Dublin calls for Irish to be an official EU language    

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The Independent Online

Ireland has reopened bitter divisions over the European Union's language regime by asking Brussels to offer full translation and interpretation into Irish. With the expanded EU now dealing with 20 official languages and facing an annual bill of €1bn (£670m) a year for translators and interpreters, the move has heightened fears of linguistic gridlock.

Ireland has reopened bitter divisions over the European Union's language regime by asking Brussels to offer full translation and interpretation into Irish. With the expanded EU now dealing with 20 official languages and facing an annual bill of €1bn (£670m) a year for translators and interpreters, the move has heightened fears of linguistic gridlock.

But it is also expected to provoke a fierce reaction in Spain's regions, which were angered by the Irish government's resistance to plans to give wider EU recognition to Catalan, Basque and Galician.

Any concession to Ireland is likely to be resisted by the government in Madrid led by Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero - unless he can secure greater rights for his minority languages as a quid pro quo.

Irish is one of the country's two official tongues and since Ireland joined the EU in 1973, it has enjoyed a special intermediary status short of being a full working language. All treaties have been translated into Irish and citizens can correspond in it with the European institutions.

Now Dublin wants it to be the EU's 21st official language, which would mean thousands of documents being translated into Irish, and interpretation offered in the European Parliament.

Eamon O'Cuiv, Ireland's minister for community, rural and Gaeltacht [Irish-speaking areas], said last week: "People fully recognise the importance of the Irish language as part of the rich cultural heritage we have. The next step is to talk to all the other member states and evaluate their reaction." The government in Dublin promotes the use of Irish, supporting dedicated TV and radio broadcasts, and claims that 41 per cent of the country's four million people can speak it.

But Ireland gave little support to plans for the recognition of minority languages while it held the EU presidency and chaired negotiations over a draft constitution for Europe. A proposal from the Spanish government to give Basque, Catalan and Galician, the same status as Irish was watered down.

Dublin said such rights should only be granted if languages were officially recognised by governments. There was also a fear that concessions would open the door for the recognition of a host of other tongues spoken by minorities in the EU, such as Welsh and Cornish.

In the end, the right to correspond with the European institutions in Catalan and other languages was not written into the EU constitution though the treaty itself may be translated into their tongues. That gesture failed to satisfy many Catalans, who point out that seven million people speak their language - several times the number of Irish speakers - even though it does not have official status throughout Spain.

The row illustrates the sensitivities over the language issue following the EU's expansion from 15 to 25 member states in May. Diplomats are already reporting a sizeable backlog of translations as staff grapple with the new demands.

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