The Belfast Court of Appeal was urged yesterday to overturn a 270-year-old ban on the use of Irish language in court proceedings in the Six Counties.
Senior judges heard the prohibition was discriminatory and breached the European Convention on Human Rights.
Irish language speaker Caoimhin MacGiolla Cathain is challenging the dismissal of a legal case he took after being informed his application in Irish for an occasional drinks licence could not be considered. Court staff said the reason was that under the Administration of Justice (Language) Act of 1737 all proceedings in courts in the Six Counties must be in English.
The liquor licence sought by Mr Cathain, a member of the Shaws Road Gaeltacht in west Belfast, was in connection with a musical concert in the Culturlann centre.
Last summer a High Court judge rejected his contention that the 1737 Act was incompatible with the European Charter for Regional and Minorities Language and secondly that the Act contravened his human rights.
But his lawyers went before a three-judge appeal panel headed by Lord Chief Justice Sir Declan Morgan to argue that the legislation has been repealed in Scotland and Wales.
Michael Lavery QC contended that Irish speakers should be able to enjoy a part of their citizenship.
“The courts are not entitled to set a system of justice in Northern Ireland which ignores those rights,” he said.
Mr Lavery said his client qualified as a victim who had not even been permitted to get beyond the first stage of his application.
“Here is a person who wants to make an application in Irish,” Mr Lavery said.
“If your lordships hold in our favour he would have been entitled, or the organisation would have been entitled, to have that application made in Irish.
“As a result of not being able to do that then he is unable to have this function and that makes him and every member of that organisation a victim.
“He is not just somebody, some Irish-language enthusiast going forward seeking a declaration.”
He said the attitude of the government had been “evasive and avoiding the issue”.
But Paul Maguire QC, for the British government, noted Mr Cathain’s ability to speak English. “If this was a case of necessity it is highly likely . . . arrangements would have to be made to ensure proceedings were conducted in English but with the assistance of translation facilities,” he said.
“What distinguishes this case is this is not a case of language of necessity. In essence what the applicant seeks to do is express a preference to go to the courts and conduct the proceedings in the Irish language.”
Outside the court Irish speakers said the case is a litmus test for the Hillsborough Agreement.
Pobal’s chief executive Janet Muller said the continued use of the “outdated law” is a key issue in light of an agreement over policing and justice.
Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams again called on the British government to overturn the “draconian” and “bigoted” 1737 act.