Thursday, 23 September 2010

Across with Saint Patrick

Professional Ulster Scots appear to be visiting the southern United States with increasing frequency. News 14 reports on Nelson McCausland's trip to Charlotte, North Carolina, while the Wilkes Journal-Patriot covers a visit by John Laird, the subject of a forthcoming BBC documentary.

Of all the spending decisions made by the Ulster-Scots Agency, perhaps the most controversial was when it paid for its entire board to travel to America. On top of concerns voiced about the correct husbanding of public funds and avoiding the appearance of junketing, some commentators saw in the agency's surprising interest in the United States (despite its activities being legally limited to the island of Ireland) an effort to create an Ulster-American lobby to counter the support traditionally enjoyed by Nationalists among the country's Irish Catholic community.

Today, in 2010, it appears that Auntie Beeb is footing the bill, or at least part of it. Given the obvious political capital that Laird and others stand to make out of building bridges with conservative Americans, it is perhaps surprising that the BBC, which is bound to political neutrality, should be subsidising it. And yet it "helped fund the trip" to Northern Ireland by R. G. Absher and 21 other Americans (appropriately enough members of a military re-enactment society) and plans to air the resulting three-part documentary on BBC America. Absher remarks that "People were just as friendly in one place as another", leading one to wonder if he actually believed that Northern Nationalists would take exception to the presumed fact of an American's Presbyterian ancestry. The involvement of the BBC is particularly worrying because the corporation appears to be making Scots-free programmes benefiting those very politicians who have exerted most pressure on it to improve its "Ulster-Scots" content.

The prize of a Unionist lobby in America is immense — and it appears to be low-lying fruit. The article comments that "'Ware Home' is 'Gaelic for we're coming home'" and quotes Absher as saying that "the term, 'hillbilly,' in America has a backward image, but over there (in Northern Ireland) it has a positive connotation indicating people who stand up for their rights".

All of which brings us to John H. Killian, pastor of Maytown Baptist Church in Alabama, author of the blog Musings from Maytown and associate member of LOL 688. On a trip to Northern Ireland in 2007, Rev. Killian stayed with Roger Bradley, secretary of the lodge, a small organisation remarkable for the numbers of British Israelites and professional Ulster Scots in its ranks. Apart from being interviewed by — you guessed it — the BBC, Rev. Killian found time to develop some strong views on the North. In particular, he opines that Sinn Féin should be opposed because "The Reverend Jesse Jackson has come to Belfast to express his support for Sinn Fein and the nationalist cause" and "With the continued rate of immigrants coming to the United States from Mexico, we could face a similar situation where Mexican immigrants demand the 'return' of the Southwest to Mexico".

Of all the manifold reasons why an individual might oppose Sinn Féin, Rev. Killian must surely have secured the prize for the most inventive.

A Partial Partnership

The Northern Ireland Assembly's Research and Library Service has issued an interesting paper on the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure's arm's-length bodies.

The document shows that the Ulster-Scots Agency was spending 65.17%, or almost two thirds, of its budget on administration in 2007-08. By 2009-10, after the Department had intervened, that figure had fallen to 52.55% (throughout the same period, the equivalent figure for Foras na Gaeilge remained fairly constant at between 43% and 46%). Of course, were the Agency conducting its own academic research, concerns about the proportion of its spending not going on grants to external bodies might be considered irrelevant. But the Blether Region is unaware of any such research, and, as readers will know, many of the grants that it issued were not connected with Scots as a language.

Interestingly, the paper states that:

"The Republic of Ireland Department of Community, Equality and Gaeltacht Affairs funds 75% of the budget of Foras na Gaeilge, and DCAL the remaining 25%. DCAL funds 75% of the budget of the Ulster-Scots Agency, and DCEGA the remaining 25%."

