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The conversation circle being disrupted by police in Berlin.
Speech restrictions

Activists in Berlin told to stop speaking Irish at Palestine solidarity event at Reichstag Building

The group said it was “immediately confronted” by police when the event began.

A GROUP OF Irish-language activists say they were told by German police in Berlin to stop speaking and singing in Irish while they held a pro-Palestinian event last Friday. 

The Irish Bloc Berlin group had set up outside the Reichstag Building, where Germany’s parliament sits, and were singing and chanting as Gaeilge when police approached them and told the group of around 40 people that it was illegal to speak languages other than German and English at protests.

The group maintains the event was not a demonstration, describing it as “an evening of Irish song and conversation”.

“The given reason for this unjust disruption was the lack of a registered Irish language interpreter, despite Irish being an official EU language,” the group said in a statement.

“This action interferes with our fundamental rights as European citizens to assemble and speak our native language. It is also a clear contravention of German and EU law.”

As the event began, the group said it was “immediately confronted by police who demanded the removal of any Irish-language banners or flags, citing their potential political significance”.

The group said that the speaking of Arabic has been “significantly repressed” in Berlin, “with certain Arabic words and slogans banned, and protesters being intimidated, recorded, and even arrested for speaking Arabic without an interpreter present”.

Irish Bloc said that one of the purposes of the event was “to highlight the contrast in police responses to us as a predominantly white Irish group versus the harsher treatment of Arabic speakers”.

“We are painfully aware that were we not predominantly a white-Irish group, this situation would most likely have unfolded very differently.”

Conradh na Gaeilge said in a post on X (Twitter) that the organisation “believes that there should be an immediate and permanent ceasefire in Palestine and don’t see any reason people should not advocate for this as Gaeilge”.

“We can see no reason why anyone should be compelled to use only German or English while attending a Palestine solidarity protest in Germany,” it said.

Irish Bloc said that police told them they could not sit together at the protest camp outside the Reichstag Building, so they divided into smaller groups.

“Each group encountered varying levels of police interference, and some members struggled to understand instructions given only in German,” the statement read.

“Our translators faced significant challenges in keeping everyone informed, exacerbated by further enforced fragmentation by the police.”

Eventually, the group left the area and were then followed by police for some hours. 

“We as Irish people are all too familiar with having our language oppressed. This understanding motivated us to express solidarity at the Bundestag protest camp, a place where languages are unjustly repressed and prohibited by an omnipresent and aggressive police force,” the group said. 

Berlin police told the Irish Independent that there are restrictions on public speech “in that speeches can only be made in German and English and at certain times also in Arabic, and that no exclamations or chants may be made in Hebrew or Gaelic”.

“This was also the case on Friday. This requirement is always communicated to the people leading the assembly by the police,” a police spokesperson said.

“The assembly leaders must ensure that these requirements are implemented and that all participants adhere to them. Otherwise, it is a violation of the Berlin Freedom of Assembly Act and an administrative offense.

“The background to the requirement is that a police forecast/assessment for the assembly has shown that there could be speeches or chants glorifying violence with potentially punishable content during the assembly and the police must of course be able to understand them in order to be able to punish them and initiate appropriate investigative proceedings.

“For most languages, this is only possible with interpreters – and if none are available, appropriate conditions can be imposed in advance.

“In principle, the Berlin police must always have a certain lead time to be able to request such police-approved interpreters, as they are not available for all languages at all times,” they added.

German police have previously been criticised for actions taken against pro-Palestine groups, with allegations that they have disrupted protests, arrested activists and even banned former Greek finance minister Yanis Varoufakis from entering the country after publishing a speech he intended to give at an event.

Varoufakis said that he was stopped from speaking on Friday, 12 April “because German police burst into our Berlin venue to disband our Palestine Congress (1930s style) before I could address the meeting”.

“Because I dared publish this speech here, the Ministry of Interior issued a ‘Betätigungsverbot’ against me, a ban on any political activity. Not just a ban on visiting Germany but also from participation via Zoom.”

Germany, where memories of the Holocaust inform foreign policy and restrictions on speech, is the second largest supplier of arms to Israel after the United States. 

Not long after the attacks against Israel on 7 October last year, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz said: “German history and our responsibility arising from the Holocaust make it our duty to stand up for the existence and security of the State of Israel.” 

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