By JOHN ROSS (SCOTSMAN On-line 6-3-99)
HOPES that Gaelic would be given legal status by one of the first acts of the Scottish parliament appeared to have been dashed yesterday. Activists seeking to secure the future of the language into the next millennium were optimistic that a Gaelic language bill would be among the first eight pieces of legislation passed by the parliament.
The expectation was heightened when Alasdair Morrison, the minister for Gaelic, agreed to make the annual Gaelic congress next week his first public engagement. It was hoped he would announce details of the bill. However the expectations were dashed when a Scottish Office spokesman said yesterday that the Gaelic bill was not in the first round of legislation.
Proposals drawn up by Comunn na Gaidhlig (CNAG), the Gaelic development agency, are being considered carefully but not enough progress has been made to earn its inclusion in the first batch of bills.
The news was a disappointment for Allan Campbell, the chief executive of CNAG, who felt a Gaelic bill would be a significant step for the parliament. "If its not in the first batch of legislation I am disappointed, but I certainly hope it will be coming forward in the second lot of legislation.
"Gaelic is so much part of the whole culture and profile of Scotland and it would have been a very powerful message. Itıs a disappointing decision because it was one of those things the politicians were agreeing on and it made sense to go ahead with.
"Of course, the fact that it is not in the first eight doesnıt mean that it is not number nine." He said proposals for a draft bill, to be presented to Mr Morrison, will still be the focal point of the congress in Portree on Tuesday. "It is one of our key priorities because everything else, all our plans for Gaelic, hinge on that." He said the four main political parties agree on the case for secure status, with all but the Conservatives pledging support for legislation in their manifestos.
"We believe that Gaelic is so fundamental to the Scottish identity that it would be an excellent choice for early legislation in the Scottish parliament. But it is still in the manifestos and we look forward to it being delivered."
Mr Campbell said CNAG recently published a five-year development plan for Gaelic and the anticipation of moves towards secure status means there is increasing optimism about the future of the language.
He said the fact the new parliament had bilingual signs was a significant step forward and secure status would be a "real milestone for the millennium".
Rob Dunbar, a lecturer at Glasgow Universityıs law school and the chairman of CNAGıs working group on secure status, said the first proposals on secure status were presented to the Scottish Office in 1997. "We have to talk to the new minister because it is in his hands, but I believe it is something the government can move on quickly."
The need for secure status, in line with the Welsh language, is seen as fundamental to Gaelicıs future. While government money for Gaelic broadcasting is legally safeguarded, there is no legislative protection for other aspects, including Gaelic medium education.
With no statutory obligation to provide the service, it is feared cash-strapped local authorities may cut back on Gaelic services and stifle the languageıs renaissance.
After several centuries of neglect, the last 20 years has seen a dramatic revival for the language. There are about 70,000 Gaelic speakers in Scotland, with 8,000 learners and some 2,200 pupils being taught Gaelic in 70 state schools, as well as 500 people working in Gaelic broadcasting. In addition, one million people a fifth of the Scottish population want to learn the language and up to two million watch Gaelic programmes.
However, 40 per cent of pre-school pupils do not continue with Gaelic medium education in primary schools, and less than half those at primary level progress to secondary level, with a lack of qualified teachers the main problem.
Proposals on secure status envisage making councils obliged to make Gaelic medium education available where demand exists and allow people to give evidence in Gaelic in courts and tribunals.