Bunreacht na hÉireann (Constitution of Ireland)

Ireland’s Supreme Court, Rights Of Irish-Speaking Citizens Are Conditional

Ireland in chains

Éire in chains

Several writers and activists have protested recently at my characterization of Irish-speakers in Ireland as second-class citizens with second-class rights. They say it goes too far and misrepresents the true political and legal situation for Hibernophones in this country. So, in answer, from a report today by RTÉ:

“A native Irish speaker who is due to go on trial for assault has lost his Supreme Court bid to have his case heard by a bilingual jury.

Mr Ó Maicín had claimed he was entitled to present his defence in Irish and to have his case heard by a jury who were sufficiently competent in Irish to hear the case without the assistance of a translator.

He lost his case in the High Court and appealed to the Supreme Court.

The Supreme Court ruled against him by a four to one majority.

In his judgment, Mr Justice Frank Clarke said that Mr Ó Maicín enjoyed a constitutional right to conduct official business fully in Irish.

But he said that right was not absolute and may have to give way to other considerations.”

Yet again the courts have ruled that an Irish-speaker in Ireland is not entitled to a trial entirely through the medium of the Irish language but must perforce except trial and judgement by those who cannot speak his or her language. It implicitly elevates the rights of English-speaking citizens above those of Irish-speaking citizens while making the latter “foreigners” in their own nation. For only in Ireland can you be arrested and detained for speaking in your own language.

However not everyone agreed with this discriminatory grading of constitutional rights.

“In a dissenting judgment, Mr Justice Adrian Hardiman made a declaration that Mr Ó Maicín was entitled to be tried before a jury who would understand evidence given in Irish directly, without the assistance of an interpreter.

In his judgment, Mr Justice Hardiman said the State and organs of Government had cast the entire burden of promoting the use of the Irish language on successive generations of school children.

He said apart from that, the actions of the State in relation to the Irish language had been uniformly minimalist and grudging.

The judge also said he did not believe there was any other country in the world in which a citizen would not be entitled to conduct his business before a court in the national and first official language and to be understood directly by such court in that language.”

So, oh critics of An Sionnach Fionn, do you still believe that full equality under the law exists between the two language communities that share this island nation? Or are you content with, at best, conditional equality?

Update: A report in the Irish Times on the above case has confirmed information supplied to me earlier today. Ireland’s court service has in fact been using for some time an unofficial system of tests to screen out jurors who are believed to have an insufficient grasp of the English language. So English-speaking citizens are guaranteed English-speaking juries by the courts and government while Irish-speaking citizens are denied Irish-speaking juries?

“While the State had instituted an informal screening system to ensure jurors in Dublin have an adequate command of English, it had argued it would be unlawful to operate such a screening system in the interests of producing a jury with an adequate understanding of Irish…”

Am I the only one absolutely astonished by this utterly hypocritical double-standard in the administration of justice in Ireland? It is beyond satire…

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How Can The Irish State Ignore The Wishes Of 41% Of Its Citizens?

Tiocfaidh Ár Phéig

Tiocfaidh Ár Phéig

An article in the Irish Times by Seán Tadgh Ó Gairbhí examining the reaction of people in Ireland to the texting in the Irish language by the Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield is well worth reading. As are the many Comments underneath. Some are positive. Some are simply depressing.

“On Monday night, Chris Hadfield became the nation’s favourite Canadian astronaut when he tweeted a picture of Ireland from space accompanied by a message in Irish – “Tá Éire fíorálainn!”

In charming us with a few judiciously chosen words of our native tongue, the commander was following the recent example of two more illustrious foreigners.

In May 2011, the Queen of England left our then president Mary McAleese open-mouthed in disbelief with a majestically delivered “Go raibh maith agat” and, just a few days later, Barack Obama had a crowded College Green in raptures with that riff on his can-do battle cry for the ages, “Is féidir linn”.

It appears that the sound of a stranger speaking Irish gives us a fuzzy feeling of self-worth, a feeling not to be had from, say, speaking Irish ourselves.

