A row over a cabinet appointment misses the real problems faced by the Irish language.

Government Buildings, Dublin

The Taoiseach’s appointment of Joe McHugh as Minister for Gaeltacht Affairs, a junior position under the Minister for Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, looks at first glance like an own goal. Enda Kenny must surely have known that appointing someone who is not a fluent Irish speaker would lead to a torrent of that most venerable of Irish complaints, “it’s a disgrace.” While Mr Kenny has instructed Mr McHugh to take a refresher course, Irish language promoters have taken it personally and described it as a slap in the face. Protestors have even appeared outside the Department of the Taoiseach to register their displeasure, many of their signs printed in English.

Is it a fair criticism? The Minister for Defence is Simon Coveney who has never served in the military. The Minister for Sport is Paschal Donohoe who has never been a professional athlete and would be unlikely to make the Irish national soccer team. However there are other ministers who have a background in the departments they are heading. The Minister for Education and Skills is Jan O’Sullivan who has a Higher Diploma in Education and has worked as a teacher in Ireland and in Canada. Simon Coveney, as well as being Minister of Defence, is also the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine and has a degree in Agriculture and Land Management.

While a certain amount technical know-how is necessary for cabinet posts, the skill set that is necessary to run a government department principally comprises of managerial and organizational skills. Much song and dance has been made of how Mr McHugh would need translation services to be used if Irish speakers were dealing with him directly, but it would be a very inefficient department if every telephone enquiry were to go directly to his desk. Government simply does not work that way. The measure of Mr McHugh’s performance will be in how he can manage his department and any reforms he can bring about.

The uproar over the appointment highlights a certain sensitivity that surrounds the precarious state of the Irish language. Promoters rightly feel that it is an endangered language, and experts in linguistics agree. John McWhorter, a fellow of the Manhattan Institute, has said that languages like Irish are on such thin ice that restoring them to widespread use in everyday speech will require an unprecedented comeback the like of which has never been seen anywhere. Therefore it is unsurprising that anything perceived as a threat to an already struggling language is going to provoke a strong reaction.

The Taoiseach once proposed that Irish be removed from the leaving cert as a mandatory subject, and Irish language promoters were horrified, fearing that this would destroy what was left of the country’s native tongue. However would it have made much of a difference to the already negligible amount of Irish spoken on the street? It is doubtful.

Some say that Irish is struggling because it is an inherently complex language that is difficult to learn. But the same could be said of English which is riddled with irregular verbs and complex grammatical constructions. If I can hide in the present, why do I have to say “I hid” in the past instead of “I hided”? Complex grammar is something we absorb naturally from a young age as we listen to the speech around us, and we think nothing of it.

The problem with the way Irish is taught is that it is left until too late in life to begin teaching it, with lessons beginning in secondary school. This antiquated practice flies in the face of what linguists have known for a long time, that it is easier to acquire a language at a much younger age. If Irish were taught in primary schools when young children are still acquiring English, it would stand a much better chance of sticking. Instead it is taught at secondary level and those who go through that course end up like Mr McHugh, able to get the gist of what others are saying but not fluent or confident enough to be able to speak as Gaeilge.

If the government could rectify that little problem it would go a long way towards restoring its credentials as being serious about language preservation.

Religion is no excuse for discrimination.

Northern Ireland is the only part of the UK where gay marriage is not legal

The Equality Commission for Northern Ireland has given Ashers Baking Company, a local firm, additional time to respond to a threat of court action arising from the company’s refusal to serve customers representing Queerspace, a Belfast-based LGBT rights group. The campaigners had ordered a cake depicting a message of support for same-sex marriage, but the bakers refused to proceed with the order on the grounds that it conflicted with their religious beliefs and was “in contradiction with what the Bible teaches”. While the campaigners found another bakery to fulfill the order, the Equality Commission has made it clear that it considers such a refusal unlawful.

Supporters of the bakers have claimed that they should have the right to refuse service that conflicts with their religious views.

Businesses have the right to refuse service for any number of reasons. Restaurants can refuse service to men not wearing a tie, banks can refuse admittance to anyone in a motorcycle helmet, and stores are entitled to put up a sign saying “no shoes, no shirt, no service.” However this is not discrimination. It is quite easy for someone to put on a tie, doff a motorcycle helmet, and don shoes and a shirt. However it is not possible to change something as inherent as one’s race or sexual orientation.

We do not generally allow businesses to discriminate on the basis of race. This conversation was had in the United States during the civil rights campaign when it was established that owners of diners and other businesses open to the public could not refuse service to blacks. Some segregationists were able to quote-mine the Bible for verses supporting their position, but the Supreme Court was not impressed and insisted on the southern states integrating.

