Bill to guarantee Irish speakers’ rights set to become law

One-fifth of new recruits to the civil service will have to be proficient in Irish from 2030

Legislation guaranteeing the linguistic rights of Irish speakers, including a requirement that obliges the State to correctly record names in Irish, has passed the final stage of the legislative process before becoming law.

Following extensive consultation and debate the Official Languages (Amendment) Bill passed through the Dáil on Wednesday, a week after passing its final stage in the Seanad, and some 10 years after it was first proposed.

The Bill, which is an update to the Official Languages Act 2003, contains a series of provisions aimed at strengthening the rights of Irish speakers when interacting with the State.

The legislation is the latest attempt to address what campaigners say is a decades-long failure by the State to ensure equal rights and status for members of the Irish language community.

READ MORE

The most significant provision under the updated legislation will see an increase in the number of staff employed by public bodies who are proficient in Irish.

The legislation sets a date of December 31st, 2030, by which time at least 20 per cent of staff recruited to public bodies will be proficient in the first official language.

Another measure states services will be provided through Irish in the Gaeltacht, and although no deadlines have been mentioned for this measure it is intended public offices in Gaeltacht areas will operate through the medium of Irish .

Spelling

Irish names with letters featuring the síneadh fada have often appeared in State correspondence with badly corrupted spellings, or with an incorrect spelling where diacritical marks denoting pronunciation or meaning are omitted entirely.

Online computer forms often reject the correct spelling of names and addresses, leaving citizens unable to register their details in the correct spelling.

Under the new legislation, public bodies will be obliged by law to record the correct spelling of names and addresses, and will be required to ensure computer systems used in communications with the public are configured to accept the síneadh fada.

Another measure will require that at least 20 per cent of any advertising placed by a public body in any year shall be in the Irish language, and at least 5 per cent shall be placed in Irish language media.

The names and logos of newly established statutory bodies will be in Irish and text that forms part of a logo of a statutory body will be in Irish or in both Irish and English.

When text appears in both languages, the part of the text that is in Irish will appear before the part of the text that is in English and it will not be in a smaller font, or less prominent, visible or legible than the part that is in English.

An advisory committee is to be established within six months after the passing of the act to oversee a new national plan for the provision of Irish language services.

The committee will be tasked with advising public bodies on the provision of services through Irish, and will provide advice on the number and grade of staff who required to do so. The committee will also carry out a survey every five years on the level of competence in the Irish language of staff of public bodies.

State record

The Official Languages Act was signed into law in July 2003 after being introduced by the-then minister for community, rural and gaeltacht affairs Éamon Ó Cuív.

It set out the duties of government departments and other State agencies to provide public services through Irish, and was the first time that this was placed on a statutory footing.

The act was largely welcomed by the Irish language community, but an absence of sanctions led to the widespread failure of State agencies to fully meet the provisions outlined in the legislation.

In December 2013, the-then coimisinéir teanga (language commissioner) Seán Ó Cuirreáin, whose office was established as an ombudsman’s service to ensure compliance with the act, resigned over the failure by government to implement the legislation.

The absence of staff with competence in both official languages across the civil service was cited by Mr Ó Cuirreáin as one of the main obstacles to the delivery of services in Irish.

At the time, Mr Ó Cuirreáin said he believed the State was quickly moving towards a situation where the use of English would become compulsory for citizens wishing to interact with public bodies.

A debate on reviewing the Official Languages Act had already begun at that stage, but the intervening years saw little improvement in the provision of public services in Irish.

Earlier this year, current Coimisinéir Teanga Rónán Ó Domhnaill lodged a report with both Houses of the Oireachtas highlighting the failure of an Garda Síochána to satisfactorily address the low number of Irish-speaking gardaí stationed in the Gaeltacht.

The force was found to be in breach of a statutory commitment made under the Official Languages Act, which requires members of the force stationed in Gaeltacht areas to have the necessary qualifications in Irish.

A decision made this week at Cabinet to change the language requirements will see Irish dropped as an option for new recruits to the force.

Until 2005 those joining the Garda had to have some proficiency in Irish, and this week’s decision means a requirement for prospective recruits to be proficient in either one of the State’s two official languages, Irish or English, will now no longer apply. What that will mean for the Official Languages Act and the provision of policing services to citizens in Irish-speaking Gaeltacht areas remains to be seen.

Éanna Ó Caollaí

Éanna Ó Caollaí

Éanna Ó Caollaí is an Irish Times journalist and editor of the Irish Times Student Hub