Thursday, 17 December 2009

Subsidy Culture

Lindy McDowell has an opinion piece in the Belfast Telegraph about the funding of Ulster Scots. The column has some obvious inaccuracies and omissions: a good deal of the agency's budget does go to "small local groups which actually do an impressive job in promoting Ulster Scots culture in their respective areas"; Marie's Wedding should be Màiri's; and the bizarre fact is that MLAs currently have no headphones for translation from Irish to English, never mind English to Scots.

Aside from that, there are some real stories here: the way Presbyterians, once proudly independent and austere, have embraced a subsidy-and-expenses culture; the extent to which Ulster Scots has failed to inspire the general public; and the continuing taxpayer funding of translations to Scots (or anti-Scots) ostensibly for the benefit of native speakers, all of whom without exception understand the English originals better.

Of course, the Ulster-Scots Agency is part of the Good Friday framework, and is probably safe in the short term. Indeed, even if the Southern Government agrees with Mr. McCausland's reform plans, they will still have to be in keeping with the GFA, which has a long list of signatories.

What might be of interest from the standpoint of investigative journalism would be looking at the question of whether any pressure, explicit or implicit, has been brought to bear on, or felt by, the Ulster-Scots Agency to maintain a certain level of spending. One consequential has been to prevent money going to Irish — a result now to be much more effectively delivered by the Ulster-Scots Academy.

Wednesday, 16 December 2009

BBC Bias?

A report on the BBC website dated 15 December states that almost £2 million has been spent on Ulster Scots in 2009, information culled from an Assembly Question tabled by the SDLP's Pat Ramsey.

All well and good, except that when one digs out the written answer, one finds that the figure is actually only £1,363,255 and covers funding awarded to "various Ulster-Scots organisations" for "the promotion of Ulster-Scots culture, heritage and language". The usual mixtur-maxtur of Orangeism and dressing-up, in other words, although doubtless (we hope) with a wee bit of language thrown in.

The Blether Region would love £2 million to be spent on Scots in Ulster — the genuine variety, that is — but it doubts whether that has been the case here.

Saturday, 12 December 2009

Foras na Gaeilge Safe — For Now

Concubhar Ó Liatháin has a thoughtful analysis of the Irish budget over at iGaeilge. Despite substantial cuts to the money available for TG4 and Údarás na Gaeltachta, Foras na Gaeilge seems to have got off relatively lightly.


"As for Foras na Gaeilge, according to the amount stated on the diagram below, the Language Body has lost only €50,000 for 2010 in comparison with 2009. We do not have an accurate view of the overall budget for [An Foras Teanga] except for the budget for the Boord o' Ulster-Scotch (who have their own problems, it seems). One also has to include a couple of other factors — one being that the allowance from the northern Department will be reduced in proportion with the reduction from the southern Department automatically.

The other factor is the green light that was given to Foras na Gaeilge to recruit 16 more employees, including language engineers, to add to the team in its offices in Dublin, Belfast and the new office in Gweedore. This will surely cost €1m+ each year from now on, and it is not yet known what value will result. This comes at a time when a review has been carried out of the number and effectiveness of the core-funded organisations, with its being stated baldly that an attempt is being made to have one organisation or perhaps two or three instead of 19. Accordingly, the result will be that there will be one organisation or three wholly dependent on the Foras for their funding, and those organisations will have little real independence."

One wonders whether Foras na Gaeilge's recruitment policy might have been influenced by rumours circulating of a more major realignment of Irish-language organisations by the Department of Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs. After all, the two cross-border language bodies could not be abolished entirely, since they were set up under the Good Friday Agreement and North/South legislation with the force of an international treaty. Some funding had to go through them.

One way for an agency to keep a budget is to make delivery so costly that substantially cutting the level of funds distributed through it would render its administrative arrangements unacceptably expensive. Complaints are sometimes made about charities' backroom costs, but charities have to raise their own funds, and to keep their costs in proportion. With Foras na Gaeilge, it is the Minister who plays the role of the public. It is also true that job losses at Foras na Gaeilge itself would have played very badly — worse than job losses further down the food chain.

Even if this time the argument about "levering out" funds from the North seems to have been heeded, Irish-language organisations North and South will be worried.

Friday, 11 December 2009

Laird the Most Expensive Peer in Lords

The Belfast Telegraph reports that Lord Laird has been named as the most expensive peer in the House of Lords, claiming not only £74,000 in expenses during 2008-09 but costing the taxpayer over £100,000 in parliamentary questions (the general cost of which is an issue previously raised by the Blether Region).

Laird had already been criticised for claiming for taxis from Belfast to Derry and Dublin when chairman of the Ulster-Scots Agency.

