Belfast attorney Michael Flanigan, who is championing a high-profile test case to overturn a 1737 British law which forbade the speaking of Irish in courts in Ireland and is effective to this day in Northern Ireland, says the Brehon Law Society could play a key role in highlighting what he called this “civil rights travesty.”
In recent years, the Irish language has been a political battleground in Northern Ireland with unionists continuing to block any official recognition for the language, this despite pledges to defend the language in the historic Good Friday agreement of 1998 which ushered in the new power sharing administration.
Ten per cent of the population of Northern Ireland, about 160,000 people, have a knowledge of Irish but that percentage increases sharply in the nationalist community where there has been a stunning turnaround in the fortunes of the Irish language over the past forty years.
“The North of Ireland is the only part of these islands in which the use of the primary indigenous language is effectively banned in the courts,” explained Janet Muller of the Belfast Irish language advocacy group, Pobal.
The test case into the validity of the 1737 act was triggered by the request of a Belfast musician, brought up in an Irish speaking home, who applied for an entertainment license through the medium of Irish.
The refusal of that request was judicially challenged over two days in October with the British government resolutely defending the ban. A ruling on the challenge is expected in the New Year.
The manner is which the Crown defended the case, asserting that the legislation was still necessary for the efficient administration of the courts, was surprising, particularly when similar legislation had already been repealed many years ago in England, Scotland and Wales.
Michael Flanigan told the Irish Echo that the legislation was “a cultural Penal law.”
“The position of the Crown was all the more surprising considering that we are supposed to be enjoying the fruits of the parity of esteem promised in the Good Friday agreement. The reality is that at the point of contact with the state, on virtually any issue, the only language which can be used by those who consider themselves Irish in Northern Ireland is English,” Flanigan said.
“I would encourage Irish American attorneys and the Brehon Law Society to bring their considerable influence to bear on this issue.”
Flanigan said that if the case was rejected by the courts in Northern Ireland, he would appeal as far as the European Court on Human Rights, where, ironically, he would be allowed represent his client in Irish as it is a full recognized official and working language of the European Union.
Rob Dunne, newly-elected president of the Brehon Law Society in New York, and an attorney with the law firm of O’Dwyer and Bernstien has pledged to respond to the plea for help on the issue.
“The Irish language ban in Northern Ireland’s courts is exactly the type of injustice that Paul O’Dwyer and Frank Durkan founded the Brehon Law Society to fight against,” Dunne told the Irish Echo.
“As part of our continuing campaign for equality and justice in Northern Ireland, the Brehons are eager to be engaged in the Irish language issue until it is resolved. The British government has to be challenged for defending a law which is nothing more than a flagrant abuse of civil rights,” he said.