An Achd: Hip hip, ho hum

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Sun Apr 24 15:21:32 UTC 2005

>>From Scotland on Sunday:

The newest chapter in the history of Gaelic and the Gaels has just begun
with the Gaelic Bill having passed through the Scottish parliament.
Although the Scottish Executive makes far too much use of the word, this
time they were right, this was a historic day. We have the first law in
many years which is connected to Gaelic. And differently from other
Gaelic-connected laws, this one - at least in theory - is trying to help
and protect us rather than wipe us out.

We should be thankful for the small mercies, and they do not come much
smaller than this. It would have been more honest for the government to
have called this law the Gaelic Board Act, because that is what we have.
There is no word of the rights of Gaelic speakers, or where they can use
their language, rights which are basic in other countries. We are still
unsure whether we are allowed to speak our language in court.  There is
still not the same kind of safeguards for Gaelic education as there is for
English-language schooling.

And we are still in the situation where the Executive thinks that it is
perfectly acceptable for government ministers to head for the Western
Isles, the Gaelic heartland, and speak to the English-language media while
not addressing the Gaelic-speaking locals in their own language. There is
no word on broadcasting. There will be some who will say that there could
have been no such section because broadcasting is a matter reserved to
London with the Scottish parliament having no say on the matter. But that
is simply a problem with the Scotland Act which established the Scottish
parliament, and Act which was drawn up in 1997 and 1998, and not before
the foundations of the earth were laid. The powers of the Scottish
parliament to protect our language are restricted precisely because those
who are now in power allowed them top be limited.

Am I just too hard and cynical?

This was a bill which was promised to the Gaels in 1997. We had to be
patient because the honourable members had to look to more important
things, such as building a 440m palace for themselves and debating
fox-hunting. And look now at what we have. The Gaelic Board is established
in law. A good thing they have a duty to produce a language plan. A good
thing. They have the task of increasing the numbers of Gaelic speakers.
Another good thing.

And it is also a good thing that they will have a role in education and
that they will be able to public authorities and direct them to draw up a
Gaelic policy, instead of waiting for a word from the organisations. But
wait a minute. These two elements are only there because they were added
to the bill after the Gaels went mad with rage at how weak and pathetic
the first draft of the bill was.

So that is the criticism. Is there any way that the law can now work? The
way the new law is formed, much depends on how energetic the new Gaelic
board is and how willing they will be to ask searching questions and
refuse to accept excuses. It can work if the board is energetic and
refuses to accept any nonsense from public authorities. And they have to
start at the heart of the Gaelic-speaking areas. Are they convinced that
the Western Isles Council Gaelic policies, and those of the local health
board are all they could be? Is enough being done to make sure that the
elderly people of the areas get home helps who speak their own languages,
for example?

They have to be noisy and pushy, they have to show that they will not
accept poor excuses from anyone. And in addition to the public authorities
in the islands, they also should be harder on how the Scottish Executive
deals with and informs the Gaels. When government minister appear each day
on English-language radio and TV programmes, it is an absolute disgrace
that they refuse Scotland's Gaelic speakers the same chance to get the
information in their own language.  Each time an official speaker appears
to give information in English it means that Gaels are deprived of the
chance to get knowledge from their own rulers.

I am not saying that every member of the Scottish Executive ministerial
team must learn the language. But what I am saying is that there should be
the brain-power in the Executive to deal with this issue. Is it that they
could not care less or that they just think that we should have to listen
in in English to get things straight.

I am dubious about whether this new law, and the board, will have the
teeth to address these lacks. In contrast to the Welsh situation, the
board will not have the final word in laying down to organisations that
they must deal with the rights and needs of Gaelic speakers. The final
word will be with ministers, and there is no guarantee that they will
always show goodwill toward the language.

I for one hope that it will not emerge that we shall need to campaign for
a new bill in a couple of years time.

But I have my doubts.

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