Wednesday, 9 December 2009

Ulster-Scots Agency to be Reformed

The BBC has reported that the Ulster-Scots Agency faces "root-and-branch reform".

While admitting to a degree of scepticism about the agency handing out Santa hats to rugby fans at Ravenhill while failing in the course of its ten-year existence to post the modest corpus of Scots literature from Ulster on the Internet, the Blether Region hopes that this has nothing to do with a North/South understanding to bypass the cross-border bodies.

In the case of Scots, that could mean handing a goodly part of the agency's budget to an Ulster-Scots Academy and perhaps also giving the latter its linguistic remit. Essentially, such a change would entrench DCAL and thus DUP power over Scots language policy while sidelining the UUP and others. And why are there no voices being raised about spending by the Ulster-Scots Academy Implementation Group, some of whose members may well benefit from the agency debacle?

But, if the agency is to be reformed, how about changing the nomination procedures to get a) Scots-language academics and b) Northern Nationalists on its board?

The Santa hats and many other unworthy — not to say unworldly — initiatives can be ascribed to a paucity of good ideas, and that demands that the net be cast wider.

Friday, 4 December 2009

Minister's Relationship with Statutory Committee Hits New Low

The Belfast Telegraph reports that Barry McElduff, Sinn Féin Chairman of the Stormont Committee for Culture, Arts and Leisure, has condemned the Department's DUP Minister, Nelson McCausland, in some of the most forthright terms heard thus far. The criticism followed the latter's delay in advancing strategies on indigenous languages — the minimum foreseen by the St. Andrews Agreement as an alternative to a language Act.

The following sentences are of particular interest.

"He pretends to be a promoter of Ulster Scots as a ruse, in my opinion, to diminish public investment in Irish language projects.

"I question his interest in any cultural aspect."

Earlier this week the Blether Region quoted Fermanagh lawyer Seymour Major as saying that the requirement for language strategies was "only as strong as the most obstructive member of the Executive".

A recently issued consultation paper on a Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland contains the anodyne words "The Government believes these duties are important, and would encourage the Executive to complete and publish these strategies."

It seems that, in the absence of legislation on the Irish language and as long as the Assembly sits, the Minister can do as he chooses.

Wednesday, 2 December 2009

"What might the Tories ever do for us?"

It is one of the ironies of political history that it was the Conservatives, so often seen as the party of England, who introduced S4C and passed the Welsh Language Act 1993.

With the prospect of an imminent UK general election, according to Wikipedia most likely on 6 May 2010, and Labour consistently behind the Conservatives in the polls, it seems relevant to ask what the latter's attitude to the Irish language might be.

In May this year, the Fermanagh-based Tory activist Seymour Major published a series of five blog posts on the issue of an Irish language Act. His conclusion was that there should be a law and that it should broadly follow the provisions of the Gaelic Language (Scotland) Act 2005.

The Gaelic Act is considerably less robust than the Welsh or Irish legislation, being based on statutory language schemes rather than speakers' rights. However, it also represents a good deal more than the language strategies envisaged by the new section 28D inserted into the Northern Ireland Act 1998 by the Northern Ireland (St Andrews Agreement) Act 2006, which Major, a lawyer by trade, describes as "flawed" and "only as strong as the most obstructive member of the Executive".

It is notable that the current UK Labour Government stated as recently as this week that it "remains of the view, as reflected in the St Andrews Agreement, that there is a case for legislation reflecting on the experience of Wales and Ireland" (incidentally, in the same document it also confirms that TG4 will be on Freeview in 2012).

However, expressing one's support for a language Act or ending academic selection is of doubtful relevance if one uses the prospect of a veto on those same issues to entice Unionists into devolved Government.

There are several substantial hurdles that must be overcome if an Irish language Act is to be passed.

Since any Bill introduced at Stormont would either be defeated outright or vetoed on the basis of the cross-community consent procedure, the principle must be conceded that the Bill should be introduced at Westminster, thus repatriating a devolved power. This difficulty will of course not apply if, as is quite possible, the Assembly is in suspension at the time.

The Conservatives must be prepared to act in a way likely to be counter to the wishes of their Ulster Unionist allies and accept the consequences.

Despite the fact that Labour would probably vote with the new Government on the issue, the Conservatives would still have to enjoy a healthy majority, since a hung parliament would give enough leverage to Unionists in general to extract a veto before the First Reading.

It is perhaps this last prerequisite that is the most difficult. While passing an Irish language Act would be a nifty move towards neutralising the effect of the link-up with the Ulster Unionists — an unnecessary gamble that could yet destroy Nationalist faith in the peace process entirely — a hung parliament would see the Conservatives having to listen to the DUP as well as their own UUP allies.

