Garda Commissioner to face questions over lowering Irish language requirement

Drew Harris to come before Oireachtas committee due to recruitment changes

Garda Commissioner Drew Harris will face questions from an Oireachtas committee on Wednesday about the decision to lower Irish standards in An Garda Síochána, which has been criticised by Irish language campaigners.

Until late last year, Garda trainees had to be proficient in two languages, one of which had to be English or Irish, but this was dropped last December by the Department of Justice since it could be “a barrier to more diverse recruitment”.

The change would "remove any potential disadvantage for people not born in Ireland who do not have any experience with the Irish language", the department said then.

Meanwhile, gardaí seeking promotion to sergeant and inspector rank no longer have to pass an oral Irish examination, leading language campaigners to complain that Irish is being further downgraded.

Last May, the commissioner appeared before the Oireachtas Committee on the Irish Language, Gaeltacht and the Irish-speaking Community, following criticisms about the service provided to Irish speakers in Gaeltacht areas.

“We were promised the ‘divil and all’ including a new Irish language plan from An Garda Síochána,” the chairman of the committee, Sinn Féin Dublin South Central TD Aengus Ó Snodaigh told The Irish Times.

“Yet there was no mention of the reversal of the requirement for Irish for sergeants or of the fact that they were getting rid of Irish altogether as a requirement for people to join An Garda Síochána,” he declared.

The commissioner will be joined before the committee by Bob Collins, the chairman of the Policing Authority, Shirley Comerford, chief executive of the Public Appointments Service and an official from the Department of Justice.

Members of the committee want to know why “no mention of the fact that there was an intention or even a discussion taking place around changing the Irish language criteria in any shape or form” was made, said Mr Ó Snodaigh.

“If they had discussed it with us at the time we could have played a role, or could have encouraged others to play a role in that discussion but there was no mention of it,” he complained.

Speaking this week, Conradh na Gaeilge’s Julian de Spáinn warned that the recent changes would have a detrimental effect on the force’s ability to provide a service in Gaeltacht areas.

Measures to safeguard specific linguistic needs, while also allowing for diversity are needed, he said, but he would not support change that would affect the gardaí’s ability to provide “service in Irish to the Irish-speaking community”.

The “outright” abolition of measures there to ensure the gardaí can deal in Irish with Irish speakers “lets this community down and will lead to an increase of language rights violations by the State”, he added.

Last April, An Coimisinéir Teanga, Rónán Ó Domhnaill, made the second only complaint to the Houses of the Oireachtas about the Garda's failure to address the low number of Irish-speaking gardaí stationed in the Gaeltacht.

He began an investigation after a Donegal Gaeltacht man could not conduct his business in Irish in the An Bun Beag/Na Doirí Beaga Garda station in 2010. Just one in nine of its officers could carry out duties with ease in Irish.

The failure was a breach of the Garda Síochána Act, which says the Garda Commissioner shall, to the extent practicable, ensure that gardaí stationed in Gaeltacht areas are sufficiently competent in Irish, said Mr Ó Domhnaill.

Éanna Ó Caollaí

Éanna Ó Caollaí

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