“Wow, I can feel the warmth of the Irish all the way up here. . .” Hadfield later tweeted, adding a “go raibh maith agaibh!” that ensured there was more Irish used in the International Space Station this week than most Irish people would use in a year.

Still, there was something genuine about the affection for the language evident in the response to Hadfield. Maybe this was because the commander’s tweet, for all its otherworldliness, was more authentic than either Obama’s or the banríon’s cúpla focal.

Meanwhile, in a galaxy not so far away called the Gaeltacht, Irish is dying as the language of the home and community. It is dying because that is what usually happens to languages like Irish, but it is also dying because of official neglect and a failure to take the measures needed to save it.

The most recent study in this area suggested that unless radical action was taken, Irish had only 15 to 20 years left as the primary community language in even the strongest Gaeltacht areas.

That was in 2007.

In response, three years later, in 2010, the last government published a 20-year strategy for the language. Three years on and the present Government has been slow in implementing that strategy. Instead, it has diluted what was already an overly aspirational plan by making several decisions that undermine it.

It is difficult to ascertain how many people really care about the preservation of Irish as no government has been willing to take a political gamble that the type of affection provoked by Hadfield’s tweet might be sincere.

This is despite the existence of plenty of earthly evidence that proves a considerable majority of us have a favourable attitude to Irish.

Would the public support a radical, well-resourced plan to save the Irish language? Would such a plan work? We might never know. Because it seems that, to adapt the tagline from the movie Alien, in the Gaeltacht, nobody can hear you scream.”

Exactly that sort of “gamble” was taken in Québec thirty-six years ago when the Parti Québécois provincial government introduced the Charter of the French Language (La charte de la langue française) in August of 1977. At the time of its introduction it was widely accepted in Québec and Canada that French would soon be a minority language, a language that would almost certainly disappear from the North American continent within the next 50 years. However the Charter and the positive attitudes engendered by its application reversed that situation. By 2011 the number of French-speaking citizens had soared to 80% of the population of Québec with a further 14% reporting various degrees of fluency as non-native speakers.

In Ireland the Irish language has the unique legal position under Article 8.1 of the Constitution of being both the national and first official language of the state. In contrast under Article 8.2 the English language is accorded the lesser status of being simply second official language. However the primary position of Irish is undermined by the anomalous Article 8.3 which permits the state to conduct any and all official business through either of the two official languages. Which is why we currently have a de facto English state in Ireland rather than an Irish one since the English language has always been the default option preferred by the political establishment.

One way we could change this situation is through an amendment of Article 8.3 of the Constitution, as I argued here. A carefully worded and thought-out amendment making Irish the default language of the state (which is clearly the intent behind Article 8.1) would transform the rights of Irish-speaking citizens and communities in this country.

As things stand over 41% of the population of Ireland declared themselves to have an ability to speak Irish in the 2011 Census of Ireland. That is 1.77 million people, a rise from 1.66 million in the previous census of 2006. Another rise was the number of daily and weekly speakers of Irish, 4.4% of the population or 187,827 people (making Irish the second most-spoken language). On top of this was the 613,236 who claimed to speak Irish less than weekly. Using these and other statistics from the 2011 census we can calculate that out of a total population of 4,588,252 people some 801,063 are speakers of Irish: that is people who speak Irish daily, weekly or less than weekly. That is the number, as unwilling as some Anglophone fundamentalists are to accept it, who speak Irish in Ireland. 801,063 people or some 17% of the total population.

In addition to that number there is another 24% of the population who either have some degree or knowledge of Irish or else wish to express their identification with it. To mark the language as their own. This is what happened in the 2011 Census and this is the 41% of the nation’s population that supports, wholeheartedly, the Irish language and the rights of Irish-speaking citizens.

As much as the militant extreme of English-speakers would wish it otherwise, with their knowingly untrue claims that Irish-speakers represent 1% of the population or statistical falsehoods about Polish being the second most spoken language in Ireland (2.6% of the total population, in fact), this is the unpalatable truth they fear so much. Irish-speaking citizens are not a majority, or even a particularly sizeable minority. But they are 17% of the population of Ireland. And together with English-speaking peers they make up the 41% of the population which supports our indigenous language and culture.

