Breaches in Irish language use identified

 

LANGUAGE RIGHTS should not be seen as an “optional extra” in the current economic climate, An Coimisinéir Teanga Séan Ó Cuirreáin has said.

The Irish language commissioner was commenting on his annual report, which found six Government departments, including the Department of Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs, to be in breach of legislation aimed at protecting and promoting Irish.

The Gaeltacht department is found to be in breach of its own statutory language scheme, in failing to ensure department interviews were held in Irish or in English in specific cases and in failing to ensure staff training in both languages. Six State agencies were also found to be at fault in the past year, according to the 2008 report which was published yesterday in Galway.

The report identifies a “significant increase” in the number of formal investigations handled by the commissioner’s office when informal dispute resolution attempts failed. Almost 600 complaints were filed by members of the public who had encountered difficulties in accessing State services through Irish during the year.

Other departments identified as at fault in specific instances included Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Social and Family Affairs, Justice, Equality and Law Reform, Education and Science, and Transport.

Defaulting agencies and State bodies included the Heritage Council, the Equality Authority, the Health Service Executive, Iarnród Éireann, the National Roads Authority and the Irish Research Council for the Humanities and Social Sciences.

“The breaches identified usually involved specific issues rather than non-compliance with statutory language obligations in general,” Mr Ó Cuirreáin said.

One third of complaints made to An Coimisinéir Teanga last year came from Gaeltacht areas. A regional breakdown shows 38 per cent of complaints coming from the Dublin area and 22 per cent from Co Galway.

Mr Ó Cuirreáin expressed concern that one aspect of the Official Languages Act was not being implemented smoothly. Three-year “language schemes” or statutory language plans had not been renewed by the end of 2008 in some 22 State organisations.

Legislation states that public bodies must continue to supply services through Irish, as per commitments in their first three-year language schemes. They are not obliged to further develop those services in any way in the absence of a new language scheme.

“I was concerned that there was a danger that the whole project could lose its momentum, something that could potentially be a very serious blow,”Mr Ó Cuirréain said.

Minister for Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs Éamon Ó Cuív had assured the commissioner that he and his department were as committed as ever to the implementation of the provisions of the act.

In the current economic climate, “sensible approaches” to providing services bilingually could be provided, Mr Ó Cuirreáin said.

However, support required for the Irish language should not or could not be perceived as an optional extra, he said.

“Language rights are permanent rights; they are not concessions or privileges granted during affluent times and are as fundamental as the right to free speech or the right to privacy,” he said.

Case studies

Investigations by the Irish language commissioner last year included:

- The practice of actively removing every síneadh fada from the names and addresses of newborn children being registered for child benefit payments was found to be in breach of a commitment in the Department of Social and Family Affairs’s statutory language scheme.

- An investigation of a complaint from the principal of an Irish language school found that a provision of the Education Act 1998 was breached by the Department of Education and Science in providing guidelines for teachers in 34 Junior and Leaving Certificate subjects in English only.

- Three breaches of language legislation were identified in separate investigations of the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government. Two of the investigations involved failures to comply with the simultaneous publication in Irish and in English of key documents. The third investigation involved the failure to maintain a bilingual website for the National Parks and Wildlife Service.

- An investigation found that the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform had failed to comply with its statutory obligation in the development of the Irish language content of its website.