The issue of a language Act is unlikely to go away. Current events tell us that allowing the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure excessive discretion on Irish is a recipe for its politicisation; indeed, DCAL is actively reducing the funding available to the language, while, in all the other areas of disagreement between Sinn Féin and the DUP, the latter is merely exercising a veto. Not least, there seems clear evidence of a double standard, since all major British political parties either support the existing legislation in Scotland and Wales or wish to extend it. International pressure, too, will continue. However, given the difficulties described above, the Blether Region will believe a Conservative language Act when it sees it.

In light of the fact that, spill-over notwithstanding, a double standard also applies with regard to the reserved field of broadcasting, the next time that a concession is due — perhaps to mitigate the non-appearance of an Act — the UK Government might do well to pick that, for example, by establishing a radio station or integrating a beefed-up broadcasting fund into TG4 on Freeview. Although some matters will remain difficult, within reason — and, in the case of Ulster Scots, famously without it — funding is always available according to the principle that treating Northern Ireland as a special case means less spent on security in the long run.

It is also true that, as recently discussed, Nationalists in the Northern Ireland Assembly have the power to secure an important symbolic gain in the status of the language, and a concomitant increase in its use, by declining to translate their speeches into English, thus forcing the extension of the simultaneous translation facility to ordinary Members.

Tuesday, 1 December 2009

Leaflet Campaign Against Ó Cuív

The Blether Region can today reveal details of the anonymous leaflet campaign being waged against plans for the Irish language published by the Minister for Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs, Éamon Ó Cuív. The page pictured was delivered to the offices of an Irish-language organisation in Belfast. It reads:

"Éamon Ó Cuív and his Plan for Irish

Promoting a plan for the 26 Counties alone, sidelining the all-island arrangements, threatening the funding of Irish … BUT, still, he thinks,

More republican than the republicans themselves …"

According to a report in the latest edition of The Sunday Tribune, the Minister is a member of the Fianna Fáil Northern strategy committee currently setting up fora across Northern Ireland. It is too early to say what effect, if any, the controversy over his plans for Irish will have on his party’s ambitions.

Monday, 30 November 2009

Ó Cuív Close to Default on GFA

POBAL, the umbrella organisation for the North's Irish-language community, has expressed its unease at the possible implications of the Southern Government's new 20-year plan for the language.

While the document reiterates treaty commitments to Foras na Gaeilge, part of the all-island structures of the Good Friday Agreement, concerns in the North centre around how safe its budget is in the light of plans for a new, Southern-only body, to be known as "Údarás na Gaeilge".

The six cross-border bodies draw members from the North and South on an equal basis, a considerable enhancement of Northern representation over what might be expected per capita. In the language body, some 75% of the budget for Irish comes from the South and 25% from the North; the position is directly reversed with regard to Ulster Scots.

Northern over-representation is particularly apparent with regard to existing Irish-speakers. While direct comparisons are difficult, according to commonly quoted official figures, 1.6 million people in the South claim some knowledge of the language, almost ten times the Northern total. Although there are no clear-cut statistics for Scots, it is likely that, using this criterion, the Ulster-Scots Agency has Southern over-representation. However, Agency board members from the Republic were instructed not to "rock the boat" at the time of their nomination.

The importance that POBAL and others attach to Foras na Gaeilge rests on the fact that its all-island remit and pro rata funding represent an untouchable pot of funds for the language in the North at a time when Nelson McCausland's Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure has drastically reduced the level of discretionary spending.

Speaking during Oral Questions on 24 November, Mr. McCausland stated:

"I am determined to ensure that the Ulster-Scots Agency is fit for purpose and provides value for money. That is good for the community that the agency serves, and that view is shared by Minister Ó Cuív in relation to both the Ulster-Scots Agency and Foras na Gaeilge."

While the Agency has had mixed fortunes administratively, cynics will see in Mr. McCausland's comments a mixture of Unionist distaste at the notion of cross-border bodies and pragmatic acceptance that the South has no appetite for the considerable pro rata increases in funding that would follow if the Ulster-Scots Academy that he champions were administered through the Agency as some civil servants originally envisaged.

What is of more interest is the attitude of the Southern Minister for Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs, Éamon Ó Cuív.

It is true that pork-barrelling has for many years been an unfortunate feature of Southern politics, but there is no evidence to suggest that the Minister's decision to weaken the structures of the Good Friday Agreement is intended to facilitate any untoward electoral manoeuvres on his part. It might simply be the case that Mr. Ó Cuív, whose commitment to the Irish language in the Republic is clear, would like to exercise more personal control over its development. Whatever the truth, it would be surprising if the budget for Údarás na Gaeilge were entirely new money at a time when the very existence of the Department of Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs has been thrown into doubt by the economic crisis and the recommendations of the McCarthy report.

