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Monday 6 February 2023 Dublin: 6°C
AnCatDubh via WikiCommons
Given the significant gap that currently exists in the translation of Bunreacht na hÉireann, there is a good reason to pass this second referendum.

OUR NATIONAL LANGUAGE, Irish, is the first official language of our state. Although most daily business in this country is done through English, Irish has a special place, not only in our hearts and culture, but in our laws and constitution.

For that reason, Bunreacht na hÉireann, the Constitution of Ireland, and the laws of Ireland, are written in both Irish and English, in that order, at least in theory. The Constitution provides that, in case of a conflict between the Irish and English versions of the Constitution or a law, “the text in the national language shall prevail”.

That said, in real terms, the Constitution was drafted in English and then translated into Irish. During the Dáil debate on the new draft constitution, in 1937, W.T. Cosgrave said that it was “contrary to common sense that an imperfect translation … should be made the authoritative version for the courts.”

Although there are many places in the Constitution where the Irish and English versions diverge, most differences are technical and few have caused any difficulty. For example, the Constitution prohibits judges from becoming members of the Oireachtas, but it would appear from the Irish text that, while a judge could stand for election to the Oireachtas, he or she could not take his or her seat if elected, whereas the English text, seems to prohibit a judge from standing for election at all. A semantic difference if ever there were one.

A much bigger – and more important – difference

However, in the context of the referendum due to take place on the 22nd of May, to lower the minimum age for candidacy for the Presidency, there is a much bigger, and more important, difference between the two texts: essentially, the Irish text says you have to be 35, but the English text says 34 is enough.

Article 12.4.1° provides, in English, that “Every citizen who has reached his thirty-fifth year of age is eligible for election to the office of President.” But, in Irish, it states “Gach saoránach ag a bhfuil cúig bliana tríochad slán, is intofa chun oifig an Uachtaráin é”, which literally translates as “Every citizen who has completed/reached thirty five years, (he) is electable to the office of (the) President.”

So, the English says candidates must have reached their “thirty-fifth year” to run for President, which they would do on their thirty-fourth birthday, while the Irish text requires them to have completed thirty five years, which they would not do until their thirty-fifth birthday.

Bridging the gap

The proposed change to this article will bridge the gap between the Irish and English versions of our Constitution.

The people are being asked to amend the Constitution so that, in English, it reads “Every citizen who has reached the age of twenty-one years is eligible for election to the office of President.” In Irish, it will read “Is intofa chun oifig an Uachtaráin gach saoránach ag a bhfuil bliain agus fiche slán”, which corresponds exactly to the English version, or to which the English version corresponds exactly, depending on your point of view.

In the heated debate surrounding the marriage equality debate, many have overlooked this second referendum. Given the gap that currently exists in the translation of Bunreacht na hÉireann, maybe there is a good and important reason to pass this second referendum, beyond what the amendment itself seeks to achieve.

Barry Ward is a practising barrister and former legal adviser to Enda Kenny. Elected to Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council in 2009, he now chairs the Council’s new Economic Development & Enterprise Strategic Policy Committee and the Joint S2S Committee, the first such committee set up with Dublin City Council to examine the Sutton to Sandycove Coastal Promenade & Cycleway.

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