Wednesday, 26 May 2010

You Read it Here First

In January this year the Blether Region broached the subject of the highly distinctive set of beliefs and social interests shared by members of the professional Ulster-Scots lobby.

Today the Guardian reports that Nelson McCausland, who has previously addressed the British-Israel World Federation, is not only a creationist but "believes that Ulster Protestants are one of the lost tribes of Israel".

The revelation has already attracted criticism, and the reaction may well grow over the coming days.

Tantalisingly, the Blether Region has unearthed the following archived comment on a BBC Sunday Sequence programme:

"[…] when I was younger I was introduced to [British Israelism] through a then member of my Orange lodge and attended some meetings. Some people I met through it were pretty conventional Christians, one being Nelson McCausland. Others had what I now recognise as unpleasantly racist attitudes and a whole set of dodgy beliefs and associations."

Could this lodge have been Cross of St. Patrick LOL 688 or — less likely given its size — Ireland's Heritage LOL 1303?

A related issue is the fact that Members of the Legislative Assembly are apparently not currently required to disclose membership of individual Loyal Orange Lodges despite the obvious potential for conflicts of interest — in Mr. McCausland's case, when he determines what funding should go on Ulster-Scots dialect and culture. As several people who are either British Israelites or members of the same lodge stand to benefit materially, one might have thought that this was a relevant "non-financial interest", yet Mr. McCausland is one of a number of MLAs not to declare membership of the Orange Order, and most of those Assembly Members who do make a declaration in that regard fail to mention to which individual lodge they belong. Bizarrely, among those non-financial interests that Mr. McCausland sees fit to mention is his membership of the Linenhall Library — of limited relevance compared with his membership of LOL 688.

Clearly, those responsible for the Register of Members’ Interests need to become a good deal more proactive in issuing advice and ensuring uniformity.

As for Mr. McCausland's association with the British-Israel World Federation, no doubt it will attract more scrutiny as the story develops. For many observers, perhaps the key question will be whether the Federation should be considered white-supremacist in nature. If so, calls will grow for Mr. McCausland's resignation, and the BBC's continued employment of BIWF board member Dr. Clifford Smyth as the voice of its Twelfth coverage will become similarly controversial.

Wednesday, 12 May 2010

Let's See What You’re Made Of

The Blether Region has previously stated that, for all the apparent signs of fresh thinking in Tory ranks with regard to Irish language legislation, the party's ill-thought-out deal with the Ulster Unionists would be likely to scupper any follow-through. Now that deal seems to be unravelling, with no DUP leverage to replace it, which is clearly a good thing for peace in Northern Ireland.

Is it also good news for an Irish language Act? In short, while its chances may have increased, we just don't know. There may soon no longer be a direct UCUNF link, but the Tories' affinities still clearly lie with the Unionists — even if, as Harry Reid argued in yesterday's Herald, it is the result of "some atavistic and inexplicable veneration for the Union" among a party whose best interest lies in English independence. And while there may be exhortations from international bodies that the British Government introduce an Act, the Tories do not always have much time for those.

If the Liberal Democrats listen to their Alliance sister party, they will probably find ambivalence, since even civic Unionists don't always "get it" with regard to linguistic culture. If they go on their own (British) liberal instincts, however, they might well support an Act.

Perhaps the biggest hurdle is that of competence. Passing a language Act over the heads of Assembly Members would amount to a repatriation to Westminster of powers currently devolved. Unionists could argue with some justification that Sinn Féin bleated when it came to devolving justice but had no such qualms on language, as long as it got its own way. There are currently no Conservatives in the Assembly to support the passage of a Bill through that forum, and even if they tipped the scales in favour of legislation, Unionists could easily invoke cross-community voting to stop it dead in its tracks. Moreover, at a time of austerity opponents of an Act have a further argument to use against it.

That argument can cut both ways, however, since Westminster currently funds a good deal of Irish-language projects that should properly be paid for out of the devolved grant. If legislation were portrayed as a vehicle to introduce some modest hypothecation, it might yet be sold to the Tory grandees. Cutting initiatives such as the broadcasting fund without ensuring that funding continued from other sources would be terribly difficult politically and ultimately destabilising.

We just don't know.

Wednesday, 5 May 2010

Defining "Quality"

Back in 1974 an American writer named Robert M. Pirsig produced a ground-breaking book that became compulsory reading for many budding intellectuals, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. The tale's brilliant narrator goes mad when he finds he is unable to produce an objective definition of the word "quality".

Fast forward in time, and in 2010 Nelson McCausland, the Northern Ireland Minister for Culture, Arts and Leisure, is answering an Assembly Question on the promised Irish-language strategy, which has been much delayed and is itself a very poor second-best to the missing Irish language Act. Despite the explicit warning issued by the Committee of Experts that Gleichmacherei between Irish and Ulster Scots is bad for both, he makes the following comments.

"As, I am sure, the Member will agree, it is important that we move towards cultural equality in Northern Ireland. We are moving in that direction, and I am sure that the Member will want to commend us for our efforts in that regard."

He continues:

"We see consultation as a vital aspect of the strategy development process, and I will ensure that there is a full public consultation as part of that process. I am keen that the strategy is developed in a mature and reflective way, in which every voice is heard. However, I will be more impressed by the quality and detail of responses than by the generic quantity. It is quality that matters, not quantity."

In other words, the full public consultation will not have any effect on public policy if a majority or expert opinion fails to meet Mr. McCausland's subjective definition of "quality". Going out to the people may well delay the appearance of the strategy, but it is unlikely to make it any better.