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‘A crucial step’: Irish recognised as official EU language

The first day of the new year was an important day for the Irish language as it was added to the roster of the 23 official EU languages. The recognition of Ireland’s native language has been described by the Minister for the Irish speaking Gaeltacht areas and sport as “a crucial step in the development and future of the language”.

“The end of the derogation of the status of the Irish language in the European Union is a crucial step in the development and future of the language. Irish is now on a par with other official and working EU languages and this will strengthen the relationship between citizens and European administrative systems,” Government Chief Whip and Minister of State for the Gaeltacht and Sport, Jack Chambers TD, said. 

“Together with the Official Languages (Amendment) Act 2021 signed by the President of Ireland last week, the role of the Irish language in national and European systems of administration has now been significantly strengthened,” Mr Chambers added.

1st January 2022 heralded the end of a derogation in place after the Irish language was given official EU and working status in 2007. A shortage of translation staff meant that the process of translating all official EU documents into Irish was drawn out for the ensuing 15 years. After a request was made by Dublin in 2015, the European Commission set a target of achieving full working status by 2022 and the volume of documents available in Irish – ranging from legislation to web content – tripled between January 2016 and April 2021.

From Ireland’s inauguration as a member of the EU in 1973 and the granting of official and working status in2007, Irish was classified as a treaty language, which meant that EU treaties were the only documents that underwent translation.

President Michael D Higgins said that Saturday marked a significant day for the Irish language. “Today is a significant day for the language,” the President said, adding: “This full status is an important recognition at an international level of our specific identity as a people with a distinctive language of our own that we use alongside all the other languages we use and respect.”

“It places our language on an equal footing with those of the founding members of the Union, and those of the Member States who have joined over the years since”, he added.

“This is a significant achievement, and it will be gratifying for many people to know that every day, the Irish language will now be in use in the European Union,” the president also said.

Meanwhile, the newly attained official status of the Irish language in the EU means that the language now enjoys “more legal protections in Brussels than it does in Belfast”, according to a leading Irish language campaigner.

Dr Pádraig Ó Tiarnaigh, of Conradh na Gaeilge, welcomed the development, but said the absence of Irish language legislation in the North remains the “elephant in the room”. While all legislation enacted by the EU will now be translated into Irish, with changes implemented in the 26 counties and other EU countries, changes will not apply in the North.

It follows the British Government’s failure in its obligation to enact Irish language legislation in the Six Counties despite repeated calls from campaigners and Irish language speakers.

Commenting on European development, Dr Ó Tiarnaigh said: “Official status for the Irish language in the European Union is a result of decades of campaigning and community pressure, ensuring Irish is recognised and afforded equal recognition and respect on an international level. This will all add to the growth and development of the language and its community of speakers, ensuring an international profile and increased opportunities to use, read and access the language.

“The elephant in the room, however, is that Irish has more legal protections in Brussels than it does in Belfast. As we approach two years since the Executive was reformed on the basis of the January 2020 New Decade New Approach agreement, Irish speakers here in the north remain excluded and marginalised, with incredibly limited opportunities to use the language with the state or see the language in public.

“The British Government must finally act on the 2021 promise to bring this legislation through Westminster. We have but a few short months before the upcoming Assembly elections, and our warning to the British Secretary of State and the NIO is that if this legislation remains outstanding by then, it will inevitably re-emerge as a central election issue in the months ahead.”

The New Decade New Approach agreement (January 2020) committed parties and governments to implementing Irish language legislation within 100 days.

Northern Ireland’s Secretary of State Brandon Lewis later extended the deadline, giving the Stormont Assembly a final time limit of September 2021 to enact the legislation, committing his own government to bringing forward legislation through Westminster by October 2021.

In November, the British government sent a letter to parties declaring its intention to introduce Irish language legislation and inviting them to a technical briefing on the proposals. The government said legislation would be introduced “as soon as parliamentary time allows”, however did not set a firm date for its implementation. 

Since 2016, the volume of Irish translations in the EU has increased dramatically from 8,000 to almost 46,000 last year. The EU now has 200 Irish language staff working in the EU and Saturday’s development is likely to further boost job prospects for those seeking opportunities in the Irish language sector.

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