Mind your language

Is there still really a need for the Irish language requirement to join An Garda Síochána asks Ciarán O’Neill?

In September 2005, the then Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, Michael Mc Dowell amended the academic requirements for new entrants into An Garda Síochána. He stated that the requirement to have an academic qualification in Irish had effectively ruled out non-nationals in becoming members of An Garda Síochána. At that time, an estimated 10% of all people living here were born outside the State. Successful candidates in the recruiting competitions would still have to take basic lessons in the Irish language as part of their Garda training.

Those changes are in force today for entry level Garda recruits and as it currently stands, the educational requirements for entry into An Garda Síochána are as follows:-
Applicants must have (a) obtained an Irish Leaving Certificate with a grade D3 minimum in five subjects at Ordinary Level and must have a proven proficiency in two languages; one of which must be Irish or English. In the last competition for Garda recruits, there were three application streams i.e. (i) General; (ii) Fluency in the Irish Language and, (iii) Eligible Serving Garda Reserve Members.

All good so far – so why am I concerned about the need for the Irish language as an entry requirement? I have over 25 years’ experience in An Garda Síochána and throughout my career I have had to use the Irish language only twice. I’m not against the Irish language – far from it – indeed my own children were educated in Gaelscoileanna. However, I do recall an interview with a young man on the RTE Liveline programme who badly wanted to be a Garda but was prohibited from doing so because he had dyslexia and he was exempted from Irish in the Leaving Certificate and so, did not meet the necessary requirements. If he had passed English and Latin, he’d have been fine but because of his disability, he was ineligible.

In their submission to the Commission on the Future of Policing, the Dyslexia Association of Ireland states that if An Garda Síochána wants to attract the best applicants, then surely the recruitment process should aim to seek individuals with the relevant strengths rather than penalising those with weaknesses, which are largely irrelevant to the day to day work of a garda. The fact that a candidate didn’t study a European language or Irish at school because of his or her dyslexia, does not mean that they are not a potentially excellent police officer.

It is estimated that one in 10 people are coping with dyslexia and I am aware of a number of them who are in An Garda Síochána. Our police force does recognise the rights of these individuals once inside the job and has recently implemented the availability of reasonable accommodation for those who may need it in all internal competitions and promotions. However, no such provision applies for new recruits at Garda entry level.

The same restriction however does not apply at entry levels above the rank of Superintendent. The 2005 Garda Síochána Act allows the appointment of members of the Police Service of Northern Ireland into the ranks of Superintendent, Chief Superintendent and Assistant Commissioner. There is no requirement for members of the PSNI joining An Garda Síochána to have Irish – or in fact any second language.

The recent Government contingency paper indicates the need for secondary legislation to make provision for UK citizens to become members of An Garda Síochána and the Garda Reserve. Would this require the need for those applicants to have Irish or a second language? The answer is unknown at this stage.
Every person has the right to conduct their business through the medium of Irish and that is accepted, but cases before the courts which are heard in Irish are conducted with the use of interpreters. Interpreters are used by An Garda Síochána every day to deal with the interactions with foreign nationals and persons with little or no understanding of the English language, and the same services are also available for non-Irish speakers.

As stated previously, I am not against the Irish language – I just have to query the necessity to have it as an entry requirement if it is being taught to recruits in the Garda College. Not everyone has Irish entering the Garda Síochána but, save English, is there really a need for two languages?

In August 2019, the Department of Education amended the system for granting exemptions from the study of Irish which they say was long overdue. It was an attempt to make the system fairer and more supportive of students, while at the same time ensuring that all children have equal access to study the Irish language. Maybe it is now time we had a look at the need for Irish as an entry requirement in An Garda Síochána so that we too can also have a fairer and more supportive system.

Ciarán O’Neill is a former President of the GRA and GRA Representative for SDU. He is also a member of the Garda Review Editorial Board

For full and in-depth coverage, see the current printed edition of Garda Review.

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