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26/09/2016

Irish to be given full official EU language status

Languages & Culture

Irish to be given full official EU language status

Oscar Wilde, noted Irish playwright and a keen linguist, would surely have welcomed this new language equality.

[Samuel Morgan]

Although it has been an official language of the EU since 2007, Irish will now be gradually upgraded to a full working language of the European institutions.

Tá gach ainmhí cothrom ach tá roinnt ainmhithe níos cothroime ná a chéile.”

To the less linguistically-gifted: George Orwell’s oft-quoted “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others” maxim from Animal Farm seems particularly apt when it comes to the European Union’s attitude towards Irish.

Even though it is one of the Union’s 24 official languages, Irish has so far existed in administrative limbo, where it has been placed under so-called ‘derogation’. This has meant that the European institutions have not been obliged to provide full translation or interpretation services, as it does with the other 23. Translation is only mandatory when it comes to co-decisions made by the European Parliament and the European Council.

Maltese was placed under a similar derogation when it joined the bloc in 2004, but it too was lifted in 2007, giving it equal footing with the other languages. Maltese is spoken as a native language by around half a million people, while the estimated number of Irish native speakers is around 100,000.

However, on 3 December, the Council announced that it would draft a Regulation that would increase the number of areas in which Irish translation is required, with an aim of ending the derogation phase completely by 1 January 2022. It is likely that the translation services of the institutions will have to be expanded in order to cope with the increasing workload.

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EU citizens have the right to use any of the official languages in correspondence with the EU institutions, which have to reply in the same language. Earlier this year, Liadh Ní Riada MEP (Sinn Féin), went on a week-long ‘language strike’ in protest against the “second-class status of Irish”, refusing to speak anything other than her native language when conversing with the institutions.

Each branch of the EU has its own translation service, with the Commission’s DG Translation dealing with the largest workload. It operates on a budget of roughly €330 million per year. In 2014, it processed 2.3 million pages. Estimates have put the total cost of translation for all the institutions at around 1% of the EU’s annual budget, or €2 per EU citizen.