The Irish language has always enjoyed a paradoxical position in OfficialIreland. While recognized constitutionally, and constantly used to promote the notion of a mystical Irish Nation to attract tourism and US Dollars, it nevertheless received little, if any, support from successive governments.
It could be argued that the few concessions that were made came only after years of hard campaigning and lobbying. A Gaeltacht community radio, Radio na Gaeltachta, was founded in the Seventies and Teilifís na Gaeilge (Irish language TV) was founded in the mid-Nineties. Many of the advancements in the language came from the bottom up. There has been a marked increase in the last two decades in the number of all-Irish schools, many of which have not received any assistance from the State and are operated and funded by the parents and communities that set them up.
Irish language speakers who wanted to use their native tongue were for years seen by the State as subversives. The language was often erroneously associated by opinion makers with having some relation to the troubles of the North.
There have been some positives however, such as the introduction of legislation to protect the rights of Irish language speakers in their own Country. The Official Languages Act, passed last year by the Oireachtas (Parliament), stipulates that Irish people have the right to do their business in the first official language. The incident involving the taxi in Kilkenny however suggests otherwise.
Those who pursue the aim of including Irish as an official language of the EU are hoping that official status will accord the language some legal standing in the growing community of Europe and that it will also help promote Irish at home through the creation of a new context for the language, where Irish people can explore the use of their own language outside the traditional spheres of use in Ireland.
The Irish Government, currently holder of the EU Presidency, while preparing to celebrate the expansion of the Union, seems little interested in the proposal to include Irish as an officially recognized language of the Union.
Amongst the arguments put forward by those in favour of including the language amongst those officially recognized by the Union are:
Irish is used in official business at all levels of public administration in Ireland including the judicial, parliamentary and public administrative systems. Many thousands of people speak it, and more importantly, wish to continue its use in their every day lives.
At present, the European Union has 11 official languages. According to the treaty of accession, signed in 2003, once the accession States join the EU (on May Day, 2004) the inclusion of Estonian, Latvian, Lithuanian, Polish, Czech, Slovak, Hungarian, Slovene and Maltese will bring to 20 the number of languages recognised as official by the EU.
The benefits of official status are numerous. Mainly it would add to the validity of European law as European law will be translated into the native tongue.
It would seem vital for an organization of government, that to many seems distant and irrelevant, to make some sort of connection with its subjects. Official status will allow for the use of the Irish in the European Parliament.
At present, the current MEP for Connacht-Ulster, Mr Seán Ó Neachtain, must seek permission if he wishes to address Parliament in his mother tongue, Irish.