Friday, 29 January 2010

Unrepresentative Representatives

Two recent newspaper articles, by Mick Fealty and Alan Murray respectively, have drawn attention to the influence of the Free Presbyterian Church and the Loyal Orders on Northern Ireland politics. Below a quote from each:

"More than 50% of their [the DUP's] public representatives belong to a church that contains no more than 10-12,000 people."

"It's been estimated that around 38 to 40 of the DUP/Ulster Unionist Assemblymen are affiliated in some way to one of the so-called Loyal Orders, such as the Orange Order, the Royal Black Preceptory or the Apprentice Boys of Derry."

The Northern Ireland Assembly currently has 53 representatives from those two parties, meaning that up to 75% of them are members.

If the Loyal Orders seem to be well represented politically, then that is all the more true with regard to Ulster Scots. Every chair of the Ulster-Scots Agency has been a member, and the agency's chief executive, George Patton, is a former executive officer of the Orange Order. That is, of course, fairly well known.

Perhaps less well known is that a surprising number of the professional Ulster-Scots are members not only of the Loyal Orders but of a single Loyal Orange Lodge, the Cross of Saint Patrick LOL 688, which has around 30 "brethren" (that's "brothers" to me and you). Their number include Gordon Lucy, a treasurer of the Ulster-Scots Heritage Council, and Mark Thompson, a former chair of the Ulster-Scots Agency. The Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure, and former director of the Ulster-Scots Heritage Council, Nelson McCausland, was for many years the lodge chaplain. Fellow Orangeman Clifford Smyth, development officer with the Ulster-Scots Language Society and husband of Anne Smyth, the society's chair, was guest speaker at a lodge dinner held in November 2008; it transpires that the Smyths' son Alan is also a member.

Indeed, so blurred have the lines of demarcation become that at one time the Ulster-Scots Agency even listed the lodge's outreach organisation, the Fellowship of Patrick, as an "Ulster-Scots" group on its website, as well as granting it funds.

A recent lodge newsletter boasted that of the five speakers at an Ulster-Scots event held at Stormont on 28 September 2009 under the auspices of the Ulster-Scots Community Network (the new name for the Heritage Council), four were members.

The Ulster-Scots Agency and the Ulster-Scots Community Network have recently taken the symbiosis a step further by moving into the same building in Belfast's Great Victoria Street.

Another surprising fact is the number of such people who are also involved in the British-Israel World Federation. For the uninitiated: the federation brings together those who believe that the British are descended from a lost tribe of Israel and therefore have a special destiny as a "light to the world". Clifford Smyth is an active Northern Ireland member, while McCausland spoke at a recent federation conference; Gordon Lucy did the same at the organisation's Ulster get-together held in Ballymena on 12 May 2007. Mark Thompson, perhaps afraid of being mistaken for a British Israelite, has explicitly stated on his personal blog that, while some of his friends are of that persuasion, he is not.

Another link is that among the founder members of LOL 688 back in 1968 was William McGrath, leader of the British-Israelite group Tara, of which Clifford Smyth, who lodged with the McGrath family, was a prominent member. It was presumably McGrath who won Smyth over to his offshoot of Christianity, which, unlike the Mormons, seems not to have made the jump to respectability. The Blether Region is not aware how many other players, if any, were involved with Tara at the time.

Needless to say, it will be clear to most people that British-Israelite beliefs are irrational, but they are only a small part of a portfolio of irrational beliefs held by DUP members of the Assembly. Edwin Poots and Nelson McCausland are devotees of biblical creationism, Sammy Wilson rejects the science of climate change, and Iris Robinson, God bless her, once claimed that a homosexual orientation could be "cured" with the help of a "lovely" psychiatrist whom she knew. It will also be apparent that such beliefs, zany as they are, are trumped hands-down by the claim that Ulster Scots is a language separate from Scots in Scotland, since it is the only one that can be dismissed on the basis of simple observation without recourse to any professional expertise.

In short, the self-appointed representatives of Ulster Scots are a highly distinctive bunch, and, dare I say it, rather unrepresentative of the rest of us.

