The Official Languages Act 2003

AuthorCaren Bohane
The Official Languages Act 2003
By Caren Bohane
Article 81 of the Constitution proudly proclaims the Irish language as the
national and first official language of the State, recognizing English only as a second
official language. However, despite the constitutional primacy accorded the Irish
language, there is in reality a major imbalance in the level of services available
through Irish when contrasted with those available through English. Service provision
is heavily skewed in favour of English, the second official language. Thus, “[a]rticle 8
provides status without substance. It provides a symbolic support that is the natural
enemy of realism… there is no doubt but that Irish speakers themselves have found
themselves paralysed by the double bind of constitutional rhetoric (you are free to
speak the nation’s first, official language) and lingustic reality (you are able only in
the most restricted circumstances to speak the nation’s first, official language.”2 The
Constitutional Review Group “considers that there is an implicit right to conduct
official business in either official language and that the implementation of this right is
a matter for legislation and/or administrative measures rather than the constitutional
provision.”3 The Official Languages Act 2003 “marks the first real attempt to
translate constitutional ideals into a workable legislative reality.”4 The objective of
the Act is “(1) to endeavour to rectify the imbalance that exists in terms of the
provision of State services to Irish speakers, and (2) to underpin the policy of
Bilingualism in the State and to support the implementation of that policy by
imposing on public sector entities the obligation to provide a quality service to those
seeking to transact business with the State through either of the official languages.”5
Background to the Act.
1 “ 8(1) The Irish Language as the national language is the first official language.
(2) The English Language is recognised as a second official language. (3) P rovision may, however
be made by law for the exclusive use of either of the said languages for an y one or more official
purposes, either throughout the State or in any part thereof.”
2 Michael Cronin, ‘This Side of Paradise pg 265 at 273 of Irelands Evolving Constitution
3 Report of the Constitutional Review Group 1996 pg 15.
4 Niamh Nic Shuibhne , ‘Eighty Years A Growing – The Official Languages Equalit y Bill 2002’, I.L.T.
August 2002 Vol. 20 No. 13 at 198.
5 As stated by Oifig an Aire Ealaíon, Oidhreachta, Gaeltachta agus Oiléan in Sum mary of
Memorandum for Government, Official Languages Equality Bill, 14 Iúil 2000.

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