Thursday, 25 February 2010

Legal Tangles

UTV News has reported the latest proceedings in Caoimhín Mac Giolla Catháin's appeal against the recent judgment upholding the Administration of Justice (Language) Act 1737, which bans languages other than English from courtroom use.

If the UK Government would like to introduce an Irish language Act in line with the St. Andrews Agreement, it certainly isn't letting on, since lawyers acting for the Secretary of State have been instructed to fight the appeal.

Apart from Northern Ireland's ethnic delimitation of Unionist sentiment and a British willingness to accord it a veto — in the case of the language, quite improperly — perhaps the major difference that separates us from Scotland and Wales is the ongoing dissident campaign. Members of various Republican paramilitary splinter groups would be highly likely to insist on Irish if they are at all proficient in the language, which could incur considerable excess cost. Depending on the extent to which logistical problems create logjams in the justice system, it might even effectively reinstate interment, sparking further legal challenges. This, no doubt, is the Northern Ireland Office’s nightmare scenario.

On the other hand, it would be difficult to conceive of even a modest language Act that did not overturn the ban, since a right to access justice through Irish is clearly cognate with a right to access other Government services in the same way (Mr. Mac Giolla Catháin's initial legal business was an application for a drinks licence). And if one wishes a stable future for the language, the use-it-or-lose-it logic is that personal choice must be facilitated.

Should the 1737 Act be struck down, either in Northern Ireland or in Europe, it would represent a considerable advance. As the Blether Region reported previously, the extension of the simultaneous translation service at Stormont to Members of the Assembly could be secured relatively easily by the Nationalist parties if they were to refuse the courtesy of translating their own speeches into English, thus losing half the time allotted to them for speaking. The Hillsborough Agreement has already resulted in spending guarantees for Irish. If those Departments led by Nationalists were corporately to agree to recognise language rights, perhaps putting in place shared service arrangements, it would be a further step in the right direction.

Although there is still no sign of a language Act, ingenuity and political resolution could yet achieve real and positive change.

Tuesday, 16 February 2010

Ulster-Scots Broadcasting Fund

Amid the furore surrounding revelations that £20 million has been secured for the Irish language — as the two main parties, having perhaps reached agreement, vie to convince their supporters that they have dished the other side — facts are now also starting to emerge about "side deals" done regarding Ulster Scots. The BBC is reporting that the UK Government is providing £5 million for Ulster-Scots broadcasting, with one quote standing out:

"Mr McCausland said £5m would initially be given to the Ulster Scots Broadcasting Fund, but said he would be making further announcements in the coming weeks about the fund."

One possible interpretation of the Minister's statement is that he intends to provide some form of top-up or match funding from the devolved DCAL budget.

Unlike his predecessors in the post, Mr. McCausland has shown real enthusiasm regarding the possibility of an Ulster-Scots Academy. Cynics have seen in his plans to increase investment in the dialect a wish to divert funds away from Irish, with the proposed academy merely a suitably expensive mechanism to do so. With not much interest on the ground, and limited expertise on its board, the Ulster-Scots Agency has had great difficulty in increasing its outgoings, even when offered more siller, and many of its spending decisions have in any case attracted criticism for wastefulness — large-scale intercontinental travel by board members, taxis taken to Dublin, branded Santa hats handed out at rugby matches, etc.

It has gradually become apparent that the proposed academy would be no better; its implementation group managed to raise Civil Service hackles about both financial common sense and the very possibility of securing agreement on matters linguistic. Mr. McCausland was heavily criticised when he returned unspent academy funds to the centre rather than channel them to other cultural priorities such as Irish. Moreover, it is now clear that a majority of Unionists do not regard the establishment an Ulster-Scots Academy as a desirable policy goal, and the fiscal climate is now very different from when an academy was first mooted.

Which leaves broadcasting. As James Cameron has shown, depending on production values there is virtually no limit to what can be spent on visual entertainment. And the academy £12 million was originally the Ulster-Scots equivalent of the Irish-language broadcasting fund. If an academy is not a deliverable goal, why not fund radio and TV programmes? After all, they substantially circumvent arguments about orthography, and they could go some way towards generating public interest, one rock on which the Ulster-Scots project has foundered hitherto.

