Monday, 21 November 2011

Where There's a Will

In the light of the ongoing refusal on the part of the Northern Ireland Assembly to extend its existing simultaneous translation service to ordinary Members, the Blether Region has thought of a cunning plan. Documentation provided by the Assembly in response to a Freedom of Information request by Holywood Irish Society confirms that the major cost involved is staffing. The additional outlay to provide headsets for Members would be relatively small and non-recurrent. Any moderately wealthy individual could offer to cover it, either in person or through a bequest. Given that there is no possibility of the Assembly Business Committee deciding to extend the service unless it is forced to do so, there would of course be no chance of anyone having to go as far as to pay for it. But, by a process of elimination, it might shed some light on the real reasons behind the Business Committee's refusal.

A Speaker's Tale

The website of Holywood Irish Society carries a response to a recent Freedom of Information request directed at the Northern Ireland Assembly. Readers will recall that the refusal to extend an existing simultaneous translation facility from the Speaker and Clerk to ordinary Members has been a fraught issue at Stormont for many years. Last month one Member, Dominic Bradley, was even banned from being called to speak for a week after he took too long to provide the consecutive translation required by the Deputy Speaker.

The response and papers supplied by the Assembly make for interesting reading. As the Blether Region suspected, there is no actual rule that says a consecutive translation is required — instead, the Assembly justifies the requirement on the basis of "Rulings, Convention and Practice" as distilled in the "Northern Ireland Assembly Companion".

The bizarre state of affairs that the Assembly pays for simultaneous translation but does not make it available to Members rests on the fact that the interpretation facility was commissioned by the Speaker, while the decision on extending the benefits to Members depends on a decision of the Business Committee. Although Holyrood also requires consecutive translation, that is the case only when no interpreter has been arranged for the language in question (unlike the Assembly, there is no permanent translation service in the Scottish Parliament, since use of Gaelic is much less).

One can infer that the first Speaker of the Assembly, Lord Alderdice, hoped that the Business Committee would indeed approve the extension of the service to Members.

On 20 November 2000 (volume 7 page 201) he stated:

"For Members who wish to have a simultaneous translation, a report showing the costs and other details has been available for over 18 months. It is simply a matter of a proposal to be taken forward by the Business Committee. My ruling is clear: any statements made in a language other than English must be translated fully and accurately."

The last line suggests that the requirement to provide consecutive translation rests essentially on the whim of the Speaker. Likewise, regarding the issue of reasonable adjustment to speaking time in order to allow Members to provide a consecutive translation, the Assembly response states:

"Within their time allocation Members must ensure that any comments that are not in English are fully translated. The Speaker and the Deputy Speakers operate within Standing Orders, rulings and conventions when chairing plenary business. This includes an element of discretion to ensure the smooth flow of business regardless of which language members choose to use."

Does a Speaker or Deputy Speaker therefore have the discretion to allow an Irish-speaking Member longer? What we know for sure is that those choosing to use Irish — overwhelmingly Catholics and Nationalists — have only 50% of the substantive speaking time of those who choose to use English, while use of Irish in the Assembly is probably even less than 50% of what it could be, given the discouraging effect of the requirement for consecutive translation. The question whether the Assembly has considered the potential for indirect discrimination against groups listed in section 75 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998 appears not to have been answered in the Assembly's response.

There are some grounds for hope here:

a new Speaker or an existing Deputy Speaker may have the discretion either to end the requirement for consecutive translation or extend the time available to those who choose to use Irish;

there are clear grounds to mount a challenge under section 75 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998 — the legislation that established the Assembly;

although the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages is not justiciable, it has already been argued (albeit unsuccessfully) that another limitation on the use of Irish (in courts) was incompatible with the Charter;

there are grounds for a challenge under the Human Rights Act 1998. In particular, simultaneous interpretation has been a fact for many years at Stormont, and the failure to extend the service to Members with its attendant indirect discrimination could be viewed as perverse (particularly given the relative cost factors concerned). Furthermore, it is clearly unsatisfactory that the realisation of a benefit (and perhaps a right) for individual Irish-speaking Members should rest on, and be construed as, a corporate decision by a largely English-speaking Business Committee to avail itself of a service;

demographic change may play a role. Northern Ireland will almost certainly have a Catholic majority in the medium term. Although Unionists have argued that a substantial number of Catholics would opt to remain in the UK if asked at a referendum, even if that is true, we do know that they have hitherto failed to vote for Unionist parties in any substantial numbers. The Blether Region is unaware under what arrangements the Business Committee functions, but it is likely that at some point Unionists will either lose their majority or, as part of a strategy to retain it, be forced to modify their positions on issues such as that discussed here.

