An Laitbhia (Latvia)

From Irish Ireland To English Ireland

There’s been something of a surprise result from Latvia where a national referendum has rejected moves to make Russian the second official language of the small Baltic nation along with Latvian. In an unusually high turnout which saw 70% of registered voters going to the polls, a majority of 75% voted against the proposal, much higher than was expected. From the Guardian newspaper:

“Latvian voters have resoundingly rejected a proposal to give official status to Russian, the mother tongue of their former Soviet occupiers and a large chunk of the population.

Russian is the first language for about a third of the Baltic country’s 2.1 million people, and many of them would like it to be a national language to reverse what they claim has been 20 years of discrimination.

But for ethnic Latvians the referendum was an attempt to encroach on Latvia’s independence, which was restored two decades ago after half a century of occupation by the Soviet Union since the Second World War.

Many Latvians still consider Russian, the lingua franca of the Soviet Union, as the language of the former occupiers. They also harbour deep mistrust towards Russia and worry that Moscow attempts to wield influence in Latvia through the ethnic Russian minority.

“Latvia is the only place throughout the world where Latvian is spoken, so we have to protect it,” said Martins Dzerve, 37, in Riga, Latvia’s capital. “But Russian is everywhere.”

With more than 93% of ballots counted, 75% of voters said they were against Russian as a national language, according to the national election commission.

More than 70% of registered voters cast ballots, considerably more than in previous elections and referendums. Long lines were seen at many precincts both in Latvia and abroad, with voters in London reportedly braving a three-hour wait.

…Mara Varpa, 57, said she voted against the proposal since Latvian was an integral part of the national identity and should therefore remain the sole official language. “I don’t think there should have been a referendum to begin with because it’s already in the constitution, but since there was I had to vote,” Varpa said.”

It’s interesting – and instructive – to see how the Latvians and other Baltic peoples regard their languages as the primary signifier of their national and cultural identities. This has been explored from the point of view of Irish speakers in Ireland where once the Irish language was indelibly associated with Irish national identify (and still is for many citizens).

Yet, as I noted recently, much of “Official Ireland”, the political establishment and its fellow-travellers, has now rejected the notion of an Irish Ireland and has instead embraced the concept of an English Ireland while paying lip service to any concept of bilingualism. Indeed this was heralded way back in 1996 by the Constitution Review Group which included many “experts” close to Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and the Labour Party and which recommended that the Irish language be robbed of its status as Ireland’s national language (its unique legal position under Article 8 of our constitution). Instead they urged that the English language be given the same status once reserved for Irish.

Article 8 [the current wording in the Constitution of Ireland]

8.1 The Irish language as the national language is the first official language.

8.2 The English language is recognised as a second official language.

8.3 Provision may, however, be made by law for the exclusive use of either of the said languages for any one or more official purposes, either throughout the State or in any part thereof.

Discussion [by the Review Group]

Article 8 establishes the two official languages of the State. It accords primacy to the Irish language which is described both as the national language and the first official language. The English language is recognised as a second official language. This wording is unrealistic, given that English is the language currently spoken as their vernacular by 98% of the population of the State. The designation of Irish as the ‘national’ and the ‘first official’ language is of little practical significance. The intention to give special recognition to the Irish language is understood and respected but it is arguable that this might be better achieved, while allowing both languages equal status as official languages, by including a positive provision in the Constitution to the effect that the State shall care for, and endeavour to promote, the Irish language as a unique expression of Irish tradition and culture.

The Review Group considers that there is an implicit right to conduct official business in either official language and that the implementation of this right is a matter for legislation and/or administrative measures rather than constitutional provision.

Recommendation [by the Review Group]

The first and second sections of Article 8 should be replaced by English and Irish versions on the following lines:

1 The Irish language and the English language are the two official languages.

2 Because the Irish language is a unique expression of Irish tradition and culture, the State shall take special care to nurture the language and to increase its use.

[However the third section of Article 8 would be left the same:

3 Provision may, however, be made by law for the exclusive use of either of the said languages for any one or more official purposes, either throughout the State or in any part thereof.]”

In other words, the Irish language would be of the same legal status with the English language but the state would be free to make exclusive use of the English language if it so wished. And who imagines it would do otherwise?

So, given all the promised constitutional reviews and amendments committed to by the (anti-Irish) Fine Gael – Labour coalition in their programme for government how long will it be, I wonder, before this particular section of the 1996 review is dusted off?

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