Sinn Féin spokesperson for Gaeilge, the Gaeltacht, Arts and Culture Aengus Ó Snodaigh TD has introduced amendments at Committee Stage of the Official Languages (Amendment) Bill 2021 that would reintroduce Irish as a requirement to qualify as a solicitor or barrister from 2025, and make it an essential criteria for appointment as a Supreme Court judge.
Last week, Teachta Ó Snodaigh was forced to stop mid-sentence when proposing the criteria for Supreme Court judges at the Dáil Select Committee for Gaeilge, the Gaeltacht and the Irish-speaking Community, which he chairs. Debate had to be suspended when it emerged Minister of State for the Gaeltacht Jack Chambers was unprepared. Discussion moved on to requirements for solicitors and barristers and is set to continue this week.
Irish was required to qualify as a solicitor or be called to the Bar until 2008, when Fianna Fáil passed legislation as part of a slew of measures during their tenure removing Irish from various spheres, ranging from the legal professions to An Garda Síochána and contributing to a lack of personnel able to provide basic services in Irish, even in Gaeltacht areas.
Despite reassurances that this would “promote better provision” at a “significantly higher standard”, the number of those qualified to provide legal services through Irish has plummeted from 100% of King’s Inns and Law Society graduates before 2008 to roughly 2% of barristers and 1.6% of solicitors practicing today.
“The principle that barristers of all specialisms should serve any client without discrimination is undermined”, Ó Snodaigh argued, “when 98% can’t defend a client who chooses Irish in court.”
“Most other solicitors and barristers have some Irish from school”, Ó Snodaigh noted, “but would have to go to extra effort in an optional exam to be able to practice through Irish, for no reward. It’s a lot easier to just do the Law Society course which replaced the compulsory exam, where you learn how to say “Níl Gaeilge agam” and refer a client to someone else.”
Teachta Ó Snodaigh explained:
“My amendments, based on submissions from language rights activists including the Celtic League, would bring back the requirement for Irish, while ensuring exemptions for people coming to Ireland with qualifications from abroad, and those who qualify here before 2025.
“The collapse in legal service providers with Irish impacts negatively not just on Irish speakers, who are faced with yet another environment where they must switch to English to avail of basic services, but also on the overall quality of legal advice given.
“Article 25.5.4 of Bunreacht na hÉireann makes clear that the Irish text of the Constitution is the authoritative text, and in any cases where it diverges from the English translation – and there are hundreds of examples – the Irish version takes precedence.
“It is ridiculous that the overwhelming majority of legal professionals in the State are not qualified to interpret the authoritative text of the State’s founding document, from which all other laws derive legitimacy. This is especially dangerous in the case of Supreme Court judges, whose job it is to be final arbiter in the case of any disputes over the text.
“I think it a fairly basic ask that the people paid massive amounts of money to interpret one primary document should at least be able to read it.
“The High Court has ruled that lower courts, in the interests of equal treatment before the law, must be able to provide judges with Irish, and the Supreme Court should serve as an example to follow rather than an exception.”