Thursday, 28 January 2010

In the Footsteps of the Bard

This week the Blether Region attended a Burns Nicht do in Belfast. Since my acquaintance with Scots is mainly limited to dry tomes on language, the event took on a degree of anthropological significance.

Nearly everyone was dressed very formally indeed, and apart from friends and family of the guest speaker and those attending out of professional interest, nearly everyone was in their 60s or older. As can sometimes happen at single-identity gatherings of older people, the organisers were oblivious to the need to present a neutral face, toasting the Queen and making jokes about the sectarian colours of ballot tickets. There was clearly no malice in this, and perhaps it merely reflected the reality that involvement in Scots at this formalised level, as opposed to hearing, speaking, reading or writing it, is an overwhelmingly Protestant pastime in Northern Ireland. There was also a peppering of passing political incorrectness about unmarried mothers, gays and women. One should remember, of course, that wars of the sexes are to a certain extent encouraged by the format.

In Scotland no Burns Supper would be complete without a haggis main course. In Northern Ireland the haggis is often either relegated to a symbolic role or, as in this case, that of a starter (the usual main at such events seems to be Antrim turkey, which is nice but not as nice as the "chieftain o' the puddin' race").

Perhaps the most intriguing question that occurred to me was whether the proceedings reflected what we know of the personality of Burns. Guests were several times enjoined to stand up, on one occasion for the entry of those at the top table: this at an event to honour the lyricist of "Is there for Honest Poverty". And when one speaker compared the poet's lifestyle to that of local lad o’ pairts George Best, a lady next to me let out an involuntary gasp of disapprobation. It seems that excessive devotion to wine and women is all right — as long as it remains in literature.

Wednesday, 20 January 2010

Secret Talks

The BBC reports that the DUP, UUP and Conservatives have held secret talks in England.

"Party sources denied they were about an electoral pact or voting arrangements in the event of a hung parliament."

Regardless of the truth of that statement, one need hardly be a political insider to know that the chances of the British Government fulfilling its St. Andrews commitment to a language Act would be even less were that hung parliament to come about.

Tuesday, 19 January 2010

Bel Tel's Racist Diatribe

There is a depressing, and at one point pretty racist, comment piece from Laurence White in today's Belfast Telegraph:

"Research conducted for the SNP found that 64% of Scottish people regard Scots as merely as (sic) way of speaking (presumably the other 36% came from Glasgow, were interviewed after chucking out time at the local hostelries, and no-one could understand their response)."

In fact the study in question, Public Attitudes Towards the Scots Language, was conducted on behalf of the Scottish Government rather than for the psephological interest of the governing party. Of the "other 36%" of respondents, 30% disagreed with the statement, while 6% expressed no opinion. The more respondents used Scots, the more likely they were to view it as a language.

Nasty as the piece is, it provides further evidence, should any be necessary, that setting up an Ulster-Scots Academy must be an almost impossible ambition in the current fiscal climate.

Which brings us to an interesting thought. There seems to have been a change in tone regarding language in general on the part of the Belfast Telegraph and others in line with growing awareness of that political reality.

To put it bluntly, it is surprising nowadays how often op-ed pieces attacking Ulster Scots end by demanding reductions in the budget for Irish, which anyone versed in Northern Ireland glotto-politics will know has already been subject to substantial cuts. Perhaps the liberal wing of Unionism still has some way to go before its rhetoric lives up to its preferred designation. Until that happens, a language Act may be necessary to guarantee the citizen's right to use the language of his or her choice when dealing with officialdom.

Mr. White argues in his column that spending on Irish, which he regards as a real language, should be reduced, partly as a result of, or in tandem with, reductions in spending on Ulster Scots, which he regards as a "pretend language". In other words, despite obviously different needs, linkage should remain to preserve sectarian parity.

Of course, the problem with his view of Ulster Scots is that it is its status that is imaginary — not its existence — and the problem of how best to acknowledge and defend Scots linguistic culture in Ulster will remain regardless. It is an obvious fallacy to maintain that only languages deserve public support, albeit a fallacy that Ulster-Scots activists themselves appear to have bought into.

