Irish language watchdog obstructed

9ú Aibreán 2008

LORNA SIGGINS, Western Correspondent
Irish Times

A senior Government official has blocked an investigation by An Coimisinéir Teanga, the Irish Language Commissioner, into the appointment of a judge without fluent Irish to a Gaeltacht area.

This is the first instance on record where the Government has impeded the work of a State ombudsman, according to the commissioner, Seán Ó Cuirreáin.

It was one of 10 cases involving alleged breaches of the Official Languages Act which were highlighted by the commissioner in Galway yesterday at the publication of his annual report.

Other cases included the inability of the Garda Síochána's administrative system for issuing traffic fines and penalty points to use Irish, and the failure by the Department of Education and Science to provide syllabuses in Irish for post-primary subjects.

Mr Ó Cuirreáin notes that more than 600 complaints were made to his office by members of the public for the second successive year. This amounts to almost 2,000 complaints recorded since his office was established in 2004 to monitor Irish language rights.

The commissioner's office provides advice to the public about language rights, and to public bodies about their obligations under the 2003 Official Languages Act, and investigates complaints of alleged breaches of the legislation.

The discontinued investigation into the appointment of a district justice without fluent Irish in a Gaeltacht area, Donegal, arose out of a complaint by Conradh na Gaeilge.

The 1924 Courts of Justice Act states that a judge assigned to a district where Irish is in general use must have sufficient knowledge of the language to obviate the need for an interpreter 'so far as may be practicable, having regard to all relevant circumstances'.

A report was sought by the commissioner's office from the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform, as well as access to the relevant files. However, a certificate was issued by the secretary general to the Government covering most of the relevant records.

Under the Official Languages Act, such a certificate effectively denies access to specified information. Mr Ó Cuirreáin said he had to discontinue the investigation as a result.

Other State departments and agencies have generally taken a very positive approach when findings were made against them and had not sought recourse to the High Court to appeal against recommendations, he said.

In the case of the Department of Education and Science, action has been taken to ensure that syllabuses for 27 post-primary subjects are available now in Irish, following identification of this breach.

The relaxation of Irish language requirements for recruitment to the Garda Síochána was not in any way linked to the failure to issue fixed charge notices for penalty points in Irish, Mr Ó Cuirreáin said. It was due to the administrative system having been contracted out to a private company.

Following a meeting with Assistant Garda Commissioner Eddie Rock, agreement was reached that there were no outstanding legal or policy issues which prevented Irish use.

Other investigations pursued last year by the Irish Language Commissioner include:

- use by the State Examinations Commission of an English language marking scheme to mark exam papers completed in Irish;

- publication of a Green Paper on pensions in English only by the Department of Social and Family Affairs;

- publication of a booklet in English only by the National Disability Authority;

- failure by Bus Éireann to print school bus tickets bilingually;

- publication by the Health Service Executive of public health dental services in English only for a Gaeltacht school;

- failure by Fingal County Council to reply in Irish to an electronic communication sent in Irish;

- confirmation that the Houses of the Oireachtas were not in breach of the Official Languages Act in not providing Irish language versions of Bills, as this currently applies only to publication of Acts.

The full Irish Language Commissioner's 2007 report in on his website