Citizenship to involve language test

 

Immigrants who want to become Irish citizens will have to reach a minimum standard in English under proposals being drawn up by the Government.

Legislation to be published next month will allow for the introduction of a language test for citizenship under which applicants must demonstrate "reasonable competence" for communicating in English or Irish.

At present migrants can apply for citizenship if they have been living here for five years. There is no language requirement, although applicants must be of "good character" and pledge fidelity to the State.

Minister for Justice Brian Lenihan says citizenship should not just be a matter of "clocking up the necessary number of months for residence". Instead, he argues that citizenship applicants should have the ability to communicate with their prospective fellow citizens.

While provision for the introduction of the test is due to be included in the Immigration, Residence and Protection Bill, it may be some time before the tests are introduced.

Mr Lenihan says there are significant logistical issues which remain to be addressed, such as how the testing regime will operate.

Officials are awaiting a Government-commissioned study on the capacity of the education system for teaching English to foreign nationals, as well as a new national training policy, before publishing detailed proposals about the tests.

Groups such as the Immigrant Council of Ireland have called on authorities to make sure there is sufficient capacity in the education system for teaching English.

The council's chairman John Cunningham said: "If the Government were to make competency in English a requirement for long-term residency or citizenship, it has an obligation to ensure there are enough courses available to allow migrants with limited language skills the opportunity to learn."

The group suggested the Government should establish a central agency to tender out a wide range of courses - from those for people with little or no English through to introductory courses for those who would benefit from learning more about Irish society.

In the UK, language tests for citizens have been in place for some time. Applicants are obliged to read and write to a certain standard, and also speak and understand English in a variety of formal and informal situations. A "Life in the UK" test is also included, in which applicants must show a basic knowledge of national culture.

The tests in the UK are also being expanded to include long-term immigrants who do not go on to become British citizens. Those who can afford language lessons are expected to pay for their classes, although a number of free English courses are also available.

Another issue facing the Government is a backlog in citizenship applications. At present, it can take several years for an application to be processed.