Although the Minister has reputedly been unhappy with Foras na Gaeilge for some time, it is possible that it is this last threat that has spurred him to action now. Repatriating some of Foras na Gaeilge's decision-making potential is an easy and cost-neutral way of ensuring the relevance of his own position, even if it does "lever out" funding from the North. It is unfortunate that, depending on the detail of next month's budget, Mr. Ó Cuív may secure his future through a departure, if not from the letter of the Good Friday Agreement, then at least from its spirit. For an important section of Northern Nationalism, it will also make new elections or a temporary return to direct rule even more attractive — though they can guarantee neither the Culture portfolio nor a language Act and may have unpredictable long-term repercussions for the political process as a whole.

Wednesday, 25 November 2009

Found in Translation?

The current Northern Ireland Assembly first met on 1 July 1998. The Blether Region wonders how many people could have predicted then that more than 11 years later the use of Irish during its sittings would still be a bone of contention.

Language is mentioned in the Assembly's Standing Orders only twice. Standing Order 78 confirms that "Members may speak in the language of their choice", which seems clear enough, while Standing Order 80 states that the Official Report "shall be a record of the proceedings in the language spoken", i.e. that it will not be issued in a fully bilingual edition produced by a team of translators as is the case in Wales.

At the end of yesterday's Oral Questions to the Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure, the Strangford MLA Simon Hamilton raised the following point of order.

"During Question Time, Dominic Bradley asked a question initially in Irish, which he translated into English. In so doing, he took well in excess of one minute. Will you convey to the Speaker a request that guidance be issued to the effect that, if Members are intent on being as self-indulgent as Mr Bradley, they exercise the same brevity in asking their question that is expected of the rest of us?"

The obvious solution to the issue of the time lost translating into English what one has just said in Irish was articulated by Sinn Féin's Barry McElduff.

"… some time ago, I asked the Speaker to investigate the practical feasibility and possibility of extending the availability of the headsets that the Speaker or Deputy Speaker and Clerks have access to. The Speaker was asked to look into that matter. No additional time would be required for translation if the headsets were available to all Members."

The fact that the simultaneous translation system of which the Speaker and Clerks avail themselves for policing purposes has not been extended — at what one can only imagine would be fairly modest cost — to the Members themselves must surely be the result of an unspoken compact that suits all parties. Nationalists can allow their Gaeilgeoirí to shine while enjoying the benefits of creative ambiguity when it comes to the linguistic skills of their other MLAs. SDLP Members can avoid the dilemma of whether to compete with Sinn Féin in the cultural Nationalist stakes or tread softly around Unionist sensibilities. MLAs from that last camp, who have difficulty getting beyond the side issues of political symbolism and community patronage in debates on linguistic diversity, can refuse their enemies in the culture wars the acknowledgment that headphones hanging from seat-backs would entail and, by halving the time available to Irish-speakers, effectively limit use of the language in the Assembly.

The danger of a rota among DUP MLAs, if such exists, to complain whenever Irish is used is that, while it no doubt plays well to voters and riles opponents, it also makes Barry McElduff's suggestion ever more attractive. Standing Orders confirm that Members offer English translations only as a courtesy, and courtesies can be withheld. The major cost of simultaneous translation is the salaries of interpreters rather than the hardware. At a time when relations between the two largest parties are so bad that fresh elections may have to be held, it is a brave MLA who would press the issue. Of course, were simultaneous translation, and bilingualism, to become an integral part of the Stormont system, it might provide us with a preview of Unionist reactions to what an early election might very well bring: the prospect of a Sinn Féin First Minister.

Tuesday, 24 November 2009

Scottish Gaelic Psalm-singers in Belfast

This Saturday sees two concerts in Belfast by Gaelic psalm-singers from na h-Eileanan an Iar. With their beautiful and heart-rending polyphony, the visitors promise local audiences a rare and receding chance to experience a language, a style of singing, and a brand of religion that were all once central to life in Scotland but that have now retreated to the far north-west.

They also challenge our preconceptions: that Gaels are not Protestants; that Presbyterians are not Gaels; and, for some like me, that extreme religiosity will always result in the warping or diminution of secular culture.

11.00 a.m. to 11.45 a.m.
Saturday, 28 November
Tullycarnet Library
Admission free,
booking advisable
t. 028 9048 5079

7.30 p.m. to 9.00 p.m.
Saturday, 28 November
174 Trust in Duncairn Avenue,
just off the Antrim Road.
Admission free,
booking advisable
t. 028 9074 7114

Monday, 23 November 2009

Hans Across the Water

On the subject of reducing the cost of translation without affecting output, the Blether Region notes that the Northern Ireland Assembly is among a surprising number of our public bodies to commission both Cantonese and Mandarin versions of official documents, despite the fact that they are separate languages only in their spoken form.

