Language Locked Out by Indifference
Resistance to the dark clouds of government indifference which are crushing the Welsh language swept into Aberystwyth on yesterday’s gusty winter winds. Supporters of Cymdeithas yr Iaith Gymraeg, the Welsh Language Society, fear the consequences if Welsh continues to be ignored in the corridors of power. To make the point, they staged a ‘Locked Out’ rally outside the closed gates of the Welsh Government building, alongside the Vale of Rheidol railway.
Even though it was a prime Christmas shopping day, more than 100 turned out to protest, closely watched by seven police officers who had no need to deploy their handcuffs. Protesters were of all ages –students, families, pensioners – and oh so reasonable. Maybe too reasonable in the recent past – there comes a time, in a world ever more raucous, when a quiet defence of principles is not enough, because it is drowned out.
Padlocked to the fence separating the Welsh Government building from the rally were messages to the politicians – messages stressing the measures which need to be taken to reverse the destruction of Welsh-speaking communities. Protesters wrote their messages, padlocked them to the fence, and threw the keys into a bucket in the care of Cymdeithas yr Iaith.
Well to the fore were students living in the Pantycelyn hall of residence at Aberystwyth University. Pantycelyn is the only Welsh-speaking hall in Aberystwyth, and the university plans to close it. There is little loyalty in national or local government to the legacy of Pantycelyn, the farm near Llandovery where Methodist leader William Williams lived: Pantycelyn Comprehensive School in Llandovery has already lost its name – it is now a campus of Ysgol Bro Dinefwr – and the education authority wants to demolish it and build an estate of houses on the site.
Houses. On the way in to Aberystwyth there is a new estate with houses advertised as from £258,000. People on typical local wages cannot afford prices such as these, but the houses should appeal to incomers wanting to release capital from homes in more expensive regions, such as South East England.
Recent planning decisions in Wales prove that Technical Advice Note (TAN) 20, about taking impact on the Welsh language into account when planning applications are being considered, is merely a sequence of words. Carmarthenshire county councillor Alun Lenny, who campaigns against new housing estates in locations such as Penybanc, Ammanford, where the impact on the Welsh-speaking community would be disastrous, said that while new housing estates are allowed, often local people are refused permission to build a home or start or expand a business in their own communities. “Nid yw iaith yn marw’n naturiol. Ffactorau allanol sy’n ei lladd,” he told the rally. “The language is not dying of its own accord. External factors are killing it.”
These external factors have been highlighted in several previous posts on this blog: the closure of schools in villages and small towns, damaging communities; the consequent imposition of long, tiring daily journeys on children; the refusal of many people in key positions of authority regularly to use the language, or even to learn it; the anti-democratic system of local government itself, with councillors routinely denied information they need to make fully informed decisions because officers (who thereby hold the trump cards) cite data protection, or commercial sensitivity.
Cymdeithas yr Iaith Gymraeg is campaigning for new planning policies to be applied across Wales, notably a new planning act to allow development applications to be refused if they would damage Welsh-speaking communities, language impact assessments to be compulsory for development applications above a specific size threshold, preference to be given to local people, and a Planning Tribunal for Wales to consider appeals, whether from communities or individuals.
Also padlocked to the fence were demands for Welsh to be a core consideration in future, sustainable economic development, for Welsh speakers to have clearer language rights, for the language to receive a fairer share of the government’s financial resources, for public services to be available in Welsh, and for all children to be taught Welsh to first-language standard (as with English in Scandinavian countries like Denmark, where so many people can switch seamlessly between languages).
Rousing speeches there were aplenty, from Toni Schiavone, Cymdeithas yr Iaith’s communities spokesperson, Mared Ifan, Welsh affairs president of the Aberystwyth students’ union, poet Ieuan Wyn, Hilary Paterson-Jones of the ‘Save Penrhos’ campaign on Anglesey, and several more. Carl Morris made the point about all children needing first-language fluency. Richard Vale spoke about the importance of Welsh-for-adults courses, so that everyone working in the community would be able to communicate with Welsh-speakers in Welsh. Unfortunately, the Welsh Government has just cut the Welsh for adults budget by 8%, or £1 in every £12.50.
Coincidentally, there was strong public support for cutting resources for Welsh when Carmarthenshire County Council held a budget seminar earlier this month: Carmarthenshire is a language heartland now under intense linguistic stress.
Across Wales the number of communities where at least 70% of people speak Welsh has slumped from 92 in 1991 to 39 in 2011. At this precipitous rate of decline, in another 20 years Welsh would be little more than a cultural relict. Statements of good intent mean nothing without resolve, and resources to back that resolve. We agonise when chimpanzees, or whales, or rain forests are threatened, so why have we been so passive in the face of assaults on the prime expression of a unique culture – its language?
Yesterday’s rally started with the South African national anthem, in memory of Nelson Mandela. It closed with ‘Mae hen wlad fy nhadau yn annwyl i mi’. Having locked their messages to the fence, the crowd dispersed quietly. Maybe several will be watching the funeral in South Africa today.