A Brussels Gaeltacht? The Status of the Irish Language in the EU Institutions

By Shane Goodman

On 1 January 2022, the derogation period on the full and official use of the Irish language in EU institutions was terminated. After almost 50 years of EU membership, Irish citizens could finally read the entirety of the EU’s acquis communautaire going forward “as Gaeilge”. To date, this has been the only time in the Union’s history where a new language regime had to be introduced for an existing Member State. 

The Status of Irish in Ireland

Irish, sometimes known as Gaelic, is the indigenous language of Ireland and was the primary language spoken on the island until the mid-19th Century. Under British rule, the language’s status declined significantly. Laws such as the Administration of Justice (Language) Act (Ireland) of 1737 effectively banned the use of Irish in legal proceedings, only being repealed with independence in 1922 in the Republic. In Northern Ireland, it is due to be abolished before the end of 2022. Likewise, the Great Famine of the 1840s and subsequent waves of emigration weakened the language further into obscurity. It was only in the years leading up to Irish independence that the number of Irish speakers began to rise once again in a process known as the Gaelic Revival. 

Since independence, Irish has been the national and official language of Ireland, with English acting as a second official language. Interestingly, this means that should there ever be a discrepancy between the Irish and English translations of laws in Ireland, the Irish translation will prevail. However, in practical terms, English is the most spoken language. While approximately one-third of the Republic’s population speak Irish to some extent, only 100,000 people use it daily. These native speakers are primarily concentrated in rural communities known as Gaeltachtaí. In Northern Ireland, Irish is spoken at least occasionally by 12.4% of the population. This significant minority of speakers has often had to campaign for their language rights in both jurisdictions. This has also been the case on the European level, with Irish language advocacy groups campaigning for official EU language status for Irish in the early 2000s.

The Long Derogation

The Republic of Ireland joined the EEC in 1973 alongside Denmark and the UK. However, Irish initially only had the status of a treaty language. This meant that EU treaties were translated into Irish but that secondary legislation, such as EU regulations and directives, were not. Treaty language status also meant that Irish could be used as a procedural language at the Courts of Justice of the EU, but this did not occur until 2021.  While Irish speakers had the right to correspond with EU institutions in their native language, key documents remained untranslated. The Irish government applied for Irish to become a full and official working language of the EU in 2005. After a consultation period, the Irish language was granted this status in 2007. However, the capacity of the EU to translate all EU documents into Irish was found to be insufficient. Due to a lack of fluent staff and technological resources, a derogation period was put in place to allow the European institutions some time to recruit Irish speakers. This was originally due to elapse in December 2010, but the derogation had to be extended until the end of 2016. Once again, a second extension until January 2022 was granted. The Irish government had requested that 2022 be the final deadline, and in collaboration with the EU institutions, ran a campaign to exponentially increase the number of Irish-speaking staff before the end of 2021. 

A European Commission report from June 2021 found that all EU institutions now had the capacity to meet the demand for translation into Irish, which paved the way for official status earlier this year. Notably, it also found that the volume of translation into Irish tripled between 2016 and 2021. By January 2022, the number of staff working in the Irish language increased to 200 people. With the Irish language now on par with the other 23 official languages of the EU, it is hoped by many that Irish will gain further recognition and that awareness and use of the language will increase in Brussels, Luxembourg, and beyond.

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