Chinese characters represent morphemes independent of phonological change, and are capable of widely variant realisation in the various analytical dialects. Non-standard characters do exist, and according to Wikipedia "written colloquial Cantonese has become quite popular in online chat rooms and instant messaging", a state of affairs that would put it on a par with current use of the Swiss German dialects. The online encyclopaedia adds that written Cantonese "is considered highly informal, and does not extend to any formal occasion".

Good to see the powers that be show consistency by attempting to split Chinese as well as Scots. Bad that taxpayers are once again footing the bill.

Saturday, 21 November 2009

Faux-utilitarian Prejudices: Part II

The Minister for Culture, Arts and Leisure has blogged on the cost of translating documents into Irish, quoting the President of the Northern Ireland Chamber of Commerce, Bro McFerran, as saying "We're not anti-Irish or anti-Ulster-Scots — just anti-translation at great expense".

Of course, very few people, even the most hardline Unionists, ever admit to being against Irish, since it would be an illogical prejudice. That is why the recent "leprechaun language" slip on a TUV press release caused the party such embarrassment, demonstrating as it did not only extreme negativity but, some have argued, racism. The general attitude (cynically paraphrased) is: "We're not anti-Irish — just anti-doing anything to keep it alive or facilitate those who wish to use it".

In my blog of 4 November, The Lexicon of Ludd, I pointed out that Caitríona Ruane's recent decision to hire two full-time staff officer translators had drastically reduced the cost of translation per word. It is true that total translation costs for the Department of Education rose, but only because hiring the staff officers was part of a plan to increase the use of translation, as is the Minister's prerogative under the current power-sharing set-up.

This brings me to an interesting point. The Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure recently established a centralised translation service for the NICS Departments. However, rather than following the Department of Education's sensible example by hiring specialists, DCAL instead initiated a tendering process and appointed an external agency, the aptly named Central Translations (NI) Ltd.

One could argue, of course, that hiring in-house translators would leave DCAL open to exploitation from the other Departments, but there is nothing stopping it from charging 80% or 90% of the commercial rate in an internal market, since it would still turn a profit — money that could be reinvested in the Department's other priorities, linguistic or otherwise.

The truth is, of course, that it is not the costs of translation that are the problem but its symbolism, and I suggest that there lies the reluctance on DCAL's part to bring translations in house. It is well known that most of those charged with the formulation and implementation of policy on minoritised languages in the Department are monoglot speakers of Mid-Ulster English, and Heaven forfend it should ever be otherwise.

Another point can be made regarding Ulster Scots. Regardless of the communicative merit of Irish translations, it can be stated with absolute certainty that there is no native user of Ulster Scots who does not understand the English originals better (usually much better) than the Ullans translations (they would no doubt find them easier if they were sourced from Scotland, where the common literary Scots of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries is still nurtured, but according to Mr. McCausland that is a separate language). Nor is there any potential for Ulster-Scots translations to contribute to the maintenance of Scots-speaking workplaces, as can be the case with Irish, since Ullans activists, Mr. McCausland included, habitually speak English to each other.

Oh, and then there's the £12 million for the Ulster-Scots Academy …

Wednesday, 18 November 2009

Faux-utilitarian Prejudices

It is disappointing, although perhaps hardly unexpected, to see another gratuitous attack on Scots in The Belfast Telegraph, this time from Eric Waugh.

One glimmer in the darkness is that the commentator, for all his proud display of ignorance, at least recognises that we are dealing with the same language on either side of the Sheuch. Nuanced points, on the other hand, are predictably lost on him. For example, the translation offered to visitors to the Scottish Parliament is noticeably timid, while Ulster-Scots translation has been exuberantly over the top, disparate, parasitic and very often incomprehensible. Different though the problems are, they may have the same root: the inadequacy of the paradigm behind their commissioning, namely, that the translations are necessary for communicative purposes, since not having them would disenfranchise people.

In Scotland, the response has been to forge translations not from the full resources of traditional Scots as attested in the SND and other dictionaries but from the impoverished speech of the urban working classes, their putative target group. In Northern Ireland, activists have gone in the other direction entirely, attempting to justify their commissions by producing translations whose "common denominator", in Aodán Mac Póilin's words, "is to be as different to English, and occasionally Scots, as possible". Were the authorities to make clear to translators that their task was to recreate a high-register Scots that is lucid, consistent, intellectually rigorous and a plausible continuation of historic practice — the authentic voice of an ancient commonweal — the result might be very different.

The latter reaches of Waugh's article merely rehearse the faux-utilitarian prejudices of Protestant Ulstermen (if you are reading this in Scotland, think Lesley Riddoch). It is "out of hand" that Irish should be an official EU language, since translation now accounts for "some 1% of its budget". That budget, of course, is is drawn from 27 countries, with Ireland's contribution North and South so small that the well-paid translators whom Waugh so envies would have to spend only the merest fraction of their wages during visits home for their country to make a net profit from the language's official status. Nor is it true that translation costs are ballooning. If anything, enlargement has encouraged the use of English as an auxiliary during the translation process, which means better utilisation of translators.