The wider picture is that, with the Department of Education the main funder of Irish-language projects, Foras na Gaeilge and the Irish-language broadcast fund on the scene, and now a UK Government capital pot, it is astonishing how little involvement or influence DCAL now has regarding policy on Irish. True, there is the Gaeltacht Quarter project, and DCAL also part-funds Foras na Gaeilge, but only to the tune of 25%, and the cross-border body has an independent board to which the DUP has chosen not to nominate. If Edwin Poots had mainstreamed the broadcast fund, he could have cut it back later and done something crafty like amalgamating it with the Arts Council, but his point-blank refusal to contemplate funding simply meant that Westminster carried on footing the bill. In Scotland, on the other hand, MG Alba is funded by the devolved Government.

The Blether Region makes the following predictions:

Irish-language policy, which is now only part-devolved, will remain so unless and until there is a language Act, a Nationalist DCAL Minister, or both.

Unless and until there is a language Act, a Nationalist DCAL Minister, or both, the UK Government will continue spending money on Irish, and now Ulster Scots, over and above the Northern Ireland block grant (listen up, you Tories).

The Ulster-Scots broadcasting fund will result in many programmes with high production values, but these will continue to suffer from poor availability of linguistic talent and limited community interest, and to some extent will reinforce Protestant, rural and elderly stereotypes, probably including many English-language programmes about Ulster Scots or "Ulster-Scots history". The best part of its output will be its children's programming, but much of that will be bought in and overdubbed.

The increased presence of English-language programming from an "Ulster-Scots" perspective may rile Catholics and Nationalists, who will view it as exhibiting a sectarian bias while serving no linguistic purpose.

The increased presence of Ulster-Scots dialect in broadcasting may provoke a further Unionist backlash.

Although the structures surrounding TG4 may not change, to some extent it will begin to resemble a cross-border project after it goes on Freeview in 2012. There may even be a move to consolidate Irish services on one channel, with the BBC producing some programming for TG4 alongside RTÉ. This will provoke a further Unionist backlash.

The Ulster-Scots Academy will be put on the long finger but, for political reasons, expect warm words, obfuscation and further consultations and feasibility studies in the short term.

Monday, 15 February 2010

All an Act?

The Andersonstown News reports that Gerry Adams has revealed £20 million for the Irish language promised by the British Government during the recent Hillsborough negotiations. However, £12 million of this merely represents the extension to 2015 of the Irish-language Broadcast Fund. This is good news, and will no doubt bring about better representation of the Ulster dialect on TG4, but it is progress only if one defines progress as the absence of reversal. In effect, language policy is now only part-devolved, because Sinn Féin did not choose DCAL under the d'Hondt procedure and because the DUP patently cannot be trusted to make fair decisions on language — as its continued adherence, on paper at least, to the notion of a white-elephant Ulster-Scots Academy shows.

The other £8 million is earmarked for capital projects. However necessary such projects are, and however spectacular the achievements of which hubs such as An Chultúrlann and An Droichead can boast, they do not represent the mainstreaming that a language Act might have secured. Rather they epitomise continued ghettoisation, and, in political terms, an even stronger link between the language and one side of the community.

Of course, were Sinn Féin, or the SDLP, or perhaps even the UUP, to take DCAL the next time d'Hondt is run and practise a more balanced language policy than we have seen from the DUP, the British Government's additional money could yet mean that Irish is doing better than under direct rule.

We shall have to wait and see.

Sunday, 14 February 2010

Pomp and Circumstance

Regular readers will be aware of the Blether Region's view that the case for an Irish language Act has been considerably strengthened by recent arbitrary reductions in the budget available for the variety's promotion. Unless minimum standards are enshrined in law, the argument goes, the question of how best to safeguard and diffuse the language will for ever remain a political football.

A similar argument might be made regarding contentious parades. Over the past 12 years, the Parades Commission has been remarkably successful in removing the issue, and its associated violence, from the public sphere.

The body's achievements in that regard have been anathema to the Orange Order, an organisation that appears to require a certain level of anticipated strife to justify its own existence, just as its "historians" project their Manichaean world view as far back into the past as possible — and not just the British-Israelite ones. In the bad old days, whether a parade could go ahead was decided by the Chief Constable of the RUC on public order grounds rather than by whether residents of a neighbourhood felt comfortable with their noisy visitors. This was an outrageously supine attitude on the part of the civil power. We should all be thankful that property rights or a woman's right to decide if she wants to have sex are not decided the same way.

