that of Maltese; it’s spoken by a small number of people who
also speak English fluently. I’ve no idea what shabby little deal was
done with the Maltese to give their language official status, but it is
a silly and pointless arrangement that does nothing to boost the
efficiency or credibility of the EU. As my father often points out, two
wrongs don’t make a right.

It’s not that expensive, and anyway, we’d only pay a fraction of the
Proponents of making Irish an official language generally say two
things; the cost is trivial, and it’s spread out amongst all EU member
states. Currently, translation costs work out at about 2 euros per
citizen every year, or less than half the cost of a pint. And when you
compare that cost to the ‘return’ we would get – dividing the cost of a
new official language by the total number of Irish speakers yields a
return of 131.57 euros each per year; dividing it by the number of
people who’ve signed the petition supporting Irish (70,000) would give
a return of over 700 euros each per year – it’s clear that the Irish
would be coming out way ahead of most other contributers to translation
costs. (except, of course, the Maltese)

If the main reason we’re in the EU is to milk it dry for every nonsense
reason we can think of, then I suppose this would be a good argument.
Though when you look at it that way, 50,000,000 euro a year is not
expensive at all. It’s actually a cheap price for our self respect.

Nonsense calculations aside, what about this point that we alone enjoy
the benefits of Irish being an official language, but share the cost of
it with all the other countries? Well, it’s perfectly true. Pork-barrel
politics is not a term most Irish people are familiar with, but it’s a
well-known concept in US politics. Congressmen tacitly agree to support
federal spending plans, or ‘pork’, for individual districts as long as
no one questions anyone else’s spending. So a state or district
directly receives all the money and pursuant jobs for a particular
project while contributing only a fraction of its cost to the overall
federal budget. Sounds like a win, right?

Wrong. Everyone then sees that it’s in their interest to add more to
the budget – no point holding back, you’ll pay for everyone else’s pork
anyway – and so it goes higher and higher until before you know it,
somebody’s voted in a Republican president because they think he’ll
lower federal spending… So, to get back to the Irish language, raising
the overall translation budget for our own direct benefit might seem a
good idea in the short term, but ultimately we will suffer along with
everyone else as budgets keep climbing and we lose all authority to
block anyone else’s pork.

(Of course, you could argue that as the Maltese have already got their
own expensive boondoggle, we gain nothing by sniffily refusing to lower
ourselves to their level, and should actually shove our snouts into the
trough with everyone else. But if you’re arguing on the merits of Irish
as an official language, this argument unravels back to ‘everyone else
is doing it so why don’t we?’, the non-argument that is simply a salvo
of opportunism.)

It would create jobs and get more Irish people into cushy EU positions
Yes, 150 jobs would be created; 110 interpreters and 40 translators.
But to whose benefit, other than the job-holders? Irish people in the
European Parliament and other institutions already function perfectly
well using the English interpreters and translations. Nor would other
member states benefit as they are already able to communicate quite
effectively with the Irish in Brussels/Strasbourg. So the only direct
benefits would be to the happy 150 new employees, whose joy seems
dearly purchased over 300,000 euro each.

Then there’s a related argument that runs; Irish people are put at a
disadvantage because they can’t count Irish as a working language when
applying for a cushy EU job. To which the only sane response is; no
shit, Sherlock. Speaking Irish is a wonderful thing, but it does not
help you get your point across or understand that of someone else in a
meeting room in Brussels. (Though it can be very handy for whispered
negotiations with compatriates when you can’t leave the room.) If
you’re applying for a job in an EU institution, it is very important
that you can communicate with as many different Europeans as possible.
These institutions don’t exist to make us feel good about ourselves and
our lesser known languages, they exist to produce work.

But underlying the whole debate seems to be the belief that Irish is
somehow a second class language unless we have 110 interpreters
speaking it to a half-empty parliament session in Strasbourg. Or the
idea that Irish isn’t a proper language unless other countries
officially recognise it. Are we really so insecure? Do we really need
other people to tell us that our language and culture are worthwhile
and important?

The actual merits of the case for Irish as an official language are
weak. And the hard done by posturing of the people pushing it cuts
right against our national self-respect and the very cultural
confidence that means Irish is alive and well. Ireland is justifiably
proud to be kicking away the training wheels of structural funding and
becoming a net contributor to the EU. We were right to throw away the
begging bowl and the mendicant sense of entitlement that went with it.
Let’s not take it up again.

Posted on June 24, 2004 01:35 PM UTC

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