Thursday, 23 June 2011

Ogling Erin

Last summer the Blether Region was in Armagh City enjoying the sights of Ireland's attractively bijou ecclesiastical capital. In the shadow of its understated grandeur, it was clear that all was not well politically, with fly posters promoting the interests of Republican dissidents and, on a telegraph pole just behind the Anglican cathedral, the letters ONH in the colours of the tricolour.

Now, as most of you will know, ONH stands for Óglaigh na hÉireann or 'Warriors of Ireland' — the official title of the Republic's army and a name that various paramilitary groups have arrogated to themselves over the years. Nowadays the tag is somewhat generously attached to one of the many dissident splinter groups.

Earlier this year there was a flurry of reports about just that group, more than a few of which misspelt said Óglaigh na hÉireann. Of course, Irish-speakers are well used to having their names misspelt in the press, most commonly when pesky accents are dropped or changed into apostrophes as they are in equivalent English versions, or when letters representing mutations at the beginning of proper names are incorrectly capitalised. But that doesn't mean that such thoroughgoing thoughtlessness should not be challenged, and in one major UK newspaper (admittedly with something of a reputation for spelling errors) Óglaigh na hÉireann was given an extra letter. Over and over again.

So it was that the Blether Region sent two e-mails complaining about the incorrect Irish, openly and from a public e-mail address. Eventually the spelling was rectified, but the newspaper didn't see fit to respond to the original e-mails. Although one can speculate as to the reason why, one explanation, probably the most plausible, is that it assumed the Blether Region was a supporter of anti-Agreement Republicans.

That is hardly the case. In fact, this blog shares the view of 99% of the Northern Ireland population that such dissidents should decommission and disappear.

But why should an ostensibly liberal newspaper assume a link between Irish and terror where none exists?

Postscript, 4 July 2011:

It seems as if the Blether Region may have exhibited premature optimism regarding the newspaper's ability to take advice as well as answer e-mails, since the risible "Oghlaigh naEireann" of the linked article demonstrates, if anything, regression.

But I suppose it was the Grauniad ...

Wednesday, 15 June 2011

The Backroom Boys

An Assembly research paper presented to the Committee for Culture, Arts and Leisure details considerable progress made by the Ulster-Scots Agency in reducing the percentage of its spending on staff and administration costs, the latter apparently including such promotional activities as the handout of Santa hats at rugby matches and publication of the Ulster-Scot, the "chauvinistic and naïve" newspaper fast taking on the character of a bizarre public subsidy to the News Letter with which it is distributed.

In 2007-8 administration costs were a massive 65.17%. In 2008-9 the figure had fallen to 60.1% and a year later to 52.55%. Admittedly, that is still higher than the equivalent proportion for Foras na Gaeilge, which remained remarkably constant in the 42% to 46% range over the period, but it shows just what can be done where there is a will.

In December 2009 the BBC revealed that a DCAL civil servant had been imposed by a "livid" Nelson McCausland to take the organisation in hand, surely one instance where the former DCAL Minister's penchant for micro-management has borne fruit. The Blether Region reported on 9 March of the following year that the agency's 2010 budget envisaged a further reduction in overheads, to 36%.

One figure not contained in the Assembly researcher's report, and which not everyone on the DCAL committee will see as relevant, is the percentage of spending to go on language.

Surely, if that figure is not at least 50% of the combined total for grant and capital expenditure, the agency should not be part of An Foras Teanga.

The News in Scots

While BBC Scotland has yet to achieve the scale of its Northern Ireland sister organisation's web offering, it is obviously following fast in its footsteps. A prime example is this short snippet of Catriona Shearer reading the news in Scots. Of course, this isn't the first time that the like has been attempted: Mary Marquis did the same thing at rather greater length in the detailed 1986 documentary series The Story of English. But the latest clip shows just how natural use of Scots in high registers can be — something that should definitely be considered for any new digital channel with a more home-grown and democratic remit.

Scots: our authoritative, precise and just a little sexy national tongue.

Tuesday, 14 June 2011

No Ulster-Scots Academy

Representatives from DCAL and the Ministerial Advisory Group for the Ulster-Scots Academy were at Stormont last Thursday to give evidence to the Committee for Culture, Arts and Leisure.

Surprisingly, DCAL Director of Culture Arthur Scott was unable to provide the committee with a figure for spending on the academy project to date (surely a rather obvious and easily anticipated question), and was instead reduced to promising a written response. We do know, however, that an annual £1 million has been allocated during the four-year Ministerial Advisory Group project.