As for the Ulster-Scots Agency, the Blether Region believes that its budget could easily be reduced and its efficacy improved by limiting grants to a) recovery and dissemination of b) language in c) Ireland.

Monday, 18 January 2010

The Hamely Tongue – Cultúr Ceilte

This Wednesday, 20 January at 9.30 p.m., TG4 shows The Hamely Tongue – Cultúr Ceilte (Hidden Culture).

With a full hour available for the topic, an Irish-language — and thus linguistically aware — perspective, and no noisy Northern Ireland lobbyists to placate, this is a high-quality programme, and one that the BBC perhaps should have made some time ago.

Although it obviously benefits from the absence of extreme claims regarding the local dialect, its fundamental virtue is that its presenter, Séamus Mac Aindreasa, treats his subjects with respect, whether it be the respect due to expertise, age or an experience to which he can relate. By aiming for balance (the programme was part-funded by the Ulster-Scots Agency) he achieves something approaching objectivity.

Ironically, the programme's avoidance of tribal invective may unsettle those on both sides more used to the certainties of their established position.

Difficult issues are, admittedly, sidestepped. One interviewee, minority-language expert Dónall Ó Riagáin, quite reasonably declares that the linguistic status of Ulster Scots as a form of Scots is not in doubt, yet the truth is that progress in disseminating the leid has been subject to considerable delay because of political claims to the contrary.

The role of members of the Orange Order, from the DCAL Minister downwards, in hatching and perpetuating the myth of languageness escapes examination. Neither does the programme analyse the organisation's appropriation of Ulster Scots, both as a casually exploited mitigator of its widely perceived extremism and as a route to public funding, employment or patronage.

It would also have been useful to have a Scottish voice to provide a wider perspective on what is, after all, only a very small part of the Scots language.

Yet these are minor complaints regarding what is a fascinating and timely programme for which the programme-makers deserve our thanks. Those in the North without Sky or NTL can watch it as a live feed here.

Thursday, 14 January 2010

Place-Name Project to Close by End of Month

The Blether Region has learnt that as a result of the package of cuts drawn up by the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure and subsequently accepted by the Minister of Finance and Personnel, the renowned Northern Ireland Place-Name Project has been threatened with closure and its staff with redundancy.

The project's online database on the history of the 9,600 townland names of Northern Ireland was recently made available by Land and Property Services / OSNI at

A member of the project said "it still needs a lot of editing and additions, which we wonder if we will ever achieve, being under threat of redundancy from QUB by the end of this month, unless we bring in more funding."

According to sources, the closure decision was taken by university administrators after the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure refused to match-fund the relatively modest sum of £50,000 offered by the Southern Government.

The project was one of the first Irish-language initiatives to be funded by the Northern Ireland Office, as it was non-controversial and had considerable cross-community potential.

Why not get shirty about Irish?

The two largest parties in the Assembly are currently engaged in negotiations regarding the devolution of policing and justice. Should that fail to occur, Sinn Féin has threatened to collapse the institutions. The Blether Region is surely not alone in wondering why a relatively esoteric issue that is of little practical significance on the ground has become a deal-breaker, while a DUP Minister was able to ignore the settled will of the people as expressed in two separate consultation processes when he decided to torpedo an Irish language Bill.

It should be obvious to most people that the key changes to policing necessary for the peace process happened years ago when a) Nationalists decided to accept the police and b) 50:50 recruitment ensured a more representative force.

Much has been made of the coalition at the heart of the DUP between evangelicals and more secular hardliners. In Sinn Féin too there appears to be a coalition, between cultural nationalists — anoraks, if you like — and constitutional buffs / bores. At the moment the latter seem to have the upper hand.

Where would you place the emphasis — on a language Act or on the right to replace Shaun Woodward with David Ford?

Wednesday, 13 January 2010

The Fiscal Squeeze

For those of you who missed Sammy Wilson's spending plans announced yesterday in the Assembly, the detailed consultation document can be downloaded here.