Perhaps the most objectionable part of the article is where relatively nugatory spending on keeping minoritised languages alive (which in Northern Ireland probably saves millions otherwise lost to civil unrest) is contrasted with the huge spending on the West's elective wars in the Muslim world, as if the latter were somehow unavoidable.

Ultimately, the piece confirms what we already knew: that ordinary Unionists care very little for linguistic culture; and that too many Ulster-Scots activists hate Irish more than they love Scots (Waugh refers to Irish-language activists as their "rival champions", although there is no ineluctable reason for that to be the case). The liberal Unionist and long-time proponent of both leids Ian Adamson refers in a forthcoming article to "a difference in philosophical approach between those who would see the promotion of Ulster-Scots as something of a political tool in their opposition to the Irish language and my Ullans movement". Those of us who believe in linguistic diversity plough our own furrow.

Tuesday, 10 November 2009

"Time to 'efficiency save' Ulster Scots," says Parsley

Ian James Parsley has posted on his exasperation at the direction taken by Scots in Northern Ireland.

Faced with the eye-watering £12 million bill for the planned Ulster-Scots Academy, continuing waste on translations without communicative rationale or linguistic merit, and increasingly brazen attempts at a legislative and Executive level to use Scots as a (rather fragile) stick to beat Irish, it is unsurprising if people who have successfully studied the tongue in their own time and at their own expense may feel that time should be called on Government subsidy.

While agreeing wholeheartedly on the issue of an academy — "the blatant attempt to separate 'Ulster Scots' from Scots on purely funding grounds" — I can still think of many initiatives deserving of modest help from the taxpayer. Chief among them would be a project to digitise the relatively slender library of traditional literature from Ulster and make it freely available on the Internet. As well as helping settle fights about status and orthography, such a project could spark something of a literary and academic renaissance. Digital data are what corpora are built from, after all.

More generally, writing in or about Scots could be made easily accessible by subsidising membership of the Linen Hall Library for students certified by their lecturers as taking relevant courses at the two universities. Come to think of it, what about a mobile library travelling between areas where Ulster Scots is still used? What about writers in residence?

There is no reason either why postgraduate students could not be given grants to write theses on Scots; nor why a taught MA could not be assembled using modules already offered.

Broadcasting is an expensive business, but given that so little Ulster Scots is heard in the media, even a relatively small increase in recurrent funding could make a big difference. Only a minor reorientation of the Ulster-Scots Agency’s spending priorities towards language would be required to achieve it.

Parsley states that no one is interested in Ulster Scots because no such language exists. What does exist is a rich folk tradition of which, I believe, more and more people would take ownership if efforts were focused on it rather than on doomed attempts to change status.

Thursday, 5 November 2009

McCausland Slams Coverage of Ulster Scots in "Foreign" Dictionary

An odd case of doublethink has emerged in the Culture Minister’s response to Scots Anorak's comments on a recent blog posting.

Forcefully arguing that fair fa ye was the Ulster-Scots equivalent of English "welcome", Mr. McCausland decried the variety's unsatisfactory coverage in the online version of the Scottish National Dictionary, stating that "it is generally recognised that its Ulster-Scots content needs to be enhanced".

Yet the Minister is himself at the forefront of the lobby promoting the view that Ulster Scots is a language separate from Scots and therefore, one imagines, hardly suitable for inclusion in the dictionary. Has the Minister changed his mind in the light of overwhelming academic consensus or the convincing linguistic arguments presented to him? Has he balked at the projected £12 million cost to Northern Ireland’s taxpayers over the first three years of codifying Ulster Scots independently?

Or might it be the case that to contend Ulster Scots is not Scots has always been to adopt a confused, contradictory and expedient stance?

Wednesday, 4 November 2009

The Lexicon of Ludd

The Belfast News Letter reports that the Alliance MLA Trevor Lunn has criticised Education Minister Caitríona Ruane for spending £47,062 on translations to Irish last year. Speaking to the paper, Mr. Lunn stated: "I am in favour of the promotion of the Irish language but I am also in favour of value for money."

If Mr. Lunn’s commitment to cost efficiency is as real as he claims, one wonders why he could not have opted for a less cumbersome method of arriving at the total, perhaps by writing a letter to the Minister or by simply adding together the costs of two entry-level NICS Staff Officers. It was, after all, well known that they had been appointed. Interestingly, Mr. Lunn and the other 107 MLAs each receive roughly the wages of two such translators as their basic salary, despite the fact that their job is considerably less skilled.

