Irish becomes the 23rd official language of EU

The Irish language has been given official status in Europe, taking its place as the 23rd language of the European Union. The move yesterday received curiously little attention in the Republic of Ireland, given that the language has at times been regarded as a semi-mystical part of the national identity.

This may, however, have been due to the fact that, both in Ireland and throughout Europe, the move had little or no opposition, so that no controversy arose over the enhanced status of the language.

It is very much in line with the EU philosophy of encouraging linguistic diversity which, in addition to the adoption of major languages, has led to the granting of semi-official status to tongues such as Basque, Catalan and Galician. Irish, also referred to as Gaelic, will not, however, be on a par with languages such as English, French and German. Europe's institutions will not, for example, be required to translate all legislation into Irish.

The move will mean the creation of 29 new posts in translation, revision and publication. These posts and the hiring of interpreters, will cost around €3.5m a year.

Irish has so far been accorded the status of a treaty language, which means it has been regarded as an authentic text for treaties. As from 1 January, however, all key EU legislation will be translated into Irish, with provisions put in place so that Irish can be spoken at council meetings.

The possibility of further extending the use of Irish will be formally reviewed in several years time.

The language is widely spoken in the Irish Republic, partly because it retains its traditional status as a compulsory part of the school curriculum. While the Irish have a strong streak of internationalism, the language, though it has had its ups and downs, is a familiar part of life. This does not suit all school pupils, however, since Irish is a difficult language to learn.

A census in 2002 indicated that 40 per cent of the population can speak Irish, with more than a quarter claiming to do so on a daily basis. A small number of people, especially in the west of the country, regard it as their first language while thousands of children attend schools where they are taught in Irish.

Ironically, many more languages are to be heard in modern Ireland due to the large-scale influx in recent years of immigrants from countries such as Poland, Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia. There is a political consensus that the Irish language should be promoted, though there are differences about how much effort and money should be put into that process.

Since the south of Ireland obtained independence almost a century ago, successive governments have treated the language as emblematic of the country's identity and sought to keep it alive.

A government minister said recently: "The fact that we have almost 100,000 people throughout the country who speak Irish on a daily basis outside of school, is undoubtedly due to the constitutional, legal and practical protection afforded to Irish in a post-independence society."

Last month the government unveiled a 20-year strategy designed to promote a bilingual society "where as many people as possible use both Irish and English with equal ease". The objectives include continuing development of Irish language broadcast services and aid for parents who wish to educate their children through Irish.

The EU is also currently incorporating the Romanian and Bulgarian languages into its services. In 2004 it adopted nine new official languages, including Czech, Hungarian, Polish, Slovak and Slovene.

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