As an Irish speaker, viewer, and former board member of TG4, I am extremely disappointed by the broadcaster’s apparent decision not to convene a candidates’ debate as Gaeilge during the current presidential campaign.
As two out of the six candidates are fluent in Irish, Liadh Ní Riada of Sinn Féin and President Higgins himself, it seems unfair to these two aspirants that a debate would not be held in which all six candidates could demonstrate their avowed commitment to the language to viewers.
My enthusiasm for a debate in the Irish language, Ireland’s official language according to our Constitution, is not to be put down exclusively to my zeal to promote the language.
In his role as protector of the Constitution, Uachtarán na hÉireann is empowered not to immediately sign into a law a bill referred to him by the Dáil and the Seanad.
He can refer it to the Supreme Court to test its constitutionality.
He or she may need to take advice on the meaning of the bill and to do so, he should consult the Irish version, which is the authoritative version according to our Constitution.
Legal and language expertise may be required in those cases.
Obviously Uachtarán na hÉireann can call on such expertise but it should also be expected of the office-holder to possess a basic competency in the language, that which would be required to participate in a public debate, in order to recognise the language of the bill as Gaeilge may differ, however slightly, to the English version.
It seems on this occasion that at least four of the candidates for Uachtarán na hÉireann might not have such competency in the language.
There is no doubting that there are many other citizens out there and they are similarly not fluent in Irish.
However, they are not running for election as Uachtarán na hÉireann.
There is another reason why it is regrettable that there will be no debate as Gaeilge involving all the candidates on this occasion.
Uachtarán na hÉireann symbolises Ireland in lots of ways and the office holder offers symbolic leadership in nurturing our national values.
It seems to me that the approach of Seán Gallagher, Peter Casey, Gavin Duffy, and Joan Freeman, in promising to learn Irish if elected, is lacking in that leadership I expect from my president, as if their commitment to leading the Irish nation and all that entails is somehow conditional.
I also abhor how the default position in these circumstances seems to be to put the Irish language requirement to one side and resort to the easy option of English only.
It certainly runs counter to my experience of the generous spirit and enthusiasm around the Irish language north and south at present, among young and old, Catholic, Protestant, and dissenter.