A recent report in the Times shows just how arbitrary the UK's constitutional set-up is. In the context of whether Scottish MPs should be allowed to vote on laws affecting only England, David Mundell, the shadow Scottish Secretary, detailed the Tories' latest plans and "revealed that the changes would take effect 'in the first few weeks' of a Conservative government because they did not require legislation."

While the Blether Region is, if anything, desirous of even less Scottish influence on English politics, and vice-versa, there can be only one possible interpretation of the ease with which such a major change might be implemented. It seems that the voting rights of Scottish MPs were never fixed in writing — or at least, never in a document with the force of law. The message regarding Irish is simple: only legislation can guarantee a stable future.

Saturday, 13 February 2010

Port an Dúnáin Abú!

An interesting article in the Portadown Times (not News, for once) gives an insight into the prejudice against Irish at the most local level. It is clear from its account of a council meeting that some political representatives view the language as the exclusive property of one group (Catholics) and can see no possible benefit or motivation in supporting it outside political symbolism (marking out territory).

And yet Irish is not easy to learn. For those not lucky enough to be raised or schooled through the language, acquiring it will take years of hard work, far more than could be expected of people who merely wished to put one over on someone (Scots is another matter, superficially at least being better suited to instant use, sometimes with dire results). More importantly, Portadown is an Irish name, and one currently only admitted to public life in an English transliteration roughly approximating to the sound but shorn of any meaning. It is therefore no wonder that people should want Irish signage — but it would be a grave mistake to think that erecting such signage was the be-all and end-all of language promotion.

Wednesday, 3 February 2010

Public Lecture on Samuel Bryson

Holywood Irish Society has announced that Dr. Janet Taylor will be giving a lecture on 10 March 2010 entitled "The brothers Samuel and Andrew Bryson — Holywood Gaelic Scholars in the Turbulent Decade of the 1798 Rebellion". The lecture will be held in Holywood Library at 7.30 p.m., and admission is free.

Andrew Bryson (1763-1797) was the son of the prominent Rev. James Bryson of Holywood and the older brother of Dr. Samuel Mazière Bryson (d. 1853), renowned Irish scholar and collector of Gaelic manuscripts, many of which are now held in Belfast's Central Library.

Andrew ministered for 10 years in Dundalk Presbyterian Church and preached regularly in Irish to the local community, of whom a large proportion were the descendants of Gaelic-speaking Scots. He lived at a critical period in Irish history, and various personal friends and members of his extended family went on to be involved in the United Irishmen's rebellion of 1798.

Dr. Janet Taylor is a native of Holywood and read Medicine at Queen's University Belfast, later practising as a radiologist. She is also qualified in Irish, having graduated from the University of Ulster in 2007 with a degree in Irish Language and Literature. Since then she has continued her research into the Bryson family of Holywood, in particular the Rev. Andrew Bryson and his involvement with the Irish-speaking community of Dundalk.

The lecture will take place as part of Rí-Rá Community Festival 2010, which will also include a poster display in Holywood Library on place-names, surnames and heritage. The exhibition will remain in the library from 8 to 20 March.

Tuesday, 2 February 2010

TG4 and RTE on Freeview in 2012

The Irish Times reports on a deal signed by the UK and Irish Governments that will make RTE and TG4 freely available in the North after the digital switchover in 2012.

It will be a small step once that happens to increased integration of Irish-language broadcasting North and South, with An Ciste Craolacháin funding much better representation on TG4 of Northern Ireland speakers and of Ulster Irish in general.

It has, however, been a long time since the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, and it is still two years away.

A Bum Deal?

The Guardian reports that the deal on the devolution of policing and justice currently being debated inside the DUP "will see changes to the way contentious loyalist parades are handled in Northern Ireland and a commitment to give more resources to the Irish language".

Rather than a language Act, it seems that Irish will get a language strategy.

Yet Barry McElduff, Sinn Féin Chairman of the Committee for Culture, Arts and Leisure, expressed his frustration two months ago at the fact that the DUP Minister, Nelson McCausland, had failed to produce language strategies. The truth is that the DUP had already agreed to them.

As for the increased resources going to the language, we shall have to wait and see, but it could be the case that "more resources" will mean only that the reductions in the budget for Irish made under the three DUP Ministers for Culture, Arts and Leisure are reversed — in whole, or perhaps only in part.

If that is the case, Irish could still be worse off than it was under the UUP — and a good deal worse off than it would be under direct rule Ministers, who, in line with the experience of Wales and Scotland, would by now probably have granted a language Act and greatly increased resources for broadcasting.