Stronger Irish-language legislation needed, says ombudsman

Urgent information less likely to be published in Irish, An Coimisinéir Teanga finds

Bodies with an obligation to publish in both languages cited the health emergency as a reason for not doing so. Photograph: Alan Betson

Bodies with an obligation to publish in both languages cited the health emergency as a reason for not doing so. Photograph: Alan Betson

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The more urgent and important public information and services are, the less likely they are to be published by public bodies in Irish, An Coimisinéir Teanga Rónán Ó Domhnaill has said following publication of his office’s annual report for 2020.

One in five of the 604 complaints received by his office last year related to Covid-19 and concerned communications by public bodies that were issued initially in English only.

Mr Ó Domhnaill said: “The figures released in the annual report highlight that the more urgent and more important the service or information that the State is providing, the less likely it is that information will be provided in Irish.”

“Many complainants who contacted my office felt Irish speakers were being marginalised by the State at a time when bringing the public together in common purpose was required.”

Mr Ó Domhnaill said the complaints highlighted the need to strengthen Irish-language legislation “to ensure a greater level of service through Irish from the State”.

Bodies with an obligation to publish in both languages cited the health emergency as a reason for not doing so as it would delay whatever action was being undertaken.

In the report, Mr Ó Domhnaill said: “The statutory duty to provide a service in Irish does not depend on the particular situation involved, the priorities or resources of the public body.

“There should not be a conflict between the grave national actions under way and obligations regarding language rights. The nub of the issue is the resources available to comply with the language obligations.”

Four investigations

Mr Ó Domhnaill concluded four formal investigations in 2020.

The Department of Education was found to be in breach of the Education Act when it took the decision to provide an English-only online portal for Leaving Certificate students to register for predicted grades last year. Mr Ó Domhnaill said the portal was made available in Irish at a later stage, “but frankly the damage had been done at that point.”

Galway City Council was found to have breached the Official Languages Act when it erected signs relating to the pandemic in English only.

An investigation into the Education Research Centre demonstrated that it failed to implement a statutory language obligation in the Education Act 1998.

The body excluded schools teaching through the medium of Irish in samples being chosen to standardise a norm for English reading tests and maths tests for primary schools. The fourth investigation related to signage and publication of an annual report at Beaumont Hospital.

The office recorded a 14 per cent fall in the number of complaints lodged last year. The highest number of complaints came from Dublin, while almost a quarter were made by people living in Gaeltacht areas.