Tabling an Assembly Question initiates a process that costs hundreds of pounds regardless of the subject matter, and even in his own terms Mr. Lunn is obviously mistaken: it clearly costs much less per word to source translations in house and thus achieves much better value for money for everyone.

If a future language Act succeeds in depoliticising language issues, perhaps taxpayers can look forward to a dividend in the form of a corresponding decrease in the expense associated with frivolous Assembly Questions on the subject.

Tuesday, 3 November 2009

When is a Debate not a Debate?

One formulation commonly heard regarding Ulster Scots is that there is a "debate" on its status, the specific question being whether it is a language or a dialect. The notion that Ulster Scots is a language is sustained by two areas of popular confusion, the first being the various meanings accorded to the word "language" with and without the article, hence the bad English — and good politics — of references to "the Ulster-Scots language and culture".

The second area of uncertainty — one clarified with regrettable infrequency — concerns the crucial issue of whether its putative status as an independent language is with regard to Standard English or Lowland Scots in Scotland. If it is the former, then Ulster Scots has exactly the same case as Scots as a whole, i.e. even if the answer is currently a qualified "no", an arguable case can be made, and an official declaration, while changing nothing linguistic in itself, is the logical first step in making language status an objective reality.

Those who claim that Ulster Scots is a language independent of Scots in Scotland rightly point out that the difference between language and dialect is a sliding scale with no universally accepted cut-off point. However, that sidesteps the question of whether Ulster Scots displays a degree of differentiation vis-à-vis Scots in Scotland that would situate it in the zone of reasonable doubt. For example, teenagers may exhibit characteristics of both children and adults, but that does not mean that babies are not clearly the former and pensioners clearly the latter.

Any genuine debate on according language status to Ulster Scots in contradistinction to Scots in Scotland would have to fulfil three criteria:

First, the epistemological basis of the debate would have to be clarified, i.e. both sides would have to agree that it would take place using exclusively linguistic criteria rather than, for example, admitting the validity of external declarations or covenants, whether political, bureaucratic or religious.

Secondly, the question would have to be debatable, i.e. the weight of evidence could not fall so overwhelmingly on one side of the argument as to preclude doubt.

Thirdly, the two sides, or the arbiters of the debate (currently the UK Government), would have to be open-minded enough to be persuaded by convincing argument rather than make decisions based on instinct, triangulation or expediency.

Positing the existence of a contemporary "debate" with regard to the status of Ulster Scots vis-à-vis Scots fails on all three counts. It is fundamentally not a neutral description of what is occurring in Northern Ireland.

Saturday, 31 October 2009

Around Orkney

Now for something special. If you have ever wondered what a re-functionalised Scots used in high registers might sound like, a tantalising foretaste is provided by the BBC Scotland opt-out Around Orkney. It must be stressed here that the language used is neither traditional literary Scots based on the Central dialect nor the full-on Orkney tongue, which — unlike Ulster Scots — differs from it markedly. Rather it represents the furthest extent to which native speakers from a peripheral, egalitarian and cohesive society are willing to adapt their speech to formal written language. The non-standard elements that remain are panlectal Scots and can be heard every day not only in the Northern Isles but everywhere from Aberdeenshire to Donegal.

Thursday, 29 October 2009

Overplaying Both Hands

EBLUL reports this week on the European aspect of the continuing campaign for an Irish Language Act, with a letter sent by Bairbre de Brún and MEPs from six countries to the First and Deputy First Ministers. Given the subject matter, the roll-call of territories represented is unsurprising: Belgium, Catalonia, Corsica, Ireland, Latvia and Wales.

What, to outsiders, might seem more remarkable is the fact that there is no mention of the letter having been copied to the Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure, the individual who would actually be responsible for introducing any Bill at Stormont. The missive’s authors, it would seem, do not believe the Minister in question amenable to persuasion.

If Sinn Féin arguably overplayed its hand in lending its support so vocally to a campaign summarily rejected by successive DUP Ministers, could it be that the DUP — specifically the current Culture Minister, Nelson McCausland — has done something similar? DCAL currently envisages greatly reduced spending on Irish. On several counts, the logic and rationale of its plans are problematic.

First, the budget for Irish has ostensibly been cut so that funding can be diverted towards an Ulster-Scots Academy, but given the very small sums involved, the question must be asked why DCAL did not simply make the argument to DFP for a larger budget.

Secondly, there is the issue of demand. There is simply much greater public expectation of spending on Irish than there is of spending on Ulster Scots, because there is so much more interest in the community at large.

