Equality laws in Ireland prohibit discrimination under nine characteristics: gender, civil status, family status, sexual orientation, disability, religion, age, race, and membership of the Traveller community.
Language does not feature in this list of characteristics, but should it?
We know from many research studies that discrimination can often occur because of people’s linguistic background. Whether it is in employment or housing or in many other categories of daily life, linguistic aspects such as accent, competence and difference can lead to conscious or unconscious exclusion processes. As has been observed by scholars, language can in effect be the gateway or proxy for other forms of discrimination where social or racial factors are inferred through language.
In bilingual countries, language issues can often be considered in terms of equality, justice and human rights: witness, for example the recent discussions relating to the decision by the European Court of Justice in March 2021 that information on veterinary medicinal products sold in Ireland should be in both Irish and English.
However, while debates about the use of the Irish and English languages are often framed in terms of human rights, for other languages in Ireland, these are considered more in terms of integration and language learning.
Protection for languages other than Irish and English is markedly absent from Irish legislation: the Official Languages Act recognises Irish and English as the two official languages of Ireland but does not provide for individuals whose first language is not one of the two official languages. In Irish Equality legislation, there is no explicit reference to different linguistic backgrounds, language disadvantages, or linguistic barriers preventing access to services or opportunities.
Therefore, although at an EU level, linguistic diversity is enshrined in Article 22 of the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union, in reality, because member states can determine on the ground how to manage this diversity, the situation in Ireland leaves little protection for language rights in multiple languages.
The absence of discussions on linguistic diversity and discrimination is all the more striking given the dramatic changes in the linguistic landscape of Ireland over the last 20 years.
It is a reflection of the increased presence of foreign languages in Ireland that questions on languages now form part of the Census. The 2011 Census was the first to ask questions about foreign languages spoken in Irish homes and it confirmed that Polish was the most common foreign language in Ireland, followed by French, Lithuanian, German, Spanish and Russian.
The 2016 Census showed that 612,018 Irish residents spoke a foreign language at home (up 19% from 514,068 in 2011). This data makes it clear that Ireland is becoming increasingly multilingual with 13% of the population speaking a foreign language at home.