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.