Anti-Irish penal law challenged
Anti-Irish penal law challenged

A British ban on the use of the Irish language in courts in the North which stretches back to 1737 was challenged this week.

In the High Court in Belfast, Justice Treacy was asked to hold that the centuries-old ban should be quashed as it was in conflict with the Human Rights Act, European treaties and international norms.

The move to end discrimination against the Irish language arose in an application for judicial review brought by Caoimhin Mac Giolla Cathain, a member of the Shaw’s Road Gaeltacht community in west Belfast.

He applied for a drinks licence in Irish for a concert in the Culturlann centre on the Falls Road.

But he was informed that the application had to be in English under the Administration of Justice (Language) Act Ireland 1737 which states “all proceedings in courts of justice within this kingdom shall be in the English language”.

The 1737 act belongs to the penal laws in Irish history which sought to discriminate against the majority population.

The law has been repealed completely in Britain, where it was seen to adversely affect Scottish and Welsh speakers.

Janet Muller, chief executive of Pobal, an umbrella organisation for Irish-language groups, prepared an affidavit which was included in the evidence.

“This is an outdated and unfair law which discriminates against the Irish language and against Irish speakers,” Ms Muller said.

“In Wales, Welsh speakers have had the right to use Welsh in court proceedings of all kinds since 1942.

“In Scotland, there are a number of courts where Gaidhlig can be heard on a daily basis if requested.

“The evidence which I am placing before the court shows that the British government is once again guilty of applying double standards to the users of the different primary indigenous languages on these islands.”

Ms Muller argues that continued application of the act contravenes the rights of Irish speakers under the Good Friday Agreement, the Human Rights Act, the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages and the Framework Convention.

Penal laws began to be seriously enforced in Ireland from the late 1500s - part of a determined effort to impose English culture and government control throughout Ireland for the first time.

The ‘plantations’ of Ireland brought with them the anti-Catholic legislation which would eventually disenfranchise the richest of the Catholic Irish and Presbyterian Scottish settlers in favour of a minority of Church of Ireland worshippers.

The following years saw a series of reversals and returns to the laws as the British monarchy’s attitude to its Catholic subjects fluctuated from king to king.

New penal laws were passed after 1695 and at this stage there was an even more determined effort to enforce them.

Among the discriminations now faced by Catholics and Dissenters under the penal laws were: exclusion from most public office; a ban on inter-marriage with Protestants; a bar from holding firearms or serving in the armed forces; exclusion from voting, the legal professions and the judiciary and owning a horse worth more than five pounds.

Defending for the British Lord Chancellor, Paul Maguire QC, has claimed that the current Stormont administration is the prime authority to decide the issue, not the courts.

Commenting on the case, Sinn Féin President Gerry Adams once again called for the introduction of a comprehensive, rights-based Irish language act to secure the rights and entitlements of speakers in the Six Counties.

“It is unacceptable that a century’s old and oppressive ban on Irish being spoken in the Courts is still in effect in today’s multi-lingual and culturally rich Ireland,” he said.

“The ban on an Irish speaker applying for a drinks licence in Irish flies in the face of equality legislation here in the North as well as the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages.

“This law should be consigned to history and this case indicates very clearly the real and practical need for the Minister of Culture to bring forward a comprehensive, rights based Acht na Gaeilge.”

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© 2008 Irish Republican News