The State data watchdog is investigating the refusal of public bodies and private companies to properly spell Irish names after a television producer being treated for cancer alleged a breach of strict EU rules.
Ciarán Ó Cofaigh (51), is taking on the State after medics at University Hospital Galway, where he is getting radiotherapy treatment, told him they could not include the fadas on his name.
The Data Protection Commission has confirmed its is "fully examining" a complaint lodged last July by Mr Ó Cofaigh – brother of broadcaster Bláthnaid Ní Chofaigh – against the Health Service Executive (HSE).
It is also handling two similar complaints by the film and documentary maker against Bank of Ireland and its subsidiary New Ireland Assurance.
It is understood the Irish watchdog is speaking to its European counterparts as well as Ireland’s Language Commissioner in an attempt to determine an official stance on the síneadh fada.
An imminent decision could have costly consequences, through fines or technology upgrades, for State agencies and private businesses that continually neglect to use the accent.
I'm tired and fed up with the hypocrisy of the State and its odd relationship with the language
Mr Ó Cofaigh believes the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) – a set of far-reaching privacy and data protection rules brought in by the European Union last year – gives people a legal right to have their names spelled correctly.
“It looks like this is the first time in over 400 years that we have the right to be identified by our names in this country – that’s a long time to be waiting,” he said.
Article 16 of GDPR states the right of people to have “inaccurate personal data” held by organisations to be corrected “without undue delay”.
Companies can be fined up to €20 million, or up to 4 per cent of their turnover, for failing to adhere to the rule. The maximum fine for public bodies is one million euro, under the Data Protection Act.
Mr Ó Cofaigh said the HSE, Bank of Ireland and New Ireland Assurance have refused to correct his name on records and correspondence.
Fadas on Irish names are “not an optional extra or a pretentious affectation,” he said. “They are a central, functional element of a person’s proper name. My name without a fada isn’t my name.”
Mr Ó Cofaigh said it is “ironic” that he has to look to European rules to assert his Irish identity. “I’m tired and fed up with the hypocrisy of the State and its odd relationship with the language,” he said.
“They claim it is important yet when it comes to the nitty-gritty, it is of no importance.
“My identity is as important to me as it is to any person, be that a gay person, a transgender person, a Catholic, however you identify yourself. It is the essence of what I am, particularly as a Gaeilgeoir in Ireland in the 21st century, where it is a struggle to keep the language alive.”
A síneadh fada, which is necessary to spell words properly, is an integral part of a person's given name and surname in Irish
Graham Doyle, head of communications for the Data Protection Commission, said article 16 of the GDPR “clearly sets out” the rights of a person to have their records corrected.
“In the case of the omission of fadas, the DPC is currently fully examining this matter,” he added.
Computer says no
The HSE acknowledges that “some computer software used in various HSE locations” won’t accept fadas. “The HSE accepts that the síneadh fada is not an optional extra that may be inserted or omitted at random or as one chooses; it is a central component of the structure of the language,” a spokeswoman added.
“A síneadh fada, which is necessary to spell words properly, is an integral part of a person’s given name and surname in Irish.
“The HSE is taking steps to ensure that, where it is possible, new software will have the capability to input the síneadh fada.”
A Bank of Ireland spokesman said it supports Irish-speaking customers “as much as possible”, but added: “Unfortunately, however, we are unable to show the fada on our systems. We know this is a source of frustration for some customers and apologise for this, which is due to technical restrictions.”
Last month the National Transport Authority came under attack from celebrities, language activists and a Government Minister after it blamed "technical limitations" for refusing to include the fada on names of commuters using Leap cards.