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.