The Irish Language: Need for constitutional reform?

old map of Ireland and Britain
Orla Leahy

19th May 2021


With the centenary of the Anglo-Irish Treaty later this year, it can be regarded as a fitting time to review provisions for Irish and other languages in our constitution, as the Treaty was the incentive for our first constitution of 1922. What provisions currently exist for languages and how does our constitution compare with that of other countries?


There are three primary Articles concerning our official languages in Bunreacht na hÉireann 1937. These include Article 8, 25.4 and 25.5. Interestingly, the provisions concerning languages changed dramatically from the constitution of 1922. In 1922, Article 4 provided for languages and stated that both Irish and English were the official languages of Ireland, with Irish being the national language. Languages were moved down the line slightly to Article 8 in 1937, just after the national flag. France also places the national flag next to languages, as well as the French anthem and motto. Irish was placed in Article 8 as the “first-official language” with English as the “second-official language.” The Article continues on to acknowledge that special provisions may be made for exclusive use of either Irish or English by the State. 


The official languages are again referred to in Article 25.4, where it is clarified that legislation shall be published in both languages, and where it is produced in both, shall be signed by the President in both. This suggests that the national languages are on equal footing. However, 25.4.6° and 25.5.4° provide the understanding that the Irish language shall have precedence where there is conflict between firstly, two legislative texts enrolled in the Irish Statute Book and secondly, where there is conflict between the Irish and English versions of Bunreacht na hÉireann. Indeed, there have been court cases throughout our recent history where there has been a delay in producing statutes in Irish or where a conflict occurs between the two texts, either statutory or constitutionally. 


Similarly, Canada has two official languages, English and French. As well as the State’s obligation to produce legislation in both languages, like Ireland, there is the additional provision for right to trial by jury in either official language. While Ireland is currently unlike Canada in this regard, as we do not have the explicit right to trial by jury in Irish, perhaps we need to look west and adopt a similar provision to ensure the existence of Irish in the courts as well as in the legislature? To facilitate such litigation procedures through Irish, we may need to see the emergence of more bilingual judges. A recent case in 2019, Ó Cadhla v. An tAire Dlí , Cirt agus Comhionannais, [2019] IEHC 851, highlighted the lack of bilingual judges at district and circuit court level.


“Should there be the readoption of an Irish language exam, similar to our former exam upon civil service entry, as in Norway, where judges must hold a certain degree of fluency in Norwegian, to facilitate such an emergence?”

On an international scale, Ireland is the only country in which the native language takes precedence over another official language in the constitution. This is indicative of the importance of protecting and promoting Irish. The need to ensure the survival of it is still evident today from the recent Official Languages (Amendment) Bill 2019 and the new Irish Language Scheme for the Office of the Comptroller and Auditor General 2021-2024 which aims to improve the provision of services in the Irish language and to introduce new sectoral language standards. 


Like Ireland, Spain recognises the need to offer certain languages special protection. In their constitution of 1978, it is recognised that Spanish (Castilian) is the national language, that everyone has the right to speak it and an obligation to know it. 


On a European Union level, there are currently 24 official languages, Irish being one of them. This means that there are teams of Irish lawyer-linguists working to produce official documents, such as judgments and opinions in Irish, alongside teams of lawyer-linguists working in the other 23 languages. On March 17th, the first ever judgment was handed down in Irish for a case taken in Irish in the Court of Justice of the European Union, Case C-64/20 UH v An tAire Talmhaíochta Bia agus Mara, Éire and An tArd-Aighne, EU:C:2021:207. Irish in the Union is going from strength to strength, should we not aspire to see improved developments for the language in our constitution also?


Language provisions in Bunreacht na hÉireann have never been revised, yet the provisions of the 1922 constitution were revised a mere 15-years later, when Bunreacht na hÉireann was being drafted. The breakdown of linguistics is not the same today as it was in 1937. The Irish language requires preservation and it is imperative that the status given to Irish in our constitution is not only upheld, but improved upon. Perhaps we ought to adopt similar provisions to other countries, such as jury trials in both official languages as in Canada?





Featured photo created using Canva

This article was supported by: STAND Business + Politics Editor Megan + Programme Assistant Rachel


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