UCD in breach of the Official Languages Act during treatment of FOI Request

Tessa Ndjonkou breaks down UCD’s non-compliance to the Official Languages Act in their treatment of Freedom of Information requests.

Correspondence recently obtained by The University Observer between the UCD FOI Office and Trinity College postgraduate researcher and Irish-language advocate Seathrún (Jeffrey) Sardina revealed that UCD may not comply with the Official Languages Act. 

Sardina claims that he submitted a Freedom of Information request in May 2023 requesting to see public documents on UCD’s current climate action strategy or lack thereof. Once this response was submitted and reached UCD FOI Office, he claims the UCD FOI Office initially refused to process his request until he provided an English translation. He refused to provide translation, citing Section 9 of the 2003 Official Languages Act, which clearly states that “Where a public body communicates in writing or by email with the general public or a class of the general public to provide information to the public of the class, the body shall ensure that the communication is in Irish or in Irish and English”. Furthermore, the Act ensures that requests submitted in Irish must be treated in Irish. The primary objective of the Act is to ensure the improvement of the current output of public service through the Irish language. 

Seathrun Sardina, a PhD researcher with Trinity College Dublin and Irish Language advocate, submitted over 200 Freedom of Information requests inquiring about several public bodies’ climate action policies. He sent them all in Irish and alleged that a staggering number of public bodies failed to respond by abiding by the norms formulated in the Official Languages Act. Indeed, 22% of public bodies did not even respond to the FOI Request, 56% did not issue a receipt, and 37% of bodies who responded were unable to provide complete communication through the Irish, of which 46% used mostly or all of English for their communications. The UCD FOI Office appeared to oppose his use of the Irish language actively and initially refused his request until the latter was translated. When asked for the motive behind the refusal, the FOI Office defended that Mr Sardina’s request was not precise enough, citing a clarity issue rather than an Irish language Issue. However, the Observer has obtained documents that prove that the clarifications asked concerned not the nature of his request but the actual meaning of the request. 

Indeed, when questioned by the Observer on why he declined to comply with translation demand, he contends “What was concerning to me was that they didn’t seem to understand the core of what I was asking”. Furthermore, he revealed how, in their later communications, the FOI Office “Asked for clarifications in Irish and then added an English translation at the bottom”.  

 “What was concerning to me was that they didn’t seem to understand the core of what I was asking”.

He contends that although his demand was eventually processed correctly and he was able to liaise with the UCD FOI Office in Irish, he resents having to specify a demand that was “from that start, quite clear”. Moreover, the notable absence of any acknowledgement or apology for the debacle was especially upsetting. Seathrún Sardina feels as though this is a part of a broader devaluation of the Irish language by the government and in general society: “It’s sad to see, but there seems to be a real culture of disrespect in regards to the Irish language. Although the Irish language community is strong, the rest of society does not seem to want to interface with them through the language. This is not a personal fault but rather a systemic level of disrespect that is being seen increasingly”. He expands: “It seems that many public bodies offer Irish translations as a second thought, not so much because they want to, but because they feel as though they have to”. Referring to the signs found across Dublin city and even on the Trinity College Campus, he says, “You’d be surprised how many of these signs are grammatically incorrect. Genuinely, many of them appear to have been generated by Google Translate”. 

“It’s sad to see but there seems to be a real culture of disrespect in regards to the Irish language."

The current standing of the Irish language remains unclear and contentious, with some praising the rise of a new generation of Irish speakers and others dismayed at the steady decline of the practice of the language. Current numbers on Irish speaking collected by the Central Statistics Office (CSO) reveal that the percentage of people aged three and over who could speak Irish in 2016 was 39.8%, which is only a slight decrease compared to the 2011 figures. However, an observation of Irish-language practice and education revealed that in 2022, 33% of the Irish speaking population speaks Irish outside of an educational context compared to 36% six years prior. The number of daily Irish speakers has, therefore, slightly decreased. The most recent figures presented by the CSO show that Dublin City and South Dublin do not boast the Irish-language figures county Galway does (29.2% and 34.1%, respectively, against 49%). 

The percentage of people aged three and over who could speak Irish in 2016 was 39.8% of the population which is only a small decrease compared to the 2011 figures.

This situation may prompt a reevaluation of the Government goals for the Irish language set up in the Official Languages Act amendment of 2021, which notably set an objective of 20% of new recruits to the public sector and the Civil Service to be proficient in Irish. 

The University Observer has contacted the UCD FOI Office and the UCD Communications Office for comment. Both failed to comment at this time. Any new information will be added to this article.