This indeed appears very largely to be the case with the Ulster-Scots Agency. With Foras na Gaeilge, on the other hand, it is clear that there was considerable slippage beginning with the restoration of devolution in 2007, and DCAL now appears to be paying only 17.5%. Irish-language activists in the North may have felt that the 75/25 rule would protect the budget for the language, but that appears to have been only partially true. Part of the disparity is attributable to a large cash boost in the South's contribution from 2008-9, but not all. Indeed, DCAL's funding of Foras na Gaeilge has been falling at a time when both polities' contribution to Ulster Scots has been increasing.

It appears to be the case not only that the Department is cutting its discretionary budget for Irish, but that it is doing so even where bound by an international treaty — and not being held to account.

Thursday, 16 September 2010

Ulster Scots at Stormont

The Belfast Telegraph reports strong criticism of the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure's plans for an Ulster-Scots Academy in the unlikely setting of the Northern Ireland Assembly. Through many years of observation, it has been the Blether Region's experience that views on Ulster Scots heard at Stormont rarely reflect the opinions of ordinary Unionists or Nationalists. While MLAs in the former camp employ the dialect as part of a Manichaean struggle with Irish Gaelic, their opponents across the Chamber have been wont to humour them in the hope, recently exposed as forlorn, that Irish might at some stage benefit from the application in law of a wholly fictional status to what has clearly always been a dialect of Scots.

Declan O'Loan, Deputy Chair of the Committee for Culture, Arts and Leisure, stated:

"This bid for funding for an Ulster-Scots [Academy] is surely inappropriate. The project has been delayed because it lacks definition and even those involved in Ulster-Scots issues disagree fundamentally about it. The whole concept of a so-called Ulster-Scots language has been inflated to an extent that has become comical. Public documents are being translated into an official verbiage which is non-existent in the real world.

"There is a genuine Ulster-Scots culture, history and local dialect, but the study of it is being damaged by falsehoods."

There is little to disagree with in his statement. More surprising was the reaction of Lord Laird to his comments:

"One of the gentlemen [attacking Ulster Scots] is Ballymena's own Declan O'Loan. On many issues I agree with MLA O'Loan, which makes me all the sadder when he lets himself down by attacking a culture which is not his. Declan has underlined once again the narrow out of date think of nationalism."

Now, if Declan O'Loan is from Ballymena, surely the culture must, to a greater or lesser extent, be his. He will at the very least be au fait with the residual dialect of the area, regardless of whether he is an habitual speaker himself. Lord Laird, on the other hand, appears to be a Belfast man, having attended Inst and later been elected to represent part of the city. Artigarvan, the hamlet immortalised upon his ennoblement, is in Tyrone and therefore not in a Scots-speaking part of Ulster. Famously, John Laird even argued for the authenticity of "wee daftie weans" as the Ulster Scots used to refer to children with special needs before he became aware that the term was in fact apocryphal (, 15 October 2003).

One wonders, then, on what basis Lord Laird can see Ulster Scots as his culture while stating that it is not Declan O'Loan's. Perhaps clarification is in order to avoid uncharitable inferences.

Friday, 3 September 2010

The Ulster-Scots Academy — Phoenix or White Elephant?

The BBC reports that the comparatively tiny DCAL budget is facing huge cuts over the next four years. Along with libraries and museums, the arts in particular are facing a bleak future, despite lower per capita spending than elsewhere in the UK. The revelations came at a meeting of the Statutory Committee.

"[A] senior civil servant, Edgar Jardine, said that the minister Nelson McCausland had identified the Ulster Scots Academy as a priority project which should not be cut.

The Ulster Scots Academy project all but collapsed under previous DCAL ministers."

It seems that the Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure is intent on pressing on with the controversial academy project, despite lack of agreement among stakeholders (especially academic linguists) and lack of demand on the ground. Most Ulster Protestants evince the same scepticism towards Government spending on language as Mr. McCausland does to spending on the arts. Where they differentiate between spending on Irish and spending on Ulster Scots on any but the most chauvinistic grounds, it is generally to the detriment of the latter.

A recording of the Committee meeting will be available on the Internet for the next few days.

It is an ironic truth that, in being especially resolute in the stances that he has adopted, Mr. McCausland has distanced himself from the settled will of those whom he was elected to represent. How long before the sharks start circling?