Language act: Anti-terror expert questions how an Irish language criminal court is supposed to work

A former anti-terror officer has wondered how the Tory government’s planned Irish language act is meant to work in courts, suggesting that it could slow some already sluggish cases down further.

The case of failed Irish republican killer Christine Connor took some seven years to finally make its way through the court system
The case of failed Irish republican killer Christine Connor took some seven years to finally make its way through the court system

William Matchett, a Special Branch detective-turned-author, was reacting to one of the clauses in the Identity and Language (Northern Ireland) Bill, set before the London parliament on Wednesday.

Arguably the main thrust of the bill is that it will create three new public agencies: an Ulster-Scots commission, and Irish one, and an “Office of Identity and Cultural Expression” (OICE).

But another key aspect is that it will repeal a law which has been in force since the 18th century enshrining English as the required language of the court system.

The upshot is that people will be able to demand their trials be held in Irish.

The News Letter has been at the forefront of reporting on the enormous delays currently involved in paramilitary court cases (see below).

Now the Irish language bill risks adding to that, said Dr Matchett.

Mr Matchett spent much of his 30-year RUC and PSNI career putting suspects before a judge.

He has also worked in Iraq and Afghanistan on training their security personnel.

Take the example of someone giving testimony in court, he said.

“Here say it takes you 60 minutes to do that. When you add the translation, it doesn’t double it, it’s nearly times three.

“In Afghanistan it was Dari and then Pashto. It got to the stage where you could’ve gone away and had a cigar and by the time you came back they’d only said a sentence.

“If it’s going to be contemporaneous [translation], will there be someone in court in a booth, and everyone has headphones on like you see in the UN? It’s instantaneous, which means you need about three translators because their brains melt after about 60, 90 minutes of that, and they need to change over.

“You could see an industry popping up where it’s all to do with translators in headphones.

“It’s the practical mechanics – what does it look like that somebody demands a trial in Irish? Does the judge speak Irish? A few might, but probably most don’t.

“How many barristers speak it? How many solicitors?”

On the other hand, he noted that bilingual countries like Belgium and Canada have functional court systems, and that once such a system “beds in” most people involved in the NI legal process would not find it a problem.

“It can be done, and done efficiently,” he said.

“But: it costs money.”

The longer cases drag on, the more likely it is that those facing charges will be allowed to continue living in the community on bail until proceedings finish.

She was freed on bail before finally being convicted in 2020 after two trials involving hundreds of witnesses and thousands of documents.

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