And it is time that they made their voices heard.

Where’s The Irish At The Irish Constitutional Convention?

Tá An Réabhlóid Ag Teacht!

Tá An Réabhlóid Ag Teacht!

As I have noted many times before there is a certain desire in the body politic (and its media acolytes) to reduce even further the legal status of the Irish-speaking citizens and communities of Ireland and that of the Irish language in general. We have seen it demonstrated recently in the drive by the Fine Gael-Labour coalition to rip apart the Official Languages Act of 2003, shredding it of any meaning or purpose, along with the abolition of a separate Language Commissioner to uphold and protect the rights of Irish-speakers under the law when dealing with the institutions of the state. This was followed by the introduction of the controversial Gaeltacht Bill of 2012 which was so objectionable to most observers that it led to an Opposition walkout from Dáil Éireann in protest at its passing by the parliamentary-dictatorship of Fine Gael and Labour TDs.

Now we have the Constitutional Convention, an all-party body made up of various political representatives and members of the general public, which is studying a number of proposed changes to Bunreacht na hÉireann or the Constitution of Ireland. The convention has been mired in controversy since its inception with concerns expressed about the power of the main political parties to dominate the proceedings, the identities of the “randomly selected” citizens and the possibility of pressure from lobbyists.

Amongst the arguments for change put forward for possible consideration by the Convention is this one from Seán Ó Conaill, Law and Irish Lecturer at UCC, posted on the webpage of the academic group-blog Human Rights In Ireland.

“The Irish language enjoys a central role in, what is essentially, a bilingual constitutional order in Ireland. Irish has been afforded a special status in Article 8 as the “national language” and the “first official language” but there exists a huge disconnect between the status enjoyed by the language and the linguistic reality. In this submission to the Shadow Constitutional Convention I argue the provisions which concern the Irish language ought to be understood in their wider context, examined and reformed.

Current Constitutional Status

In terms of its place in the history of the Irish legal system the Irish language has been very much marginalised since the arrival of the Common Law in Ireland and indeed its very use among the Anglo-Irish was prohibited by the Statute of Kilkenny. The use of any language aside from English in the legal system itself was prohibited by statute in the form of Administration of Justice (Language) Act, 1737. Very little consideration was given to the language in legal discourse prior to independence with perhaps the most interesting example of a case with language rights implications being Padraig Pearse’s only case as a Barrister, McBride .v. McGovern [1906] 2IR 181. Pearse unsuccessfully attempted to overturn a number of convictions under the Summary Jurisdiction (Ireland) Act, 1851 for Irish speakers who had their names and addresses written on their carts in Irish and in the Gaelic font, however the appeal was rejected on the grounds that “An Englishman… if knocked down by an Irish cart in any part of the country, whether Connemara or elsewhere, is entitled to have the name and address of the offender in characters that he can read, if Irish letters are used he may be powerless to identify”.

History, however, would not forget these convictions and when De Valera set about dismantling the Office of Governor General of the Free State Constitution he appointed Dónal Ua Buachalla, one of the Irish speakers convicted under Summary Jurisdiction (Ireland) Act, 1851, to be the Governor General of the Irish Free State. Ua Buachalla thus became a successor to Mr Tim Healy SC, the original Prosecutor in the cart registration cases and the first Governor General of the Free State.

The real story of the Irish language and the legal system, however, only commenced in 1922 with the bilingual Constitution of the Irish Free State and Article 4 in particular which served as the inspiration for our present Article 8. Article 4 granted equal recognition to the Irish and English languages and provided Irish with a platform to engage with the legal system and officialdom. The value of this status was borne out shortly thereafter in the seminal case of People (Attorney General) v. Joyce and Walsh [1929] IR 526 which established the key “double right” principle. The principle holds that any party to a legal action may use the Irish language on two grounds; firstly, on a basis of natural law for fear that they do not fully understand English or secondly, and more crucially, by virtue of the constitutional status awarded to the language by the Constitution which means that once a citizen asserts his or her desire to use the Irish language in proceedings his or her competence in the English language is of no relevance

