Drink-drive controversy has nothing to do with languages act

The fact that legislation stating breath test results must be furnished in both official languages was ignored, is not the fault of the Irish language, says Rónán Ó Domhnaill    

IN last Thursday’s Irish Examiner, Victoria White advanced the sensationalist theory that the Official Languages Act (2003) is “killing off what’s left of the Irish language”.

Apparently, people convicted of drink-driving “may get off scot-free because of the interpretation of the Official Languages Act which was signed into law in 2011 in the Road Traffic Act”.

The fact of the matter is that the recent controversy about the validity of drink-driving convictions has absolutely nothing to do with the Official Languages Act.

While I share Ms White’s concern about people escaping the administration of justice, her suggestion that a Romanian national could not be convicted of drink-driving due to the Official Languages Act is plain wrong.

Firstly, people are charged for traffic offences under the Road Traffic Act, not the Official Languages Act. Secondly, the fact that the legislation which stated that breath test results be furnished in both official languages was ignored is not the fault of the Irish language, or language legislation designed to protect the rights of Irish language speakers, but rather an example of the State deciding one thing in legislation and subsequently failing to fulfill what was a fairly simple procedural duty.

Drink-drive controversy has nothing to do with languages act

Ms White errs once more when she drags Oifig an Choimisinéara Teanga into her argument by asking whether the tourism industry in Co Mayo should “thank the Language Commissioner for signs which say ‘Acaill’ instead of Achill”.

It should be clarified that decisions taken regarding placenames are a matter for the democratically elected parliament of this country.

The role of the Language Commissioner is to ensure that the law regarding the Irish language voted on by parliament is upheld.

But even if we ignore the fact that Ms White’s entire argument is based on factual misinformation, some of her points are still worth addressing.

While many of us might find it comforting to imagine, as Ms White does, that ‘only love’ will save the Irish language, all evidence and research points to the fact that effective language legislation is also crucial to the survival of minority languages.

Likewise, we are told matter-of-factly about the “idiocy of attempting to revive the Irish language by an act of parliament”, despite the historical and contemporary evidence from across the globe that suggests that acts of parliament, while never the sole determinant in the fate of a language, are often important in deciding whether languages survive or not.

There is also a question of language rights, two words which Ms White feels necessary to place in quotation marks. Many regard the right to speak a language as a human right, but she seems to hold the reductive view that understanding English renders the very notion of linguistic rights redundant.

Drink-drive controversy has nothing to do with languages act

“English is now ours and we use it because we want to,” she states.

But what about those of us who believe Irish ‘is still ours’ and who want to use it, but often can’t? Ms White goes on to attack the “guardians of ‘language rights’ as prescribed in the Official Languages Act” who “have gone at the language like the Taliban went at Islam and left nothing except lumpen duty and legal threat”.

The Taliban reference is an obvious, tiresome, and disrespectful slur, but we might also wonder as to who these “guardians” of language rights are. Is Ms White referring to the thousands of Irish speakers, from the Gaeltacht and elsewhere, who took to the streets of Dublin last year on ‘Lá Mór na Gaeilge’ to demand the same language rights? Or to the many parents who demand services in their native language for the child they are raising, against the odds, in Irish?

Ms White develops her faulty premise by describing Irish language translations of official documents as “gobbledygook”. Whatever about the unnecessary slight on many fine Irish translators, are we really to believe that all official documentation in English language is written in spare Hemingwayesque prose?

I don’t for a moment question Ms White’s self-proclaimed love of what she calls “our beautiful language”, but she does the language a huge disservice by suggesting that there are limits to the world which it can describe.

Ms White invokes Flann O’Brien in her column, suggesting that he could have written the script for the recent breath-testing story. O’Brien, however, was always suspicious of those who idealised the Irish language or set limits to the world which it could describe.

It is easy to imagine him raising an eyebrow at the notion that official translation robs Irish “of its ring, its rhythm, its poetry, of everything which makes it different from English”.

In a column written during the Second World War, O’Brien once satirised a newspaper editorial that argued that the language of officialdom was changing so rapidly that reviving Irish would be difficult “unless conversation were limited to requests for food and drink”.

The editorial asked rhetorically whether “Gaelic ingenuity” stretched far enough to provide suitable Irish words for the likes of ‘Molotoff bread- basket’ and ‘Axis’. O’Brien offered a few choices and proceeded to mock the attitude that Irish should “be full of cainnt na ndaoine, excerpts from Séadna, corra-cainnte, sean-fhocla, and dánta díreacha, and would embody examples of béarla féinne and even én-bhéarla or bird dialect”.

For many people, the Irish language is more than a ‘bird dialect’ or even a beautiful historical anachronism. It is a living language spoken by a significant minority who deserve to be treated with respect rather than to be patronised with spurious arguments based on factual inaccuracies.

Rónán Ó Domhnaill is An Coimisinéir Teanga.


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