An Irish member of the European parliament is staging a “language strike” in protest against what she calls the discrimination against her mother tongue within European Union institutions and the “dismantling” of Irish language services by the government in Dublin.
Liadh Ni Riada, an MEP for the south of Ireland who grew up and lives in an Irish-speaking community, has been communicating only in Irish in the parliament since the beginning of the month and plans to continue until St Patrick’s Day on March 17.
Minority and regional language campaigners and supporters from across Europe have backed Ni Riada, and accused the EU and member states of failing to meet their own commitments on protecting linguistic diversity.
“I had the Irish language from the cradle as my mother tongue. I only learnt English when I went to school,” Ni Riada told Al Jazeera. “It saddens me as an Irish speaker that I cannot use my own language as I go about my work. I feel more comfortable conversing in my native tongue than I do in English.”
‘Except the Irish language, of course’
Irish, a Celtic language, is Ireland’s first official language although English, which has co-official status, is more commonly used; a consequence of centuries of English and British colonial rule when the use of Irish was discouraged and often actively suppressed.
It is the day-to-day language of approximately 77,000 people, but 1.77 million people – 41 percent of the population – say they can speak the language, according to the last census in 2011. Predominantly Irish-speaking areas, which are concentrated primarily in western regions of the country, are known as the Gaeltacht.
Irish was given official status as a working language by the EU in 2007 but has remained marginalised since then because of a derogation which means that institutions are not obliged to provide full translation services in Irish, as they are in all of the EU’s 23 other official languages .
“When they announce at committees that all languages are available I feel like jumping up and down and saying, ‘Except the Irish language, of course.’ It has the same status as the others, so there is huge discrimination there. Irish is excluded and ignored,” Ni Riada said.
The derogation was originally put in place because of concerns that Ireland could not deliver the required pool of translators to serve the needs of European institutions. The current derogation, which is reviewed every five years, is due to be renewed in 2017, and the Irish government must apply to the EU council of ministers this year if it wants it to be lifted.
Ni Riada, whose nationalist Sinn Fein party has long campaigned for more assertive measures to restore Irish as the country’s main language, said that ending the derogation would create 188 translation jobs for Irish speakers at little cost and have “huge ramifications” for Gaeltacht communities.
“We are already paying for other languages to be translated so why not pay for our own language? The knock-on effect is that it makes it more accessible for people at home who want to see the work that I do and the work the parliament does in their own native language.”
there is a whole other depth to it in terms of its richness in history, arts and literature.”]
A poll last month found that 70 percent of people in Ireland favoured the provision of all public services in Irish. But the current government, led by the centre-right Fine Gael, has come in for criticism for failing to do more.
Last year, the Department of the Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, which is responsible for Irish language affairs, admitted it had used Google Translate to produce Irish text for a website promoting centenary commemorations of the 1916 uprising against British rule after Irish readers described the content as “nonsensical” .
“The government have made much noise about their commitment in the promotion of Irish but it is evident that it is only lip service. The government have not only consistently failed to serve the Irish language community, but they have dishonoured our cultural and historical legacy,” Trevor O Clochartaigh, Sinn Fein’s Irish language spokesman, said last month.
Ni Riada warned that government cuts to Irish language services were also undermining a 20-year revival strategy launched with cross-party and public support in 2010, and called on Irish speakers to join the strike, and to express support on Twitter using the hashtag #StailcTeanga (language strike).
“Our language is part of our identity and it is what makes us stand out from others. This isn’t just about a working language; there is a whole other depth to it in terms of its richness in history, arts and literature. It is a frame of mind, it is all about diversity and that needs to be encouraged.”
Last year, thousands of people marched through Dublin to protest against the government’s failure to implement legislation protecting the rights of Irish speakers.
“What was wonderful was you could hear Irish spoken everywhere on the streets of our capital,” said Ni Riada. “And then you start thinking, ‘My God, once upon a time this country spoke Irish all over. It is all because we were colonised and the last thing that you do in stamping out somebody’s identity is crush their language.”
Too little, too late?
Ni Riada said her personal assistant was acting as her unofficial translator during the strike to enable her to continue working. She is also continuing to speak with her constituents in both Irish and English.
Yet, addressing a parliament committee session on Monday, she was interrupted by Roberto Galtieri , the chairman of the meeting, who told her that translation by an assistant was not allowed. “Either use another language or unfortunately I am not able to give you the floor,” Galtieri told her.
But supporters who signed a Change.org petition calling for the end of the derogation backed Ni Riada’s protest.
“It is wonderful to hear Irish at the European parliament. What kind of ‘Union’ is this when all other countries speak their native languages in the parliament?” wrote Aedammair Ni Chiardha.
“It is shameful that any government should retreat from supporting the heritage and language of its own country,” wrote Gabhan O Dochartaigh.
I think the EU could be doing much more to promote the use of our national languages. For us, it is a matter of fundamental rights and the EU should require member states to fulfil that right.
MEPs representing Ireland and other countries with co-official languages also expressed support. Deirdre Clune, a Fine Gael parliamentarian for the south of Ireland, said: “I support anything which helps to preserve our native language. I, along with my Fine Gael colleagues, have been working closely with Joe McHugh [Ireland’s minister responsible for the Gaeltacht] to end the derogation for a number of months now. We have brought the minister to Brussels to discuss this. We are confident of a positive outcome in this scenario.”
Josu Juaristi, an MEP from the Basque region of Spain, said: “I think the EU could be doing much more to promote the use of our national languages. For us, it is a matter of fundamental rights and the EU should require member states to fulfil that right.”
Davyth Hicks, the secretary-general of the European Language Equality Network, called on the EU to recognise other languages with co-official status in member states such as Welsh in the UK and Catalan, Basque and Galician in Spain. He said there were more than 50 million native speakers of regional and minority languages within the EU, with many defined as endangered by UNESCO .
“We strongly support Liadh’s action on behalf of Irish,” Hicks told Al Jazeera. “If the EU and its member states are to respect linguistic diversity we need to see some substantive measures. Still today the EU has not created any legal basis for the protection and promotion of our languages. Europe could be a great leader in reversing language endangerment, but it’s not even willing to act meaningfully to safeguard the language rights of its own citizens.”
But some fear efforts to promote Irish are already too late. A comprehensive study of the use of Irish in 2007 concluded that the language was unlikely to remain the dominant language even in Gaeltacht areas within two decades. Joe Mac Donnacha, one of the co-authors of that report, wrote last year that Irish was in terminal decline.
“What we are now seeing in the Gaeltacht are the final throes of Irish as a living language,” Mac Donnacha wrote . “The only question that remains is whether they can be maintained as English-dominant bilingual communities, or whether the shift towards monolingual English-language communities is now inevitable.”
A spokesperson for the Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht told Al Jazeera that the Irish government was “actively engaged with the EU institutions in order to formulate specific proposals on the optimal approach to the derogation. The outcome of that engagement will inform the proposals that will be brought to government in due course”.
But with another opportunity for Ireland to end the derogation not due until 2020, Ni Riada said the country’s Irish speakers could not afford to wait any longer.
“Five years could be the difference between it flourishing or fading as a living language. We have very good things like Irish television stations and organisations that use Irish but there has to be much more of a political will to encourage people to use it. That is the missing piece of the jigsaw.”
Follow Simon Hooper on Twitter: @