Is there any malice in Ashers’ opposition to gay marriage? It seems unlikely. To be fair, it would seem that the company’s refusal was based on the message they were being asked to carry rather than the sexual orientation of their customer per se. Had a gay person gone into the store and ordered a standard cake only to be refused service on the grounds of their perceived sexual orientation, that would be a different matter.

Nonetheless, opposition to gay rights is often borne of a lack of understanding of homosexuality. Homosexual behavior is frequently described as an unnatural “lifestyle choice”, but this has no basis in scientific fact. Homosexuality is widespread in nature, and the traits of gay people often become apparent early in life, seldom change, and research shows that psychological damage can result from applying “therapy” aimed at making gay people straight. Such pseudo-scientific practices are on their way to being banned in some US states and there are moves afoot to ban them in the UK.

Homosexuality is no more a “lifestyle choice” than being left-handed. Indeed left-handed people were once mistreated for their “abnormal” behavior. Left-handed children had their hands tied to the desk and were forced to learn to write with their right hands, and once again religion provided the justification for this harmful and superstitious belief that still persists in some cultures.

Open societies have to tread a fine line with religion, since history has shown that suppressing it can result in losses of human rights and freedoms. On the other hand, so can allowing religion to have too much influence. One business owner’s right to discriminate against someone is another person losing their right to be treated with dignity.

The case of the American civil rights campaign should be warning enough that to allow religion a free pass to discriminate is to go down a dangerous path. Should a catholic checkout operator in a supermarket be allowed to refuse to serve a customer purchasing condoms? Should a muslim waiter be allowed to refuse to serve a woman who is not accompanied by a male family member? If a person working in customer service is not prepared to serve everyone without discrimination, they should find another line of work.

As sure as “the devil can quote scripture”, the scope of many religious texts is broad enough that there is bound to be a verse in there somewhere that can justify all manner of discriminatory practices that are not compatible with modern attitudes. Indeed morality is an evolving cultural edifice that contrasts with the written-in-stone nature of religion. It was not so long ago that it was considered acceptable to smoke indoors in the presence of non smokers. It was not so long ago that sexism was tolerated and openly celebrated in the workplace. It was not so long ago that politicians thought it was okay to lump gays in with pedophiles and rapists as if they were all the same. We have not yet moved on from the time when we thought that same-sex marriage is harmful.

Our attitudes to these issues has evolved thanks to an ongoing debate about what we should consider right and wrong, not because of values prescribed by ancient fables that were written in a time when slavery was considered normal and women considered property. The laws of an open society should follow the latest understanding of morality is it is today, not as it was in the ancient world.

Ireland’s current woes do not have to be a sign of terminal decline.

The Eurovision Song Contest may have been cheesy, but in the 1990s it was still taken reasonably seriously.  Winning the event for three years in a row from 1992 through 1994 and hosting it three times was a point of pride for the Irish people.  We got to showcase what a modern and forward-looking nation we had become.  Riverdance exploded onto the scene at the 1994 event.  A dramatic and uplifting performance took a traditionally conservative and somewhat stiff form of dance and put an innovative, dynamic, modern face on it, something we could proudly present internationally as a high-brow cultural expression of who we are as a people emerging from an impoverished past.  We marveled at our ability to put on such a professional performance on an international stage and not mess it up.

The national soccer team was playing well.  We had beaten England and held the Soviet Union to a draw in Euro 88, and were challenging the big teams for supremacy by reaching the World Cup quarter finals Italy in 1990 and the round of sixteen in the USA in 1994.  Crowds filled the streets in celebration and gave a rapturous welcome to the team on their return no matter how far they progressed in the tournaments.  We celebrated not just the sporting success, but also the impeccable behavior of our traveling fans in contrast to “certain other” supporters at the time.

We consistently had some of the strongest economic growth in the OECD.  Business was booming.  European structural funds were helping to transform our infrastructure, replacing creaking old roads with shiny new motorways and upgrading the main Belfast to Dublin railway line to a high speed service on a par with anything on the continent.  The Economist newspaper and other media outlets around the world sang the praises of the Irish economic miracle.

Peace had been achieved in Northern Ireland with the signing of the historic Good Friday Agreement, ratified by the people, and the participants in the conflict bought into it to make it work.

Croke Park was rebuilt into one of the largest and most advanced stadiums in Europe, while our Gaelic games carried on providing spectacular entertainment in front of vast crowds, undaunted by the success of soccer and rugby.

Mass emigration, long a scourge since famine times and an inherent part of our culture, had been eliminated. People were no longer leaving the country in droves, and the people of the newly-enlarged European Union were tripping over each other to get in.

We were held up as an example of how small nations could govern their affairs, succeed, and prosper.  Within a generation we had put decades of stagnation and mediocrity behind us.  We had done it.

Where are we now?

