The position of Irish in the school curriculum is central to the larger question of whether the state - and by extension this nation - ought to preserve or promote the first official tongue. The cause of the language is very dear to my own heart, and therefore I feel very strongly that this is an important issue.
Everyone knows that Irish language policy has been very flawed down the years - though some remarkable changes have taken place over the last 15 years or so. We know too that there have been chronic failures in how the language has been taught. I recall studying 16th century poetry in a class where no student had the ability to order a train ticket in Irish. Some of these failures have been corrected in part in recent years; for example, by making the curriculum more relevant and emphasizing communication over literature.
Given the known and perceived failures it is tempting to reject current policy in its entirety. This would be a mistake. If the Irish language - still declining in the Gaeltacht - has any hope of survival as a spoken tongue, it is by virtue of the latent but widespread support that it enjoys among the general population.
It is true that among those who look favourably upon the language, most never succeed in mustering the effort required to learn to speak it. The reasons for that are complex, but the fact remains that passive support among the public is a crucial buttress without which the whole edifice of recent language policy would collapse.
Compulsory Irish, I believe, has been a key factor in maintaining a thin but very widespread knowledge of the language among the general population. It makes the vast bulk of the population at least moderately familiar with the language. People may not have enjoyed their experience with Irish in the classroom (one hopes that this can be continuously improved upon for future generations), but, more often than not, they come away wishing the system had served them better and that they had learned more not less of the native tongue.
When people who struggle with the language are given the option, they will opt out, and the result will be an evaporation of the crucial familiarity with Irish. The result will be alienation from the language. It is easy to see how, over a period of time, this would lead to a drastic drop in support for government sponsored revival efforts.
That people retain a mere 'cúpla focal' after years of schooling is an indictment that the system has failed to create competent speakers. Yet dispensing with this thin base entirely would be devastating.
The Fine Gael attempt to make Irish optional is a political ploy - designed to portray a party ready to take radical steps to inject impetus into fresh policies. In reality their proposal is a populist proposal, designed to capitalise on the widespread negative view, not of the language itself, but of how it was taught in school.
I would urge those who support the goal of preserving Irish not to fall for this ploy.
It is worth noting the Welsh have increased their compulsory requirement. From the early 90s it was compulsory to study Welsh to age 14 and in 1999 that was increased to 16. Welsh preservation and even revival efforts have been seen as more successful than ours. We should certainly keep an eye on developments there, though I would accept that each situation is different.
One thing is to be welcomed. Over recent years the debate on the Irish language has been increasingly informed by expert opinion in the field of socio-linguistics. Indeed this has brought a dose of reality to the question of Irish survival prospects that was previously absent. It has also highlighted with greater accuracy than before, that the language is indeed in a very perilous position. The state of the language is now so fragile - despite popular views to the contrary - that a major step in the wrong direction could wipe it out quickly and everywhere as a community tongue.
So the status of Irish in school should not be an object of experiment or political gaming. Instead it should be seen as an essential component of a survival strategy for a language which now needs very careful nurturing if it is to survive.