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Irish-Language Education: Not in the Cold Anymore

The Belfast Agreement recognised ‘the importance of respect, understanding and tolerance in relation to linguistic diversity, including in Northern Ireland, the Irish language, Ulster-Scots and the languages of the various ethnic communities’. The British government also pledged to ‘take resolute action to promote’ the Irish language, to ‘facilitate and encourage the use of the language in speech and writing in public and private life’ and to ‘place a statutory duty on the Department of Education to encourage and facilitate Irish-medium education’.86

Figure 6.2 shows that the number of pupils in Irish-medium education has more than tripled in a decade. In 2000, the sector accounted for less

Number of primary and secondary school students in Irish-medium education between 2001 and 2013

Fig. 6.2 Number of primary and secondary school students in Irish-medium education between 2001 and 2013 (Department of Education Northern Ireland, ‘Children in Irish-Medium Education 2001/02-2012/13,’ Northern Ireland summary data, education-statistics/32_statistics_and_research-numbersofschoolsandpupils_ pg/32_statistics_and_research-northernirelandsummarydata_pg.htm)

than 1 % of pupils in primary and secondary schools; in 2012-2013 it accommodated about 3 % and was available in every county.

Micheal O’Duibh of the Council for Irish-Medium Education (Comhairle na Gaelscolafochta, CnaG) argues that Irish-medium schools expanded because of increasing parental demand. He adds that before 1998, Irish-medium education was underfunded, but the establishment of a statutory duty on DENI to ‘encourage and facilitate’ Irish-medium education, increased funding, and the creation of the CnaG in 2000 contributed to raising the profile of Irish-medium education.87 The political influence of the Irish-medium sector on the Nationalist leadership also helped secure favourable concessions: for example, shortly after the Belfast Agreement, under the initiative of Education Minister McGuinness, the viability criteria for new schools were lowered to an intake of as little as 12 pupils.88 Ultimately, as O’Duibh summarises, Irish-medium schools ‘are not in the cold anymore’.89

CnaG portrays the Irish language as a powerful instrument for fostering cultural understanding and mutual respect among children belonging to different traditions in Northern Ireland.90 Yet, CnaG still perceives ‘a certain element of negativity from Stormont’ towards Irish-medium education.91 Indeed, Unionist parties remain suspicious of Irish-medium education, and often portray investment in the Irish language as a ‘waste of money when there is English-medium education’.92 While they do not dispute the right to learn Irish, they believe it should be ‘treated like all other proper languages rather than being given a special preference, it should be like whether you’re learning French or Italian’.93

In fact, Irish is different from ‘French or Italian’ in two respects. First, to a substantial portion of Northern Ireland’s population, Irish is not a foreign language, but their lost native vernacular. This is why Irish-medium education adopts the immersion method.94 Total immersion education in the Irish language for children whose mother tongue is English is offered in free-standing Irish-medium schools and in Irish-medium units in some English-medium schools. Irish-medium streams in some post-primary schools allow pupils to learn some subjects in Irish.95

CnaG promotes the benefits of immersion education and bilingualism for pupils. As mentioned, immersion education produces worse academic performances than both mother tongue education (English-medium in this case) and a dual-language bilingual approach.96 However, the immersion model is the most effective method to ensure the revival of an almost extinct linguistic community. This explains why an immersion model was adopted in Irish-medium schools. These schools closely resemble language immersion programmes for indigenous minorities in their attempt to produce new speakers of a community’s heritage language. Thus, the teaching of Irish remains largely confined to Catholic maintained schools and Irish-medium schools: only 6 % of Irish-medium schools are controlled and most of their pupils have a Catholic/Nationalist background.97

The second difference between ‘French or Italian’ and Irish in Northern Ireland is that, while pools of Italian and French speakers transmit their languages to their children, in Northern Ireland the ‘acquisition of the Irish language will continue to depend upon the educational system rather than intergenerational transmission within family units’.98 Irish-medium education is therefore helping cement the Catholic/Nationalist community by reviving a linguistic community that largely coincides with a denominational and national tradition. Thus, O’Duibh aptly qualifies Irish-medium as a ‘cultural immersion method’.99

A recent ministerial Review of Irish-Medium Education recommended future expansion of Irish-medium education through Irish-medium streams within English-language schools.100 Thus, O’Duibh reflects that the sector’s future expansion will depend on its ability to ‘normalise Irish-medium education ... [so that] it’s for all communities’: in a predominantly ‘loyalist’ school, ‘you may have to redefine the ethos of an Irish-medium school’.101

Future expansion of Irish-medium education also partly depends on DENI’s fulfilment of its statutory duties: in 2011, a high court decision criticised its performance, reiterating that the duty to facilitate Irish- medium education is not ‘merely aspirational’ but actually ‘intended to have practical consequences and legislative significance’.102 For example, the immersion method requires different curricular approaches from those appropriate to other educational sectors, but according to CnaG, the Irish-medium sector is rarely consulted before DENI’s decisions.103

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