A steady drip of scandals has shown that the land of comely maidens and cozy homesteads was nothing of the sort.  The land of saints and scholars was in fact a land of theocratic dictatorship that facilitated and covered up heinous crimes against women and children under the guise of religious piety, a practice that lasted until well into the supposedly more enlightened 1990s.  It was a land of incompetents and gangsters who thrived in a culture where respect for the rule of law was all but non-existent, where the bribe was more powerful than due process.

As our wealth accumulated the whole enterprise took a turn for the worst when we joined the European single currency.  Eager to escape the sphere of influence of our nearest neighbors, we aligned ourselves with the continent even though the vast majority of our trade was (and is) with Britain, surrendering control of interest rates to the European Central Bank. When our economy began to overheat, instead of having a central bank that could raise interest rates to cool it down, easy credit kept on pouring in to the booming economy.

It became a land of naive belief in easy money.  By building, buying, and selling houses to each other instead of actually creating anything of value, we could build upon our hard-earned riches even more, and we could splurge as tastelessly as we liked.  Ostentatious displays of wealth abounded.  We arrogantly sent a puppet turkey to Eurovision to thumb our noses at the whole proceedings.  And when the inevitable happened and the day of reckoning arrived, our hard-earned money was replaced with a massive bill, run up by reckless bankers and developers, their wheels of business oiled by the sleaze seeping out of the brown envelopes containing “gifts” that were “resting in the accounts” of politicians.  Our sovereignty was in ruins, the Germans became our owners and masters.

Peace in the north seems to lurch from one crisis to the next, often exacerbated by the annual marching season, with unionists issuing threats to pull out of government and collapse the institutions established by the agreement that the people voted for.

Airports once again handle the heavy traffic of young people leaving the country, not to watch the World Cup finals for which we were no longer qualifying, but in search of a livelihood that once again is unavailable at home.  And to cap it all we have shown that we are incapable of hosting something as simple as a major music concert.

Is this the end, then?  Was it all an illusion?  Was our prosperity really just an overdraft? Are we doomed to an eternal cycle of emigration that will drain our life’s blood away?  Are we too incompetent to govern ourselves after all, and is the Irish nationalist mission a fool’s errand?

The answer to all of these questions is an emphatic ‘no.’

The Celtic Tiger economy came in two parts.  Celtic Tiger 1.0 was a legitimate achievement.  It was built on exports, exploiting our access to the massive EU market, and taking advantage of an educated English-speaking population that is well able to do business globally.  EU structural funds helped, but this was a small proportion of the economy, never more than 5 percent of GDP.  Celtic Tiger 2.0 was a product of cheap credit and speculation.  There was a greater incentive to invest in property than to make a viable business that was going to work.  When a collective group faith in the never-ending appreciation of real estate set in, the property bubble inflated until it burst.  Yes, controversy will reign for generations about whether or not the Irish people should be on the hook for for the debts of the banks, but it will be cleared eventually, just as Japan eventually clawed their way back from their “lost decade” in the wake of their 1980s asset bubble.

The strengths that built Celtic Tiger 1.0 have not gone away.  Ireland still has access to the EU market, and still has an educated Anglophone workforce.  Emigration may be undermining this, but that is not necessarily a total waste.  We no longer live in a world where distance means lack of contact.  Many of the the bright and educated emigrants are settling in locations that are awash with business and networking opportunities.  In mingling with the movers and shakers of places like Silicon Valley, Irish people are building business relationships that will last and can have long term benefits for Ireland as investors are made aware of the country’s potential, and entrepreneurs in Ireland hear about new business opportunities on the other side of the world thanks to their far flung friends and family who keep them posted.

As for our ability to govern ourselves, there are weaknesses but there are also strengths.  For all of the scandals that lurked behind closed doors in the dark days after independence, Ireland has never been shy about opening up old wounds and cleaning them up, as opposed to leaving them to fester.  The seemingly constant process of running tribunals is painful to watch, but it is a sign of a functioning democracy that has mechanisms in place to find out what the mistakes were and to correct them.

For all the bluster from extremists in the north, nobody would seriously consider a return to the dark days of the Troubles.  The institutions, despite the problems, have endured, just as the Irish people have endured over centuries of turbulence and hardship.

Cynicism and defeatism may be fashionable Irish traits, but they are not the only way of looking at the world or our place in it. Our own worst enemy is a pessimism that we can choose to govern us or choose to overcome. It should be an easy choice to make.

What would Scottish independence mean for Ireland?

Irish nationalists and northern unionists will be fascinated by the current goings-on in Scotland. Alex Salmond, Scotland’s nationalist First Minister, has locked his politically astute horns with Westminster in a tantalizing bid to shake Scotland out of the United Kingdom. A referendum on Scottish independence will take place in September which will offer a straight choice between the status quo and absolute independence. The nationalists preferred a ranked choice vote on three options: the status quo, absolute separation, or “devo-max” in which all major powers are transferred from Westminster to Edinburgh. Devo-max would be effective home rule for Scotland with only foreign policy and defense managed at United Kingdom level, and could well have been a major step towards complete separation.  Polls in Scotland have shown support for this option as high as 70%, but it is not on the table.

