May I go to the courthouse, please?

Posted on February 12, 2015

Generic Image - Irish Flag at Four Courts

The lack of access to justice for native Irish speakers in the Irish courts system

The International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) is an international human rights instrument that identifies specific economic, social and cultural rights that States have a duty to protect. Ireland signed and ratified the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) in 1989.

Irish Language Rights and the Law

Language rights come under the remit of Article 15 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR). Article 15 covers cultural rights, and provides that the State must take all necessary steps for “the conservation, the development and the diffusion” of culture. The main suggestions put forward in the civil society Parallel Report on ICESCR are as follows;

  • Ensure Irish speakers can avail of their constitutional and statutory rights to access services in the Irish language;
  • Consider and adopt a Community Culture Strategy;
  • Adequately resource the Irish Language Commissioners Office.

Constitutional rights to access services through the Irish language come from Article 8 of Bunreacht na hÉireann 1937, which states Irish is the national language and also the first official language of the State, accepting English as the second official language. It is from the Official Languages Act 2003 that statutory language rights derive. This act is currently being amended. According to Section 8 of the Act, it is the right of all citizens to use Irish in all dealings they may have with the courts.

Irish-Speaking Juries

It cannot be denied that access to justice is a fundamental right in any society governed by the rule of law. However, for historical, political and cultural reasons, native Irish speakers face major difficulties when they attempt to access justice through the medium of Irish. This is despite legal protection afforded to the Irish language on both national and international levels.

In 2014 the Supreme Court released the decision of Ó Maicín (Ó Maicín v Ireland, The Attorney General, The Minister for Justice Equality and Law Reform, His Honour Raymond Groarke and the Director of Public Prosecutions [2014] IESC 12), after an appeal from the High Court. The Supreme Court affirmed the 2010 High Court decision, to the dismay of the Irish-speaking community. The question being examined at court was whether or not Mr Ó Maicín had a constitutional right to have his trial ran through Irish without the help of interpreters.

The alleged assault for which Mr Ó Maicín was charged took place in the Connemara Gaeltacht. Mr Ó Maicín, the alleged victim and the majority of the witnesses are native Irish speakers. The court did not grant Mr Ó Maicín a trial in Irish on the basis that a bilingual jury would not be representative of the community as a whole, relying on the decision in de Búrca, (De Búrca v Attorney General [1976] I.R. 38, a case on the exclusion of women from juries). The court did admit that the right to conduct one’s official business with the State did exist, but that that right was not absolute.

Judge Hardiman said, in his dissenting judgment, that Ireland most certainly has a bilingual jurisdiction as per Article 8 of the Constitution. Judge Hardiman also advanced the recommendation that the Connemara area be made into an independent jury region to facilitate such trials in future. That recommendation is in line with the evidence given by the expert witness, Dr Colm Ó Giollagáin, a socio-linguist.

The Current Situation

Later in 2014, the Government decided not to go ahead with the proposed merger of the Office of the Language Commissioner and the Office of the Ombudsman. The decision was made as a result of continued lobbying by groups such as Conradh na Gaeilge and others.

According to the latest Report by the Joint Committee on the Environment, Culture and the Gaeltacht, 10% of civil servants should be proficient in Irish. The report is due to be published in February 2015.

The publication of the report was announced on Raidió na Gaeltachta on 27 January by Senator Labhrás Ó Murchú, Vice-Chairperson of the Committee of the 20-Year Strategy for the Irish Language 2010 – 2030.

According to the Central Statistics Office, there has been a 7% increase in the number of Irish speakers between 2006 and 2011.

The government has legal obligations under ICESCR to ensure that the Irish language is protected within every organ of the State; the courts system is one such organ that must uphold access to justice for all segments of society. Exactly what action steps the Government will take regarding the above recommendations and those outlined in Our Voice Our Rights is yet to be seen.

This blog piece was originally written in Irish.

  • Natasha McAleese is a student of the Law and Irish programme at University College Cork. She is currently partaking in an internship with FLAC.