When, in 1937, our current bilingual Constitution was enacted the Irish language was given increased prominence as “the national language” and “the first official language” while English was “recognised” as a second official language. Whilst the English text of Article 8.2 uses the word “recognised” the Irish text uses the expression “glactar leis” which would be more accurately translated as “accepted as” which would suggest more grudging recognition. The second element of Article 8.2 worthy of inspection is the use of the term “Sacs-Bhéarla” to represent the word “English”. In any normal use in modern times the term “Béarla” is used in Irish when referring to the English language. In using such terminology a cultural and political point is being made that the English language is to be perceived in second place, to be seen as the language of the Saxon rather than the language of the Gael.

The Courts in Ireland have struggled to precisely define what exact legal affect this perceived higher status afforded to Irish or indeed what is to be understood by English’s demotion to a second official language and as a result the dicta from Joyce and Walsh remains important. Although the 1937 Constitution, like the 1922 version, is a bilingual text, a key provision, Article 25.5.4, serves to make the Irish text particularly important. Article 25.5.4 holds that in the event of conflict the Irish text shall take precedence. However, no less a scholar than the great JM Kelly dismissed this as an “irrational irritant” and a situation “pregnant with time wasting for the Courts” in the Irish Student Law Review in Hillary Term in 1966. Prof Kelly was speaking at a time when a long held myth regarding the Irish text was widely accepted.

The myth held that the Irish text of the Constitution was a “mere translation” of the English text prepared only once the English text was completed (so widespread was this myth that it was repeated by McCarthy J in his Supreme Court verdict in the X-Case). Such a myth has since been dismissed as wholly inaccurate by some excellent academic research such as Michéal Ó Cearúil’s comprehensive work on the Irish text and even those with a moderate grasp of the Irish language can spot some key differences between the two language versions such as the example above (see also example at the end of this submission).

The Irish text of the Constitution very often has been used by the Courts in order to enunciate and interpret the English language provisions in many of the leading constitutional cases including Sinnott, Roche v Roche and Doherty v. Ireland (a comprehensive historical analysis of such instances is to be found, somewhat ironically, in the latest edition of JM Kelly’s text on the Irish Constitution).

I have written previously about the benefits of bilingual drafting and I would argue that the Irish text of the Constitution is often more satisfactory and it would not be my submission necessarily that the supremacy of the Irish text removed in the case of conflict although it is certain that in the context of amendments a problem exists.

The Problems

While it is fully accepted that it is vital that the Irish language gets recognition within the Constitution some of the current provisions and policies arising as a result can cause more problem than they solve for those seeking to use the Irish language in their dealings with the State and in their everyday lives.

The latest census puts the number of people who claim they can speak Irish at 1.77 million people although in reality the actual number of functional speakers of the language would be more accurately estimated at about 10% of that figure which represents approximately the number of people who report using the Irish language on a daily or weekly basis outside the education system. If the figure for functional speakers is accepted it shows a massive disconnect between the theoretical legal status of the language and the real life linguistic situation faced by the Irish language.

With such a disconnect between constitutional theory and linguistic reality Irish language rights, those seeking to assert them are easily dismissed. Geoghegan J for example in the Ó Beoláin decision [2001] 2 IR 279, interprets Article 8 “as meaning that for all legal and official purposes the Irish language and the English language are in an equal position” however he dismisses the argument that the Constitution gives the Irish language any special position citing the absence of any legal implications for the special position previously enjoyed by the Roman Catholic Church (previously Article 44.1.2) prior to the 5th Amendment. Geoghegan J alludes to the Constitution as embodying the aspirations and emotional feelings of the people who have enacted it, where not everything is intended to have legal implication.

The problems do not end with perception unfortunately. Clear constitutional obligations such as the requirement under 25.4.5 to make all legislation passed available in each language were ignored for years due to a lack of resources and it was only resumed after the Supreme Court judgment in the Ó Beoláin case [2001] 2IR 279.