All of this raises several fascinating questions, one of which is how did Scotland end up in this union with England in the first place?

The answer lies partly in a looming 17th century succession crisis that was set to strengthen the hand of the exiled catholic King James Edward Stuart who was living in France. The English feared that he would make a bid for the throne with French backing and Scottish support.  Removing Scottish independence, something that had been attempted by force many times, now became a priority.

An opportunity for the English came with an ill-fated investment made by the Scottish people in the 1690s. After years of pestilence and food shortages, a group of merchants and bankers saw an opportunity to turn Scotland into an international trading powerhouse by establishing a trading post in Panama. The idea was to develop the Isthmus of Darien, the most narrow point of the Americas, into a trading route. Ships would unload their cargo on the Caribbean side, and the cargo would be hauled a mere 40 miles over land to waiting ships on the Pacific side. This fore-runner of the Panama Canal would shave thousands of miles off the journey between Europe and Asia while eliminating the risk of navigating the treacherous Straits of Magellan. All of the world’s global shipping would be funneled into this one point at which the Scots would collect a fee from all comers. All of Scotland’s financial problems would be solved.

With pound signs in their eyes, the Scottish people invested heavily in the scheme, many of them pouring their life savings into what they believed to be a sure-fire pathway to wealth, but soon after the first expeditionary ship set sail, forty crew and passengers died on the journey.  When they reached land they found a mosquito-infested swamp and not the tropical paradise that had been promised in their poorly-sourced information, and illness quickly wiped out most of the colony. The English parliament outlawed any investment in or support for the beleaguered enterprise, and before long the scheme died taking a third of Scotland’s liquid capital with it. The heavily indebted Scottish were offered a bail-out by the English government in exchange for joining a unitary British state with its parliament in London. The English and Scottish parliaments both passed the necessary legislation, the union came into being in 1707, and it has remained long after the Darien scheme has been largely forgotten.

For Irish people, this story of unwise investments fueled by the greedy pursuit of seemingly certain easy wealth, heavy losses incurred by the population, and a bail-out in exchange for a loss of sovereignty has a certain familiar ring to it.

So how viable would a modern independent Scotland be? Mr Salmond used to refer to an “arc of prosperity” that included Iceland and the then booming Irish Republic, a line that has been quietly dropped for obvious reasons. A more apt comparison would be with Norway which has exploited North Sea oil reserves and wisely invested the tax takings in education and infrastructure to build a prosperous economy outside of the European Union that has thrived like a Nordic equivalent of the oil-rich micro-states of the Persian Gulf. However, North Sea oil production peaked in the 1990s and the remaining reserves are increasingly difficult (i.e. expensive) to get at. Much of Scotland’s economy is heavily dependent on the state and some doubt how competitive it could be if it went alone. Nevertheless Salmond, a former oil economist, has made a great deal of the fact that Scotland’s natural resources have effectively subsidized the UK for decades, so there may still be some political capital to be found beneath the waves.

Should Scotland secede?  The original purpose of the union is long gone and forgotten, but it did form one of the most successful and powerful states in history. The United Kingdom was the engine of the industrial revolution and has left an indelible mark on the world for better or worse. But that does not mean that Scotland should stay in a union that many feel benefitted England at the expense of Scotland, Wales and Ireland. Those countries would be better governed and their own interests put first if they were left to govern themselves and not subject to the interests of more numerous English legislators in Westminster. Neither should anyone discount the importance of preserving national identity through self determination.

Another question is how Scottish independence would affect Ireland. Northern unionists proclaim their loyalty to the “British” Queen and their “British” identity. What happens when “Britain” ceases to exist as a single political entity? Other northern unionists justify the union with Britain citing historic cultural and ethnic links with Scotland. In building up an identity for the northern state they have emphasized the Scottish ancestry of the planters and more recently concocted an “Ulster Scot” identity. After Scottish secession would they come to realize that the whole idea is a farce because they were Irish all along?  Unionism is already divided between who wants to cooperate with Irish nationalists and who does not. It is divided to a lesser extent between those who want integration with Britain and those who support devolution.  Scottish independence would likely divide it further as the dominoes of the UK start to fall and Celtic nationalism thrives.

However this may all be academic. Current polling shows recent gains on both sides with 41 percent saying yes on secession and 46 percent saying no, an increase of 2 percent for each side since last month.  The ‘Yes’ campaign has made impressive progress, but it still has much work to do if it is to have a realistic chance of getting over finish the line in first place.


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