Thursday

4th Mar 2021

Interview

How one man and his dog made a mark on EU history

  • Samhain means "November" in Irish (Photo: Peadar Mac Fhlannchadha)

A local man walked into a pharmacy in Galway, western Ireland, to buy medicine for his dog five years ago and now he is making history in the European Court of Justice (ECJ).

Peadar Mac Fhlannchadha's then 10-year old lurcher, Samhain, was unwell, but when he looked at the medicine, he was also bothered by the fact the label was in English only.

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  • Peadar Mac Fhlannchadha works with a Dublin-based NGO (Photo: Peadar Mac Fhlannchadha)

"Some people think I'm daft", he told EUobserver last Friday (15 February).

"But I've been campaigning to protect the Irish language all my life," he said.

"I knew from my work that there was a European Union directive that medical labels should be in both the languages of my country," he recalled.

Mac Fhlannchadha objected to the Irish agriculture ministry, but "got nowhere".

So he sued the agriculture minister in the High Court.

Úna Ní Raifeartaigh, the judge, who conducted the case in Irish, ruled in Mac Fhlannchadha's favour in 2019.

But Ní Raifeartaigh asked the ECJ for legal advice and invoked her EU right for the European tribunal to also hold proceedings in Irish.

It was the first time the ECJ did so since Ireland joined the EU in 1973, making history.

The final verdict is pending, but, last Thursday, an ECJ expert, or "advocate general", issued a preliminary opinion in the case, adding a footnote to that history.

Mac Fhlannchadha could not travel to Luxembourg to attend the ECJ's Irish-language hearings due to the pandemic.

The preliminary opinion also said Ireland should be free to ignore the EU law in question, as it was being superseded by a new one, which allowed English-language only labels.

And Samhain, the dog at the centre of the story, died last summer.

But even if the ECJ verdict goes against Mac Fhlannchadha, for the 60-year old Irish man and his Dublin-based NGO, Conradh na Gaeilge, the EU process is in itself a moral victory.

"Some members of our legal team felt like it was Christmas morning when we heard it was being referred to the EU court," he said.

"Just look at all the publicity we're getting," he noted.

"It's raised the status of the Irish language and the documents from the ECJ case will help us in other areas going forward," Mac Fhlannchadha added.

"There is hardly any doubt that linguistic diversity is particularly valued in the European Union," the ECJ advocate general, Michael Bobek, said in last Thursday's opinion.

He cited chapter and verse of EU treaties, charters, and other laws that protect the union's 24 official languages.

But Bobek also said there ought to be a "pragmatic approach" to language rights.

And Mac Fhlannchadha's story raised the old question of whether the EU was spending too much on them.

The European Commission alone spends €45m a year on translation and €60m on interpretation.

Its publications office also distributed 6.4m printed documents in various languages in 2019.

Meanwhile, fewer than 75,000 people in Ireland speak Irish on a daily basis, according to Ireland's last census in 2016.

And some of the texts that end up being translated into all 24 languages, such as the EU's 1,378-page trade treaty with Ukraine, are far away from pharmacies in Galway.

Asked by EUobserver if all that sounded less than "pragmatic", Mac Fhlannchadha said: "I'd agree that, in this day and age, printing is a waste and almost everything should be online".

But when asked if it was a waste to translate international treaties into Irish, he said: "I strongly disagree".

The EU money that paid for the high-level Irish skills needed for this type of work helped to preserve the language's "richness", he said.

A lot of EU translation was machine-assisted anyway, he added.

And the EU money also trickled back to national economies, he said, for instance, by creating jobs for Irish interpreters, who spent their wages in Belgium and back home in Ireland.

Language politics

"Irish is one of the oldest languages in the world and it contains a wealth of tradition, in terms of folklore, song, and literature," Mac Fhlannchadha also told this website.

"Our languages are at the heart of our identities," he said.

And "nurture" of member states' diversity "goes back to the roots of the whole European project", he added.

But Mac Fhlannchadha distanced himself from those who used language and identity "in an exclusory way ... to try to keep people out".

"Some Irish right-wingers, who talk about the importance of the Irish language, can't even speak it," he said, referring to Irish natives who disliked immigrants from central Europe.

"You can't leave people drowning in the sea ... you have to look after those who need looking after," Mac Fhlannchadha also said, referring to African and Arab asylum seekers and far-right EU politics more broadly speaking.

"Given the wealth the EU has, we have to take care of them [refugees]," he said.

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