An email found its way into my inbox this week, asking for my signature on a petition to oppose the Labour Party’s new Legal Practitioners Qualification Amendment Bill. The purpose of this bill is to remove the Irish language requirement for persons wishing to train as solicitors or barristers. According to the petition, the consequences of its enactment would be as follows:
1. That this bill will damage the status and usage of the Irish language generally, and especially damage the status of Irish in the legal system.
2. That it will be impossible for Irish speakers to obtain their rights in the courts of this country if this bill is passed.
3. That court cases and services in Irish should be offered in all Irish courts, in order to give equal rights to Irish speakers, rather than proposing to take away these rights.
4. That this bill will pose a threat to the Irish language under the Constitution, as our first official language. There will also be implications for the status of the Irish language in Europe, where Irish-speaking lawyers are in demand.
5. That this bill has implications for the coutnry's [sic] independence. If the requirement for an oral Irish exam for lawyers is abolished, our legal system will be able to slide back into the English legal system, as matters stood before 1921.
Let’s look at the background to this. Under the original act, which dates from 1929, and the Solicitors Act 1954, any person wishing to train as a solicitor or barrister in the state must pass Irish language examinations at an early stage of their training. The examinations are both oral and written and there are no exemptions (except for solicitors trained in other countries who wish to have their qualifications recognised here). The standard of Irish required to pass the exams is said to be fairly low for those training as solicitors, higher - although I'm not sure how much higher - for those training as barristers.
So how valid are the objections raised in the petition? I’m going to discount #5 straightaway because it is, frankly, ridiculous. I think #4 is a weak argument too. There are no proposals to remove Irish as the first official language, and it’s not clear what the ‘implications for the status of the Irish language in Europe’ would be. If Irish-speaking lawyers are in demand in Europe, then surely that demand itself would act as an incentive for prospective lawyers to learn Irish, with or without a requirement that they do so. (A similar argument can be made for #2, although I think there’s a more pertinent issue on that one, which I’ll come to later.)
#1 is based on a generalised view that Irish language requirements are an essential component in maintaining the status of Irish. I think it has to be said that the (de facto) status of Irish in this country is poor enough even with these requirements and if they are what we are counting on to save the language, we’re in big trouble. This is not an argument against compulsory Irish per se – I would still strongly support it for primary and secondary students, up to Leaving Cert level, albeit with a vastly reworked curriculum to ensure that they are actually learning the language and not memorising only the amount that they need to pass their exams. If we had that in place then perhaps the language would be used enough to create a real need for Irish speakers in a wide range of professions. But the current half-arsed situation, in which only a small minority of people will ever have to use the language after they finish school, seems to me to do as much harm as good to its status.
So that leaves us with 2 and 3. Leaving aside the former's hyperbole, I think these are the strongest arguments in favour of retaining the requirement. Irish is the first language of the state, and its speakers must have the right to use it to conduct their official business. But there’s a serious question as to whether the current law actually protects that right. As I noted earlier, the solicitors’ exams are, by all accounts, fairly easy – meaning you don’t have to speak Irish particularly well to pass them. Is a Gaeilgeoir who wants to conduct their legal business through the national language really protected by a system that admits persons with only a rudimentary knowledge of that language? Given the intricacies of the law, and the extreme degree of preciseness needed in drafting and responding to legal documents, wouldn’t any such person be sure to seek out a fluent Irish speaker rather than someone who’d just managed to pass a couple perfunctory exams? I have no idea how many fluent speakers there are in the legal profession; this category, unfortunately, was not included in the recent Census breakdown of Irish speakers by occupation. But if there are many, it’s obviously not because of the law - as the law does not require fluency - and so the law is unnecessary for this purpose. And if there are few, then the law is failing this purpose. So either way, the case really isn't made for its retention.
Now having said all this, I don’t like the Labour Party bill either. It would replace the compulsory Irish exam with a 'voluntary system of recognising competence in the Irish language' – so you get a little star by your name in the Golden Pages or something, I guess. This is not the way I would go about reforming the present system. I don’t think there should be no requirement for solicitors and barristers to have Irish – but the requirement should be meaningful, and should be implemented in such a way as to actually encourage and facilitate learning of the language, and of course to not form a barrier to access to the legal profession. The recently-introduced policy of the Garda Síochána seems to me to be a common-sense way to go about this: Irish is now a mandatory part of the training regime for those applicants who don’t already have it.
I’ll conclude by (re-)stating the obvious: this dilemma wouldn’t exist if the government cared enough to ensure that the language was taught properly in the schools in the first place, and to provide adequate Irish education for adults.