‘Irish in court? You would need a rainforest and an army of staff’

Caral Ni Chuilin (former culture minister, far left), Pat Sheehan and Declan Kearney at a Sinn Fein press conference at Stormont Castle, Belfast, on 27/06/17
Caral Ni Chuilin (former culture minister, far left), Pat Sheehan and Declan Kearney at a Sinn Fein press conference at Stormont Castle, Belfast, on 27/06/17

Making the Province’s court system bilingual would involve an “army” of translators wasting a “rainforest” of paper, according to the Province’s first-ever culture minister.

Veteran UUP man Michael McGimpsey was speaking as a cloud of secrecy continues to shroud exactly what Sinn Fein’s full list of demands are for its proposed Irish language act.

However, in a 2015 consultation paper put forward by one of his successors as culture minister – IRA bomber-turned-politician Caral Ni Chuilin – called for the following to be part of any such act: “Provision conferring the right to speak the Irish language in legal proceedings in the north.”

And in March this year, Irish language organisation Conradh na Gaeilge bolstered this call when it put forward proposals which included the idea that “people should have the opportunity to present their evidence in Irish, without hindrance or disadvantage”.

It also wants to see a move to “allow for civil actions against the state to be taken and heard through Irish”.

It further goes on to call for “court proceedings, such as the family court etc, to be heard in Irish, if both parties agree” – something which could be facilitated by allowing an Irish-speaking judge from the Republic of Ireland to be “borrowed” for hearings in Northern Ireland, and by scheduling monthly “Irish days” in court, where a raft of Irish-language cases would be heard in the same sitting.

It is not clear if these specific measures are reflected in the demands which are now being made by Sinn Fein.

Ever since 1737 (the same year the News Letter was first printed), the ‘Administration of Justice (Language) Act (Ireland)’ has governed the language of the courts in what is now Northern Ireland.

It states that “all proceedings whatsoever in any courts of justice within this kingdom, and which concern the law and administration of justice, shall be in the English tongue and language, and not in Latin or French, or any other tongue or language whatsoever”.

Envisaging how new Irish measures might actually play out in the Province’s busy court system, Mr McGimpsey said: “Somebody stands up and speaks Irish and everybody has to put their headphones on.

“That, I think, firstly would be very expensive...

“Everybody speaks English. Everybody has English as their first language. Nobody is disadvantaged by speaking English in the courts.

“All this would do is slow down justice and put an obstacle to justice.”

He added: “You’d need a whole interpretation service...

“You’d need to have interpretation, both oral and written, for the courts – and you know the vast numbers of documents the courts produce.

“When you start getting into this, you’d have an army of interpreters, and an army of people doing nothing but writing it all down and publishing it – you’d need a rainforest of timber to produce the paper!

“The reality is, in those courts – which you expect to be open and transparent – 95% of the population wouldn’t have a clue what’s going on if they’re all speaking Irish.

“It’s a nonsense, and it goes way beyond – for example – of what happens down south.”

In Caral Ni Chuilin’s 2015 proposals, as well as a right to speak Irish in court, her idea for an Irish language act included: “Provision to guarantee the right to education through the medium of Irish.”

Asked if he thought it was possible that an accused republican could conceivably be granted time to learn Irish – fulfilling his “right to education” – as a means of delaying the start of their trial, Mr McGimpsey said: “I’m not sure about that. But I do think that once you drop the flag for the court proceeding in Irish, then you’re into an alien world, because most people in Northern Ireland, they don’t speak Irish.”

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