Local leader fights for right for employees to remain ignorant

Henry Reilly

One sometimes wonders if parochial politicians realize how narrow they appear when they express close-minded views, or if it’s actually their goal to put forth that perception in the first place.

Henry Reilly, a councillor representing the Mourne area  in County Down on a local council in Northern Ireland, recently wrote a letter to a local publication complaining that area workers employed by the same council were being queried about their Irish language skills.

“Workers are being asked if they have an Irish language qualification, how competent they are in Irish, if they would be willing to deal with enquiries from the public in Irish and if they would be willing to take a course in Irish. Staff are even asked if they would like to take such a course during working hours!” Reilly wrote to the News Letter.

Reilly added that council staff members who had contacted him expressed concern that their lack of knowledge of Irish or interest in learning Irish could harm their promotion prospects.

“It is clear to me that the implication of the audit is that having Irish will be a distinct advantage when working for the council,” he added. “This is wrong and discriminatory against the Protestant community.”

So here we have a government entity which, as part of its responsibility to serve its citizenry, seeks to assess the Irish-speaking capabilities of its employees. Understanding that not all employees may be able to speak Irish, it asks if they would be interested in taking a course in the language during working hours.

The council is willing to pay to enable employees to learn another language, to help them better serve the populace. But an elected official finds fault with that. Not because of the potential cost, or because it would potentially leave the council staff shorthanded during working hours, but because it somehow discriminates against the Protestant community.

As I noted when I first learned of this on the blog An Sionnach Fionn, I wish someone would pay me to learn a second language.

The only thing that’s seems unfair is that the people of Mourne find themselves represented by an ignorant ass who is either kowtowing to a handful of bigots who don’t want to learn Irish because they see it as the language of Catholics, or is grandstanding in a bid to lock up votes for the next election.

I don’t know what the threshold should be for having civil staff learn different languages to serve a polyglot population, but clearly there are many regions that would benefit from having some understanding of the language(s) of those they serve, whether it’s Irish in Northern Ireland, Spanish in parts of the United States, French in parts of Canada, etc., etc.

Public service isn’t about bending the job to the employee’s whims, but adapting to what the populace needs, when possible.

If Reilly has his way, services that could be better provided by a staff at least somewhat conversant in Irish would either go undelivered, or be delivered in a decidedly less efficient manner. Either way, some of Reilly’s constitutents would lose – but he’d rather pander than serve all of the public.

(Top: Henry Reilly, councillor on the Newry, Mourne and Down District Council representing the Mourne area.)

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8 thoughts on “Local leader fights for right for employees to remain ignorant

  1. Uf. Political hot potato or what? Interestingly I’ve got a draft post on worker’s rights, but it’s just the usual boring keep the workers down, pay them under minimum wage, don’t give them any rights at all sort of stuff. Nothing exciting.

    Interesting to me, living in a country where the official language in English, and the local language is llanito (spanish + others), and most people are bilingual to varying extents.

    And I agree, get paid to learn another language? Yeah. I’d be up for that. But I’m missing something. County Down is in Northern Ireland which is part of the UK. The official language of the UK is English.

    Some 65,000 speak Irish in NI, out of a population of 1.8m.

    Between 16,000 and 140,000 have some degree of Ulster Scots, including people in parts of north County Down. As both Irish and Ulster Scots are accepted regional languages then surely both should be offered?

    But not compulsory. At a quick search, I can’t find how many (NI) people in County Down don’t speak English. Do you have the figures?

    • I don’t know how many speak Irish or Scottish in County Down, unfortunately. My impression was that there is a segment of the population that speaks Irish and the council wants to see if it can better serve those individuals. To do so, it issued a survey trying to get an idea of what level of competency in Irish council employees possessed and if employees would be interested (willing?) to learn the language. Clearly, they shouldn’t make knowledge of Irish mandatory for employment, but it seems ridiculous to assert, as Henry Reilly does, that trying to assess Irish proficiency represents discrimination against Protestants.

      • Ulster Scots, it’s different. In fact the Irish spoken in NI is different, and based primarily on Donegal Irish in the west. County Down was one of the first areas where it died out. In Co Down, the biggest concentration of Irish speakers is in Newry, then Mourne, then Down, ie the above supra-district council mentioned. I can see that councils are – hopefully – trying to depoliticise it, but I can equally see why Protestants are concerned, and given that Catholics are more likely to be the ones speaking Irish, they could well sense duscrimination, even if that isn’t the intention. Who knows? People have long memories and The Troubles aren’t so long ago.
        However we aren’t talking about minority immigrants here who can’t speak English. These are people who have spoken English for hundreds of years. (Somewhat like Gibraltar) The issue will still be the fear of the republican element creeping back, which is why it’s not directly comparable to the parallel in the blog you linked to.

    • English is the default language of the UK, not an official one. The only language with official status in the UK is Welsh. The other indigenous Celtic languages, Scottish Gaelic (or simply, Scottish) and Cornish, have no official status though the former has some protection under the law.

      Irish is the native language of the island of Ireland, as well as the national and first official language of the nation state of Ireland, therefore it is of special significance to many in the Irish nationalist community in the UK-administered north-east of the country (the North of Ireland or the Six Counties). It is part of their national identity and broader Irish citizenship.

      The political leadership of the British unionist minority in Ireland, specifically in the north-east, oppose it for the very same reasons. For many this is a manifestation of a centuries old “settler versus native” struggle between the unionist and nationalist communities on the island. Unionists identify with the former, nationalists with the latter. Though as we can see with councillor Reilly, an anglicised form of the indigenous Irish surname Ó Raghallaigh, such distinctions rarely stand up to close scrutiny.

      Unionists are waging the same type of “culture war” in the north of Ireland that we have seen fought out in the southern United States, and with some of the same ethnic, racial, religious and socio-economic dynamics. It is no coincidence that both regions have produced their conservative “flagger” movements, using many of the same arguments and justifications for their prejudices or sentiments.

  2. “but he’d rather pander than serve all of the public.”

    Pretty much sums up our entire legislature and governor…

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