It’s been a hard struggle, and a long one, but the Fine Gael-Labour coalition government has finally succumbed to public pressure and agreed to retain the independent office of the Language Commissioner, the state official who oversees the implementation of the Official Languages Act. In Ireland the default language of government is English meaning that Irish-speaking citizens are placed at a disadvantage when using their native language while dealing with public officials or state documentation (ironically Irish is in fact Ireland’s “national” and “first official language” while English is merely recognised as “a second official language”. However governments of all hues gloss over this constitutional inconvenience, as do the police and the courts). The 2003 legislation was passed to ensure that limited equality was provided to Irish-speakers with their English-speaking peers after fears were expressed that the constitutional primacy of the Irish language could force the courts to judge in favour of a genuine system of bilingual governance and services. However the Anglophone culture of Ireland’s civil service and its general antipathy to Irish has meant that the regulations are barely adhered to which is why the investigatory role of the Language Commissioner was so important. Inevitably this earned the office the enmity of both public and political officials and resulted in the plans by the Fine Gael and Labour parties to effectively emasculate the office. So a retreat in the face of protests on the streets and elsewhere is welcome. However here’s the catch. There is every indication that the retention of the Language Commissioner is something of a smokescreen to hide the ongoing dismantling of the 2003 Act to render it even weaker and more ineffective than is already the case. In other words Ireland may have a Language Commissioner but there will be little to nothing for him to be commissioner of! From the Irish Times:
“Two major Irish-language groups, Gael Linn and Conradh na Gaeilge, have today welcomed the Government’s decision not to amalgamate the Office of Coimisinéir Teanga (Language Commissioner) with that of the Ombudsman. Chief Executive of Gael Linn, Mr Antoine Ó Coileáin, said that it was the right decision but he was still concerned that “the proposal to dovetail the publication of the annual report and accounts of An Coimisnéir Teanga seems to be designed to limit his access to the Houses of the Oireachtas with the attendant opportunity to highlight his work”.
He said that the Government’s Heads of Bill for a revised Official Languages’ Act, also published today, gave “an opportunity to learn from the first 10 years of the Act and to plan for the needs of a bilingual society. The office of An Coimisnéir Teanga must then be resourced appropriately to do its work”.
He had doubts over the proposed new “language schemes”, that is, agreed plans by which departments and organisations provide services through Irish for the public…”
This is just one victory in one battle of a war that has yet to be won.