Wednesday, 30 June 2010

Those Pesky Accounts

The BBC reports that An Foras Teanga has not filed accounts since 2004 and that the reason for the delay lies with the Ulster-Scots Agency. There have been several similar reports over the years; yet it will come as a shock to many that this grossly unsatisfactory situation apparently still obtains.

The Blether Region, again via the BBC, reported in December last year that the Ulster-Scots Agency was to be subject to "root-and-branch reform". Thus far, that reform seems not to have borne the fruit that the accountants were looking for.

The reason can perhaps be found in that first BBC report, which includes the following sentence:

"Recently [the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure] moved another senior civil servant to the post of interim chief executive in place of the previous chief executive who is on sick leave."

If the person in question is "the former chief executive", then one wonders why — and, indeed, how — he might be on "sick leave". Sick leave is, after all, something granted to employees when they are ill; not "former" employees. Might it be that there is another element to this story? Perhaps that the "the former chief executive" who presided over such a fiasco is also a former chief executive of the Orange Order?

The truth is that there has been remarkable readiness from all sides of the political spectrum to give Ulster Scots — or, rather, the Ulster-Scots "movement" as currently constituted — the benefit of the doubt.

That benefit may be accorded in the hope that successes for Ulster Scots will soften Unionist attitudes towards Irish, that the Orange Order will discover a genuine interest in culture, or merely that the peace process will hold. Whatever the fact of the matter, there is no doubt that considerable latitude has been shown when it comes to the movement's chauvinism, its mind-boggling view of the dialect's linguistic status, its profligacy and diversion of funds to "Orange" initiatives, its expenses claims and penchant for taxpayer-funded foreign travel, its attempts to create an "Ulster" lobby in the United States, and, in the case of the Agency, its lack of native speakers and especially academic linguists.

And, it seems, even on the most basic and formal level of presenting its financial affairs for public scrutiny, it is still not willing to be held to account.

Monday, 14 June 2010

All the Blue Bonnets Are Over the Border

On 9 June 2010 civil servants in the Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister wrote to Executive colleagues asking for suggestions for a new cross-border body. Politics buffs will recall that the Good Friday / Belfast Agreement allowed for up to 12 such bodies but that in the course of subsequent negotiations their number was limited to six, the very minimum envisaged.

The call for new proposals is a result of the St. Andrews Agreement, which bound its signatories to conduct an impartial review of: the efficiency and value for money offered by existing bodies; the case for additional bodies; and a possible replacement for the proposed Lights Agency of the Foyle, Carlingford and Irish Lights Commission, which fell victim to the legal difficulties of transferring functions.

Since the establishment of the Ulster-Scots Agency it has become clear that the organisation is incapable of promoting the Scots language in a manner free of confessional associations, despite the fact that up to one third of Ulster speakers are Catholics or Nationalists. This is in large part due to its additional "cultural" function, which defines "Ulster-Scots culture" in ethnic terms as whatever the descendants of Scottish Planters do — rather than, for example, as artistic endeavour involving Ulster-Scots dialect, which anyone can undertake. Regardless of the intention, promotion of Ulster-Scots "culture" by an agency also promoting Scots works to the detriment of the language, since for the Catholic half of Northern Ireland's population it ensures that the tongue is associated with chauvinism.

Whatever people say about language, it is clear that the "cultural" element in the work of the Ulster-Scots Agency is a sop to Unionists, a sweetie fortuitously produced by political prestidigitation in the late 1990s and little better than the "single-identity" work that community relations groups still reluctantly perform as a prelude to demanding real engagement with the other side. It is true that the agency's cultural remit may help the Orange Order etc. to "modernise", i.e. transform themselves from sources of civil strife and traffic hold-ups into genuine cultural organisations, but this could surely be done in a way not detrimental to a minoritised language.

Another reason why the agency's cultural function has been bad is that it has allowed individuals to sit on its board without any knowledge of, or even interest in, Scots language. And once on the board, they have been keen to spend money on things that they understand, a development that has only exacerbated the problem of cultural stereotyping.

And there has been a glut of Unionists — although one might equally call it a dearth of Nationalists. In fact, there has never been a Northern Nationalist member of the Ulster-Scots Agency board, since the agency is not a free-standing cross-border body but one half of Foras na Gaeilge, and if one side, Unionist or Nationalist, nominates to its linguistic "other", it is risking its position in its own community.

That is a truly shocking state of affairs, and one that any review should strive to rectify.

Thursday, 10 June 2010

Shannon's Maiden Over

The redoubtable Jim Shannon — a butcher by trade — has finally given his much trailed maiden speech in the House of Commons. Students of the revived Ulster Scots will have recognised the usual mixture of eye-dialect and false analogy. Shannon's translator still apparently believes that wrocht is the infinitive rather than the past, something that even some of those unversed in Scots seem to have noticed. Ahauf is recognisable as "behalf" but unfortunately not a genuine Scots form. And why should "first and foremost" be translated as yince an firmaist? Incidentally, the unstressed fir suggests that the translator cannot spell "foremost" in English.

And all that delivered in an accent born of the sprawl of the Belfast commuter belt during the troubles.

Tuesday, 8 June 2010

Ulster Scots on Film

Friday, 11 June, 3 p.m. — Parish Hall Cinema, Gortahork

Screening and debate as part of the Guth Gafa International Film Festival.

"Ulster Scots on Film, is a celebration of Ulster Scots film and television programming and an opportunity to bring together the general public who have an interest in Ulster Scots language and attendant culture, with professionals from the industry who work in, or have an interest in, Ulster Scots programmes.

The event will be structured around the screening of two films, Lionel Mill's Us Boys (co-funded by RTÉ, Northern Ireland Film & Television Commission and The Irish Film Board), and Deaglán Ó Mochain's The Hamely Tongue: Cultúr Ceilte (funded by TG4, BAI, Foras na Gaeilge and The Ulster Scots Agency). The film screenings will be followed by a discussion about the films, and about Ulster Scots culture and language in film and television in general."

Thursday, 3 June 2010

Gavelled by Prejudice

The BBC reports that the Court of Appeal has rejected Caoimhín Mac Giolla Catháin's attempt to have the Administration of Justice (Language) Act 1737 declared unlawful.

Lord Justice Girvan said: "Conferring on individual litigants a right at their option to convert court forms from English into a language not understood by the vast majority of intended recipients would frustrate the interests of justices [sic]."

Yet any amendment to forms hitherto has quite obviously been done in protest; in practice, this case was about the right to avail oneself of services through the medium of Irish. Had it been successful, forms would almost certainly have been issued in bilingual format rather than separate English and Irish versions. For many people, the Irish version of their name is the sole legally valid one, and, with the aid of the simple postcode, the Royal Mail already deals with letters addressed in the language. Much of the rest of the form could no doubt have been substituted with tick-boxes.

The Act was challenged because it impeded the right to use the oldest language of the island in one's dealings with public authorities — and upheld by the local establishment for the same reason.

Similar legislation has already been repealed in Scotland and Wales. Once more, Northern Ireland is "a place apart".