Nigel Stapley says events this week demonstrate that the language still occupies a position of legal and constitutional inferiority
On the same day as ClickonWales published an upbeat account of this year’s National Eisteddfod earlier this week, we had a strong reminder of the continued inferiority of the language in terms of its legal and administrative status vis-à-vis non-devolved state bodies.
In March 2011, there was a brief occupation of the offices of a Tory MP in Cardiff in protest against a decision of the London government to hand control of the Welsh-language television channel S4C to the BBC. During the occupation, a political slogan was spray-painted on a wall.
In August of that same year, the painter of the slogan – 36-year-old school teacher Jamie Bevan of Merthyr Tudful – was convicted and handed a seven-day prison sentence along with a costs order of just over £1,000.
Despite asking several times for the costs order to be sent to him in Welsh, the Courts Service failed to do so. Mr Bevan received a number of apologies over this, but still the Courts Service failed to meet what was at least an ethical obligation upon it, if not strictly a legal one. Various officials of the Courts Service and associated bodies displayed attitudes and conduct which varied between the patronising and the confrontational throughout.
On a point of principle, Mr Bevan said that he would not meet the costs order unless his request was complied with. So, on 13 August – as I say, the very same day that Clickonwales celebrated the resurgence of Welshness at the Eisteddfod – Mr Bevan appeared before Merthyr Tudful Magistrates Court to explain why he hadn’t paid.
To add an extra flavour of condign insult, Mr Bevan had to have use of an interpreter, as that very same Courts Service had insisted on the hearing being held in English – despite, again, Mr Bevan asking for a hearing in Welsh. As with the documentation, it seems that there is no actual legal right for Welsh-speakers to have a hearing in our own language.
Instead of pointing out to the Courts Service that – whatever the letter of the law may say – it might be politic (or even simply a display of good manners) for them to provide the costs order and court hearing in Welsh, and adjourning the case until that was done, the magistrate instead sent Mr Bevan to prison for five weeks. By all accounts this has made him the first member of Cymdeithas Yr Iaith to be imprisoned for his actions for about thirty years. I don’t know which body employs him as a teacher, but past experience would imply that his employer may now try to dismiss him.
My point is this: there are far too many people – even those who are or who have been involved in campaigning on its behalf – who believe that all the key battles surrounding the legal status of the language and those who speak it were won long ago. They have not been, especially in relation to non-devolved state bodies and large private corporations.
When you maintain a language in a position of legal or constitutional inferiority, you maintain those who speak it in an inferior position as well. No amount of successful Eisteddfodau (and I speak as one who went to the Wrexham one last year – the first time it had come here since I became fluent – and had a very enjoyable time) will change that.