A Chinese couple who applied for Irish citizenship last year had the paperwork returned by the Department of Justice because they had submitted the application in Irish.
Fangzhe Qiu and Lijing Peng applied for naturalisation in September 2020 but last month their application was returned and they were told to reapply through English.
Mr Qiu is a lecturer and assistant professor at UCD's School of Irish Celtic Studies and Folklore, has lived in Ireland since 2011 and speaks Irish. Ms Peng is a linguistic anthropologist and assistant lecturer at Trinity College Dublin's centre for literary translation. She has lived in Ireland since 2008.
Three years ago, Ms Peng secured her new work permit after her husband wrote to the Department of Employment in Irish to complain about delays in the process. “My permit was approved within a week and since then we naturally thought using Irish would be a way to dodge the slow application process.”
The couple also have a “special affection for and attachment to the Irish language”, said Ms Peng. “Fangzhe is a committed scholar of old Irish and our son has been in a Gaelscoil for six years and will hopefully grow up to become one in a new generation of native Irish speakers.”
“It’s not just about the delay, it’s the attitude towards the Irish language,” added Mr Qiu, who has conducted all correspondence with Government officials on this topic through Irish. “People are being discriminated against without these developments.”
In December, three months after applying, the couple’s passports were sent back. On March 1st, they learned their submission had been declined because the Irish form was not up to date and told they needed to reapply using the latest English language documents.
“Our entire application had been returned to us including all application materials and the application fee,” said Ms Peng. “It’s obvious that they didn’t even look at our form in five months, including the time when they returned our passports in mid-December.”
The couple contacted the Department of Justice, local TDs and the Irish language commissioner and on March 9th, they received an email in Irish from a justice official apologising for the mistake and clarifying that the couple could apply through Irish.
The official said the couple’s original submission date would be taken into consideration but did not offer details on how to reapply. Following another email from Mr Qiu, the couple learned a new Irish language form was being drawn up but, on April 1st, they were told this new form would not be available until the end of April.
“I’m so angry,” Mr Qiu told The Irish Times. “They’ve requested another four weeks to sort out a tiny formatting issue.”
Irish language commissioner Rónán Ó Domhnaill said it was important that public services in Irish are made available at the same standard as those in English and that Irish be treated as the first national language.
While Mr Ó Domhnaill would not comment directly on the family’s case, he underlined the Department of Justice’s obligation, under the Official Languages Act, to provide application forms bilingually.
Sinn Féin’s Aengus Ó Snodaigh, who was contacted by the couple, described their treatment as “nothing short of a disgrace” and said it “speaks to the contempt some in Government and the civil service have towards the Irish language”.
“Instead of rewarding and celebrating someone who comes to our country and makes the effort to learn and immerse himself in our national language, we actively obstruct them,” said Mr Ó Snodaigh. “An Ghaeilge should be a celebrated part of Irish citizenship, not an obstacle to it.”
Responding to a parliamentary question from Mr Ó Snodaigh on this issue, the Minister for Justice, Helen McEntee, acknowledged last month that her department had mistakenly returned the couple’s application unprocessed but stated the situation had been resolved.
“The fact remains that Fangzhe and Lijing have been discriminated against at every turn and had their application to become citizens delayed significantly for using Irish,” said Mr Ó Snodaigh.
A justice spokesman said the most up- to-date Irish language version of the citizenship application form was “undergoing final formatting before being made available on our website shortly”. Application forms for citizenship are regularly updated to take account of legislative and policy changes, and the revision of the Irish language version is “an essential process”, he said.
An application will “never be refused” where the Irish version of the application form is used and when applicants use an out-of-date form, he said. However, applicants must apply using the most up-to-date version of the form, he added.