The big news to come out of the evidence session (aka the elephant in the room) was that there is unlikely to be an Ulster-Scots Academy during this Stormont mandate, with the emphasis instead likely to be on smaller, free-standing research projects considered on merit. The key exchange was as follows:

Dominic Bradley: It has been quite a long time in the making, the academy, and I notice that, even at this stage, there is no certainty that there will be an academy. Your briefing paper says that a decision on setting up a formal academy will be considered at a later stage. How long more will we have to wait until the actual academy is established?

Arthur Scott: In the assessment of the business case by the project steering group there was an issue around affordability, and in the particular financial circumstances which are likely to prevail for this CSR period of four years — you know, unless there is a significant change over the four-year period — it may not be considered, but it is something that can be considered in future if there is a change. The other, of course, development may well be that the work that the Ministerial Advisory Group does in terms of bringing leadership to the sector and co-ordinating the efforts of the sector [means that] the nature of what people were thinking about in the past about an academy, what they were thinking about in the business case, could change over time, and there may be other ways, other options for doing it which may be more affordable.

Is the Blether Region alone in suspecting that the Ministerial Advisory Group, which counts several distinguished academics among its members, and which, as its chairman, the equally distinguished Dr. Bill Smith, reports, "aspire[s] to be the proto-board for an academy", is taking remedial action to counter the omissions of the Ulster-Scots Agency? If its task is to clear up others' mess, would that mess not be better tackled at source? And if the Schnapsidee of standardising Ulster Scots separately from Scots in Scotland has been put to rest, why persist with the name "academy"?

Only time will tell.

Wednesday, 1 June 2011

Chicken and Egg

Much comment has surrounded the naming of Mary McArdle as special adviser to the new Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure, Carál Ní Chuilín. Ms McArdle served a prison sentence for her role in the death of a judge's daughter in a botched assassination attempt during the Troubles; her engagement has understandably been heavily criticised by Unionists.

While one can no doubt argue for and against the role of ex-prisoners in Northern Ireland politics generally, if one's central and overriding concern is the benefit of Irish Gaelic, it is difficult to see this specific appointment as anything other than ill advised, as it will render much more difficult the sort of diplomacy necessary to persuade Unionists to embrace the language and, one hopes, a language Act.

Reviewing an Alex Kane article published in the News Letter, Brian Walker comments that "Alex can't resist trying to hurt Sinn Fein back, a very human reaction to callous behaviour.", later stating that "Alex's reaction to the appointments is psychologically authentic on the unionist side."

As matters stand, therefore, it is likely that the best we can expect for Irish is half a policy, with one Minister's initiative thwarted or undone by another sitting at the same Executive table, and a stop-start game of musical chairs every four years as d'Hondt is run.

Interestingly, Alex Kane's article explicitly addresses the issue of language legislation.

"Caral Ni Chuilin, newly appointed to Culture, Arts and Leisure, says, "we are in a post-conflict situation and that's it," and then appoints convicted murderer Mary McArdle to help her push through an agenda which includes a more determined promotion of an Irish Language Act."

It is not too difficult to infer from the above that Mr. Kane views a language Act as part of the problem rather than the solution.

That it is surely the latter is shown by an article in today's Irish Independent, which quotes from a leaked cable detailing a private conversation between Gerry Adams and a senior American diplomat in April 2009.

"Adams warned that the lack of political progress on issues such as Irish language and education reform was angering the republican grassroots and could lead to more support for dissident activity."

Commenting on the special adviser's appointment, Brian Walker says:

"It is easy to make too much of Sinn Fein's strategic ability. They probably feel under some threat from the dissident appeal despite their electoral successes […]"

So Sinn Féin has given a special advisory role to Mary McArdle partly in order to placate grassroots anger at its lack of progress in achieving an Irish Language Act, despite the fact that her appointment will considerably reduce the chances of any legislation being passed. Leaving aside the obvious riposte that there is no guarantee that any diplomacy on the part of Nationalists or Republicans could ever persuade Unionists to accept a law protecting Irish, it is difficult not to feel despondent at this sectarian game of chicken and egg.

From modest beginnings, almost as a form of internal exile in the face of political frustration, the North's language movement has grown dramatically. Over the next few years it will be moving centre-stage as a Catholic majority draws ever closer. Unionist parties, including the civic Unionists of the Alliance, are mistaken if they believe that employment and housing legislation or a more representative police force have eliminated Nationalist grievances. To put it bluntly, that view is about 40 years out of date, and any arguments against a vastly enhanced role for the language have already been lost — not in the halls of Stormont but in Holyrood and Cardiff Bay. Promoting Irish should be much more acceptable to Unionists than promoting Mary McArdle; bizarrely, many people seem to believe that the two should offend, or enthuse, them equally.