Thursday, 25 February 2010

Legal Tangles

UTV News has reported the latest proceedings in Caoimhín Mac Giolla Catháin's appeal against the recent judgment upholding the Administration of Justice (Language) Act 1737, which bans languages other than English from courtroom use.

If the UK Government would like to introduce an Irish language Act in line with the St. Andrews Agreement, it certainly isn't letting on, since lawyers acting for the Secretary of State have been instructed to fight the appeal.

Apart from Northern Ireland's ethnic delimitation of Unionist sentiment and a British willingness to accord it a veto — in the case of the language, quite improperly — perhaps the major difference that separates us from Scotland and Wales is the ongoing dissident campaign. Members of various Republican paramilitary splinter groups would be highly likely to insist on Irish if they are at all proficient in the language, which could incur considerable excess cost. Depending on the extent to which logistical problems create logjams in the justice system, it might even effectively reinstate interment, sparking further legal challenges. This, no doubt, is the Northern Ireland Office’s nightmare scenario.

On the other hand, it would be difficult to conceive of even a modest language Act that did not overturn the ban, since a right to access justice through Irish is clearly cognate with a right to access other Government services in the same way (Mr. Mac Giolla Catháin's initial legal business was an application for a drinks licence). And if one wishes a stable future for the language, the use-it-or-lose-it logic is that personal choice must be facilitated.

Should the 1737 Act be struck down, either in Northern Ireland or in Europe, it would represent a considerable advance. As the Blether Region reported previously, the extension of the simultaneous translation service at Stormont to Members of the Assembly could be secured relatively easily by the Nationalist parties if they were to refuse the courtesy of translating their own speeches into English, thus losing half the time allotted to them for speaking. The Hillsborough Agreement has already resulted in spending guarantees for Irish. If those Departments led by Nationalists were corporately to agree to recognise language rights, perhaps putting in place shared service arrangements, it would be a further step in the right direction.

Although there is still no sign of a language Act, ingenuity and political resolution could yet achieve real and positive change.

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