The fact that the Irish text remains the authoritative text in the case of conflict between the two language versions remains a positive influence however a particular problem arises in the case of amendments to the Constitution. Bills to amend the Constitution are typically drafted in the English language, with a wording agreed before they are subsequently translated into Irish. Irish and English, like any two languages, cannot always directly translate easily and certain terminology used often causes particular difficulties in translation. As a result of the system in operation what is often a difficult translation from the rigid English text into Irish becomes the authoritative text of the Constitution. The benefits of co-drafting in both official languages of a State have long been recognised in Wales and Canada for example where the experience has shown that not only does co-drafting result in much better versions in the minority language but that there is a noticeable improvement in the quality of the English language draft too while also achieving cost saving overall.

The Irish language is without doubt a minority language in Ireland but our Constitution carries on the pretence that somehow the Irish language is the dominant language in Ireland. In putting the language on an illusory pedestal we instantly devalue the language. Furthermore, the very fact that we proceed with the charade of claiming Irish as the first official language of the State has prevented Ireland from ratifying the European Charter on Regional and Minority Languages and fully engaging in the development of minority language policy.

Possible Amendment

The Constitution Review Group suggested in 1996 that the Irish language’s constitutional status be amended in a manner which would more closely reflect the real linguistic situation in Ireland without threatening any of the rights current enjoyed by Irish speakers. Their recommendations, if anything, have become more valid by developments such as the enacting of the Official Languages Act, 2003 and the Irish language’s status, since 2007, as a full official EU language. The CRG recommend that Irish and English be equally recognised with an additional provision which they suggested would read “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.”

While the exact wording could perhaps be revisited, and might even benefit from denominating the Irish language as an official minority language, the core message remains valid as a method of recognising the special position of the Irish language in a modern Ireland as a living language worthy of status and protection. If such an amendment were to proceed it would present an ideal opportunity to refocus and re-evaluate what exactly the Irish language means to Ireland legally, linguistically and culturally. It cannot be creditably claimed that the current constitutional status does anything to advance the cause of the Irish language or increase the number of speakers of the language.

At the very least a review of the Irish language provisions in the Constitution presents an opportunity to re-examine some English language provisions which do not reflect the Irish text and vice versa. Although almost every article of the Constitution has some divergence greater clarity could be achieved in examining certain provisions which seem to diverge significantly. Prominent examples include: Article 12.4.1 and the age a citizen must reach in order to run for President where the English text, presumably mistakenly, suggests the correct age is 34 (eg thirty fifth year) rather than 35 (those who have passed their thirty fifth year) in the Irish text which was most likely the intent of the original drafters.

Article 29.3 which has the additional Irish phrase “ina dtreoir” which would translate to “as a guide” when referring to how Ireland accepts generally the principles of international law.

The much criticised Article 41.2 in which the English text speaks of a woman’s role within the home where as the Irish text speaks, perhaps somewhat more satisfactorily, of recognition of a woman’s role within the family rather than the home.”

Bilingual sign in Irish and English, Dublin, Ireland.

Bilingual sign in Irish and English, Dublin, Ireland. Note the misspelled English and Irish names, Cows’ Lane or “Lána na mBó”.

It is my belief that the proposed alterations of Article 8, however well-intentioned, are fundamentally flawed and would to lead to an even further erosion of the rights of Irish-speaking citizens. As I wrote in February of 2012 in a look at our supposedly “officially bilingual” state, the changes suggested by the 1996 Constitution Review Group would simply reduce the constitutional status of the Irish language not enhance it. How? The Constitution of Ireland currently reads:

Article 8:

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.”

The Review Group proposed this wording:

Article 8:

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

8.2 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.

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.”

The argument for the suggested change by the all-party gathering was the supposed recognition 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.”

In other words there would be no constitutional right to speak in the Irish language in Ireland or expect services from the state in that language. Any such right would only be derived through specific legislation passed by Dáil Éireann (as stated in 8.3). Furthermore any government in power would be free to pass laws and regulations specifying the use of the English language only in any given circumstances (again the implication of 8.3).