Thirdly, there is the question of the extent to which concern for confessional parity of esteem has translated into literal equality becoming a shibboleth of language policy, whereby linguistic differences are overlooked and Irish and Ulster Scots are viewed as being the exclusive or overwhelming province of faith communities. As I once heard a weel-kent Irish-language activist say, a language is a series of grunts, and there is nothing “Protestant” or “Catholic” about any language. If Irish-speakers today are largely Catholic, it is because most speakers are elective learners. It is not true in the Republic of Ireland, where everyone, including Protestants, learns Irish; nor is it true of Scottish Gaelic in Scotland. The 1999 Northern Ireland Life and Times survey found that at least a quarter of those who speak Ulster Scots are Catholic.

Most importantly of all, there is the small matter of language status. While one can make an arguable case for Scots as a whole, which is currently a dialect largely because of its deliberate exclusion from public life, the same is hardly true of its Ulster offshoot, which is inextricably part of Scots for inalterable structural reasons. You will have seen Nelson McCausland’s justification for according language status to Ulster Scots in a recent posting. Much as I appreciate a theologian’s ability to argue about the number of angels that can fit on a pinhead, such verbal dexterity does not prove the existence of angels.

Going on the only official figures available — the 1996 GRO Scotland study and the 1999 Northern Ireland Life and Times survey, respectively — some 98% of UK Scots-speakers live in Scotland. DCAL can spend what it likes on promoting Scots in Ulster (the remit of the Ulster-Scots Agency, which according to my sources could not handle a massively increased budget). When it comes to standardisation and codification, however, it would seem reasonable to expect 98% of funding to come from the Scottish Government.

To many people, therefore, DCAL policy, as well as being anomalous at a UK level, seems unreasonable, arbitrary and chauvinistic. A cannier Unionist politician who wished to thwart the Irish language might simply have frozen spending on it. As matters stand, Mr. McCausland’s extreme budget reductions may have bolstered the case for rights-based legislation to protect the language, remove it from the political sphere, and limit drastically the discretionary element in its funding.

Wednesday, 28 October 2009

A Modest Proposal

A press release on the BBC website reports that the corporation’s executive has suggested the removal of its radio stations from the Freeview system in the evenings to make room for BBC Alba, which broadcasts between 5 p.m. and 11.30 p.m. each day.

As you may be aware, despite the considerable costs involved in setting up and funding the station, it has never been broadcast over the mainstream Freeview system, and until now there has been some doubt as to whether that would occur even after the final digital switch-over.

Might it be too much to hope for a similar dispensation to be made for TG4 in Northern Ireland? After all, the sea-change in the station’s availability promised in the Good Friday Agreement of 1998 has yet to occur, the principle of Freeview transmission was conceded in an OFCOM report of November 2007, and Northern Ireland will be among the very last regions to enjoy wider digital broadcasting possibilities after the analogue switch-off. The opt-out could be at a similar time in the schedules as in the case of BBC Alba, since it is generally in the evenings that TG4 broadcasts its new, home-grown, Irish-language output.

It would certainly be possible technically, and the BBC could make its own contribution by broadcasting its Irish programming immediately before or after on the same channel. Of course, if the BBC were to do as I suggest, it would be removing its own services — albeit hardly taken up through the medium in question — in favour of one based in the Irish Republic.

I wonder what it would decide.

Tuesday, 27 October 2009

An Identity of Bluster

The DCAL Minister Nelson McCausland has made an interesting post on the question of whether Ulster Scots can be termed a language, the gist being that, since the Moldovans have declared their dialect to be such, so can anyone.

The key phrase here is "while the country was and is independent, its 'language' is what its officials say it is". Moldova is not the same state as Romania, and so it has an absolute right to exercise "national preference" in favour of its citizens in a way that would not be acceptable within a single pan-Romanian state.

Northern Ireland and Scotland, on the other hand, are currently in the same state, and regardless of what the coming years may bring, will probably both remain in the European Union in some form. Overwhelming linguistic consensus agrees that Ulster Scots is a dialect of Scots, just as Moldovan is a dialect of Romanian. Indeed, the editor of the Concise Ulster Dictionary has gone as far as to say that Ulster Scots is a subdialect of Central Scots rather than a main dialect in its own right.

Advertising jobs and services as being relevant to speakers of "Ulster Scots" is indirectly discriminatory and therefore, in my view, illegal, since it discourages Scots-born Scots-speakers in the same way as it would if one advertised jobs and services for speakers of "Ulster English" or "Austrian German", which differ to a similar extent from neighbouring varieties.

The UK Government, and the EU, have accepted that they have a duty not to discriminate on ethnic grounds. No bureaucratic declaration that Ulster Scots is not Scots would withstand a challenge on the grounds of indirect discrimination; it would simply be found illegal.

The Minister's arguments are political rather than linguistic, display a relativism that in other contexts would be considered risible or dubious, and, in the final analysis, are grossly sophistical.