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'People see it as second grade': Debates continue on laws that could enable citizens to speak more Irish

The Official Languages (Amendment) Bill 2019 is currently before the Dáíl.

Image: Shutterstock/Remizov

THE OIREACHTAS IRISH language committee met again this week to continue debating a bill that seeks to strengthen Irish-speaking services across the country.

The Official Languages (Amendment) Bill 2019 aims to supplement legislation enacted in 2003 which formally placed the provision of State services in Irish on a statutory footing.

The bill was approved by Cabinet last October, following a commitment in the Programme for Government to empower Irish-speaking citizens and to allow those without fluency in Irish to feel confident enough to use the language on a regular basis.

Its arrival has been belated – changes to the 2003 Act were first mooted in 2011, but it was eight years before legislation got off the ground – and its passage comes as speakers continue to experience difficulties engaging with the State through Irish.

In 2019, An Coimisinéir Teanga, whose office monitors compliance by public bodies under the Official Languages Act, received over 700 complaints from members of the public.

They included complaints about broad policy failures, such as a local authority’s decision not to issue a language condition for a housing development in the Gaeltacht, to everyday problems like state bodies not recognising the síneadh fada in people’s names.

General Secretary of Conradh na Gaeilge Julian de Spáinn explains how Irish continues to be undermined by a lack of services, despite being the first language of the State.

“It’s very hard for somebody in the general public to know what level of Irish they can expect from a public body and how they can use Irish with them,” he tells TheJournal.ie.

“There is a huge gap in terms of what’s needed. Sometimes it’s just the simplest thing. I tried to get a passport form and I had to go to three Garda stations and a post office before I finally got to form in Irish.

“None of the people I spoke with could speak to me in Irish. Then the Passport Office told me I had the wrong form.

“Why would anybody try to spend extra time looking for something in Irish if that’s the level of service they get? It’s just not good enough.”

The proposed legislation is seeking to rectify some of these issues.

If passed, it would ensure that 20% of new recruits to the public service would be competent in Irish by the end of 2030, and would require public bodies to recognise the use of the síneadh fada where it is used in Irish-language names and addresses.

It would also establish a statutory Irish Languages Services Advisory Committee to increase and improve the provision of services in Irish throughout the country.

However, the bill has been criticised by speakers, language groups and officials for not going far enough to address problems with the status of Irish in the State.

In an annual report carried out by his office in 2019, An Coimisinéir Teanga Rónán Ó Domhnaill warned that the proposed legislation was, in some ways, not fit for purpose.

In particular, he noted that the bill contained no provisions to place a duty upon the State to ensure that those in the Gaeltacht should be well-served by services in Irish.

“I am of the opinion that the bill, as it currently stands, does not adequately address some of the most important issues relating to the provision of public services through Irish and protecting the language rights of the community,” Ó Domhnaill wrote.

TDs have sought to address these issues by tabling hundreds of new amendments that would strengthen the rights of citizens to use Irish.

Among the proposed changes to the bill are requirements for all public bodies to ensure that members of the public can communicate with them in Irish, and that workers in the Gaeltacht should have the right to conduct their work through Irish.

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One amendment seeks to ensure that consumers in the Gaeltacht could be served in Irish and to provide all those entitled to be educated in Ireland with the right to be taught in Irish.

Another seeks to re-introduce Irish as a requirement to qualify as a solicitor or barrister from 2025, and to make competence in Irish essential to be appointed as a Supreme Court judge.

But this too has led to more delays: a specific pledge by the Government that the bill would be enacted by the end of 2020 was not met after the Oireachtas was unable to process all of the amendments bilingually before then.

What’s more, the Oireachtas committee’s debates on these amendments can only take place during a two-hour window due to Covid-19 restrictions.

Only 45 of hundreds of proposed amendments have been debated over five sessions so far. The vast majority of these have been rejected by the government as being too costly.

Regardless, speakers believe the proposed legislation is a step forward and that despite delays, it is better late than never.

“It would do a lot for people being brought up through Irish or people just trying to function with it in the Gaeltacht, because they see the status of their language as second grade,” de Spáinn says.

“We see it as a good step forward. There is a lot of people out there, inside and outside of the Gaeltacht, who would like to use Irish more. And surely they should be able to do that within the State.”

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