And who believes they would do otherwise?

My own solution is the following constitutional amendment for Article 8.3:

Article 8:

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 Exclusive use shall be made of the national language for all official purposes throughout the State. However, where suitable and excluding recognised Irish-speaking communities, simultaneous use may be made of both official languages for any official purposes by the State though the primacy of the national language must be accepted and demonstrated at all times.”

Article 8.3 in its present form ensures that the rights of Irish-speakers will always come second place to those of their English-speaking peers. It allows English to be the “default language setting” of the state, confusing the primary status of the Irish language granted in Article 8.1 and creating a constitutional contradiction. However the amendment as proposed above reverses that confused situation and makes Irish the default setting of the state’s official language. It evens the playing field by purposely requiring the state to legislate bilingually in all matters. It protects the rights of Irish-speakers and English-speakers under the law and ensures equal treatment for both while giving substance to the state’s national identity through the use of its national language.

Anything that lessens the status or rights of Irish-speaking citizens simply reinforces institutional discrimination within the Irish state. It makes Irish-speakers truly second-class citizens with second-class rights.

And no one could tolerate such a situation.

What About Our Irish Rights?

The much heralded Constitutional Convention is finally on the horizon after many a false dawn. According to the Irish Times:

“The Taoiseach and the Tánaiste are to brief Opposition leaders Micheál Martin and Gerry Adams as well as the Dáil’s Technical Group this evening on the Government’s plans for the proposed Constitutional Convention.

Mr Kenny and Mr Gilmore will meet with Fianna Fáil and Sinn Féin leaders tonight.

Independent TD for Kildare North Catherine Murphy, who will attend on behalf of the Technical Group at Government Buildings, said she was preparing a “menu” of options with her colleagues.

The Cabinet formally agreed last week to establish the Convention and a spokesman said at the time that the Government would be holding consultations with the Opposition.”

I’ve highlighted my fears for the Irish speaking community of Ireland in relation to this convention, especially one convened by a coalition government dominated by the anti-Irish factions in Fine Gael and Labour, but it’s interesting to see at least one party’s main concerns. According to Slugger O’Toole the press briefing from Sinn Féin focuses on:

“• Acknowledge and take account of the relevant prior commitments under the Good Friday Agreement.

• It should be able to consider recommending a new constitution for the 21st century which is inclusive, reflects the desire for Irish unity that is shared by the majority of citizens on this island and which protects the rights of citizens, including our unionist neighbours.

• The Convention’s Terms of Reference must also ensure that the outcome does not prejudice any future process of agreeing an all-Ireland constitution – post a referendum on unity as set out in the Good Friday Agreement.

• It should involve the economically disadvantaged, citizens from all provinces including northern citizens; ordinary unionists and their official representatives; citizens in the diaspora; and our newest citizens – in addition to the political parties, civil society representatives and those with relevant academic and legal expertise – and ensuring the equal representation of women on the Convention.

• The Convention’s process must also be fully public, transparent and accountable, from discussion of terms of reference to appointments, and from the debates to conclusion of recommendations.

• There must be clarity in the Terms of Reference about the conventions final report and how it is put to the people in a referendum.

• It must be able to examine the need for guarantees of economic and social rights, the extension of voting rights for northern citizens and citizens in the diaspora, and the architecture necessary to establish a more robustly inclusive, fully representative and accountable democracy.

• It must contain all the modern equality and human rights protections that reflect the full spectrum of our international obligations and any others that are necessary to establish a rights-based society.

• Including the equivalence of human rights protections north and south.

• The Convention must in its work consider and make a complementary contribution towards an All-Ireland Charter of Rights.”

What? No Charter of Irish Language Rights, no Irish Bill 101? No guarantees to protect, or indeed to enlarge, the position of the Irish language in the Constitution of Ireland? No demands to incorporate aspects of the Official Languages Act of 2003 into the constitution?

Sinn Féin, a progressive nationalist party?

Tell that to Plaid Cymru, Convergència i Unió or Parti Québécois!

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?