Monday, 21 November 2011

A Speaker's Tale

The website of Holywood Irish Society carries a response to a recent Freedom of Information request directed at the Northern Ireland Assembly. Readers will recall that the refusal to extend an existing simultaneous translation facility from the Speaker and Clerk to ordinary Members has been a fraught issue at Stormont for many years. Last month one Member, Dominic Bradley, was even banned from being called to speak for a week after he took too long to provide the consecutive translation required by the Deputy Speaker.

The response and papers supplied by the Assembly make for interesting reading. As the Blether Region suspected, there is no actual rule that says a consecutive translation is required — instead, the Assembly justifies the requirement on the basis of "Rulings, Convention and Practice" as distilled in the "Northern Ireland Assembly Companion".

The bizarre state of affairs that the Assembly pays for simultaneous translation but does not make it available to Members rests on the fact that the interpretation facility was commissioned by the Speaker, while the decision on extending the benefits to Members depends on a decision of the Business Committee. Although Holyrood also requires consecutive translation, that is the case only when no interpreter has been arranged for the language in question (unlike the Assembly, there is no permanent translation service in the Scottish Parliament, since use of Gaelic is much less).

One can infer that the first Speaker of the Assembly, Lord Alderdice, hoped that the Business Committee would indeed approve the extension of the service to Members.

On 20 November 2000 (volume 7 page 201) he stated:

"For Members who wish to have a simultaneous translation, a report showing the costs and other details has been available for over 18 months. It is simply a matter of a proposal to be taken forward by the Business Committee. My ruling is clear: any statements made in a language other than English must be translated fully and accurately."

The last line suggests that the requirement to provide consecutive translation rests essentially on the whim of the Speaker. Likewise, regarding the issue of reasonable adjustment to speaking time in order to allow Members to provide a consecutive translation, the Assembly response states:

"Within their time allocation Members must ensure that any comments that are not in English are fully translated. The Speaker and the Deputy Speakers operate within Standing Orders, rulings and conventions when chairing plenary business. This includes an element of discretion to ensure the smooth flow of business regardless of which language members choose to use."

Does a Speaker or Deputy Speaker therefore have the discretion to allow an Irish-speaking Member longer? What we know for sure is that those choosing to use Irish — overwhelmingly Catholics and Nationalists — have only 50% of the substantive speaking time of those who choose to use English, while use of Irish in the Assembly is probably even less than 50% of what it could be, given the discouraging effect of the requirement for consecutive translation. The question whether the Assembly has considered the potential for indirect discrimination against groups listed in section 75 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998 appears not to have been answered in the Assembly's response.

There are some grounds for hope here:

a new Speaker or an existing Deputy Speaker may have the discretion either to end the requirement for consecutive translation or extend the time available to those who choose to use Irish;

there are clear grounds to mount a challenge under section 75 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998 — the legislation that established the Assembly;

although the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages is not justiciable, it has already been argued (albeit unsuccessfully) that another limitation on the use of Irish (in courts) was incompatible with the Charter;

there are grounds for a challenge under the Human Rights Act 1998. In particular, simultaneous interpretation has been a fact for many years at Stormont, and the failure to extend the service to Members with its attendant indirect discrimination could be viewed as perverse (particularly given the relative cost factors concerned). Furthermore, it is clearly unsatisfactory that the realisation of a benefit (and perhaps a right) for individual Irish-speaking Members should rest on, and be construed as, a corporate decision by a largely English-speaking Business Committee to avail itself of a service;

demographic change may play a role. Northern Ireland will almost certainly have a Catholic majority in the medium term. Although Unionists have argued that a substantial number of Catholics would opt to remain in the UK if asked at a referendum, even if that is true, we do know that they have hitherto failed to vote for Unionist parties in any substantial numbers. The Blether Region is unaware under what arrangements the Business Committee functions, but it is likely that at some point Unionists will either lose their majority or, as part of a strategy to retain it, be forced to modify their positions on issues such as that discussed here.

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