Although the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure is faced with a relatively small reduction in current expenditure, it seems that capital funding could fall by more than 25%, from £79.9 million to £59.9 million. Minutes of the meeting of the departmental board held on 29 November 2009 posted on the DCAL website contain the following sentence: "As requested DCAL has presented to DFP, with Ministerial agreement, a schedule of options amounting to 5% of departmental current budgets and 30% of capital budgets."

Since spending on culture is commonly seen as discretionary, and the DUP has evinced a good deal of scepticism towards the secular variety, this is hardly surprising. Of more interest is what the effect will be on existing spending plans and just what that schedule of options contained.

The Minister for Culture, Arts and Leisure confirmed in a Written Answer on 26 June last year that he intended spending £2,738,000 on the Ulster-Scots Academy in 2010-11. The slated 2009-10 figure was even greater — some £4,295,000 — but we know that nothing like that was spent, since no academy has yet been set up. However, one can infer from the higher planned figure for the academy's first year that start-up costs under the rubric of capital expenditure were envisaged in addition to recurrent spending.

While the Minister's figures appeared to show that more would be spent on Ulster Scots than on Irish, in practice Irish would still have been ahead, but without anything like the budget necessary. Reducing language spending overall would of course fit in better with the prejudices of ordinary Unionists.

The DCAL website's page on the Ulster-Scots Academy appears not to have been updated comprehensively since late 2008.

It would be a brave party that went ahead with such controversial plans while cutting over £100 million from the Health budget.

In the unlikely event that the institutions remain standing, expect an announcement to be sneaked out from DCAL either that the difficulties surrounding an academy are still being dealt with, necessitating further delay, or that it has been put off until the fiscal situation has improved. The fact remains that, while Ulster Scots has an attraction for many Unionists if it can be used to reduce expenditure on Irish, for the majority an Ulster-Scots Academy may be a step too far, particularly during a spending squeeze.

It will be interesting to see how the Minister plays the two sides, especially those who might have imagined that the new academy would provide them with paid employment.

Friday, 8 January 2010

Only a Matter of Time

Amid the current hullaballoo surrounding the First Minister and his wife, and the general pessimism about the Assembly’s future, two macro-political changes likely to impact on language policy run the danger of going unnoticed.

The first is the parlous state of the public finances. The simple and unpleasant truth is that whoever is responsible for the Northern Ireland block grant or any part thereof will find his room for manoeuvre heavily circumscribed.

The second, particularly relevant at a time when the Assembly is teetering on the brink, is that the English Conservatives have a good chance of winning the general election across the water. Their party is not known for its love of Government largesse. Furthermore, the only local activist with a discernable interest in Ulster Scots, Ian Parsley, has strong views on the issue that signally diverge from those held by the Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure.

Against this backdrop, it must surely be highly unlikely that the mooted Ulster-Scots Academy can go ahead in its planned form — a form that would involve more money being spent on the local dialect of Scots than on the Irish language and considerably more than would be necessary to satisfy very modest public demand. As readers will know from their everyday lives, most Unionists are as sceptical as anyone else about Ulster Scots, and the Minister would be in for a difficult time if he were seen to be wasting money while coalface Departments faced cutbacks.

One need hardly be an expert linguist to see that standardising Ulster Scots separately from the rest of the language is likely to have a detrimental effect. And although there is no reason why the administration of an academy should not be a beacon of excellence, the fact remains that doubts have been raised about the governance of both the Ulster-Scots Agency and the Ulster-Scots Academy Implementation Group.

Nelson McCausland is a clever man and no doubt knows all this. He also knows that there is no reason for him to take the flak for scrapping the academy himself — or entering into a damaging turf war to defend it — when, except as a virtual bargaining-chip, the plans are unlikely to survive the suspension of the Assembly. And that looks imminent.

It is only a matter of time.

Wednesday, 6 January 2010

McCrea Sued by Ulster-Scots Songwriter

The BBC reports that gospel-singing politician Rev. William McCrea is being sued by the Ulster-Scots songwriter Mark Carmichael for alleged breach of copyright.

Mr. Carmichael was a guest on A Kist o’ Wurds on 3 May last year and attended the Ulster-Scots Folk Festival at Cairncastle in July.