Friday, 18 November 2011

Parallel Lives?

The Grecian halls of Stormont were abuzz with talk of the new Programme for Government yesterday. Amid the myriad policies discussed — and the considerable relief evident that a programme of any kind has at last been negotiated — the Blether Region was struck by a misinterpretation of the document on the part of Peter Robinson.

The First Minister stated:

"Consistent with the Hillsborough agreement, the Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure will bring forward a strategy for the Irish language and Ulster Scots. We look forward to seeing those proposals. I hope that both of those languages can be developed in a way that is apart from political rancour."

Slugger O'Toole's Mick Fealty commented positively on that, apparently taking Mr. Robinson's synopsis at face value. However, a single strategy for Irish and Ulster Scots was in fact the policy of the previous DUP Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure, Nelson McCausland — one that was roundly criticised in the Committee of Experts' report on the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages. The current policy outlined in the draft Programme for Government is for two distinct strategies, one for Irish and one for "Ulster Scots language, heritage and culture". The Hillsborough agreement cited by Mr. Robinson makes no explicit reference to matters linguistic, although it does mention outstanding issues from the St. Andrews agreement (which, as we all know, mentions not an Irish-language strategy but an Act).

The two-strategy approach means that progress on Irish will no longer be held back by the hirplin prick-ma-denty of Ulster Scots, which is good news. However, the inclusion of "heritage and culture" may unfortunately mean that money will continue to be siphoned off from genuine Scots-language initiatives and spent on other projects; and on past form many of those will have a negative effect on the local dialect's ability to garner the Catholic and liberal Unionist support necessary to ensure its survival.

Tuesday, 15 November 2011

Gaoltacht Irish?

In the classic 1961 POW comedy Very Important Person, Scots soldier "Jock" Everett (Stanley Baxter) is contemptuously referred to as an "englisches Schwein" by a bullying Nazi prison guard. The unfortunate German could hardly have predicted the response: Jock angrily retorts that he is a "schottisches Schwein".

Almost exactly 50 years later, controversy has broken out about Northern Ireland Justice Minister David Ford's plans to remove Prison Service emblems. Sole TUV MLA Jim Allister has stated, no doubt correctly, that many Unionists would be "appalled", while First Minister Peter Robinson has even threatened to resign.

The Blether Region is slightly in favour of Mr. Ford's moves towards neutral political symbolism. Why only slightly? Because, as we have seen, its flip side is the Alliance Party's doctrinaire and paternalistic refusal — decades after Wales and Scotland bit the bullet — to countenance bilingual signage, either everywhere, in line with derivation, or, as a compromise, only in those areas where a substantial majority of people have shown themselves to be in favour.

Indeed, the Blether Region is perplexed at the ritualised nonsense surrounding Derry/Londonderry. Surely for cultural nationalists the choice should be between "Doire" and "Doire Cholm Cille".

In that spirit, here's to the inclusion of Irish-langugage signs in the prisons of A Soilse Banríon Ríocht Aontaithe na Breataine Móire agus Thuaisceart Éireann — a compromise that should (in an ideal world) please Unionists and Nationalists alike, even if it displeases Mr. Ford.

Slanging Matches

The Scotsman reports on a forthcoming updated edition of the Concise Scots Dictionary (a distilled version of the SND and DOST with the citation texts removed). What leaps out at one is the popular conflation of the terms "dialect" and "slang", something particularly noticeable in the appended comments.

And yet, as is clear from the article, it is the actual sociolinguistic status of Scots that has brought that situation about.

Drumming Up Support

Friends of the Blether Region recently overheard a Loyalist musician comment on the Ulster-Scots Agency funding that his band had secured for musical tuition. As it happened, the tutors were themselves drawn from the band in question, and, if any formal tuition actually took place, it is safe to say that it would have happened anyway. Band members could not believe their good luck at their £1,600 windfall. Ascertaining how often tutors are members of the same band would of course make for an interesting Assembly Question.

Working out what such funding, musical or otherwise, has to do with Scots as a language variety is a matter that might not be so easily resolved.

Tuesday, 8 November 2011

Something Missing?

John Dallat of the SDLP has asked an interesting question of the Assembly Commission, "how many times Ulster-Scots was spoken in Assembly plenary sessions over the last twelve months; and to detail the cost of translation for this period."

The Blether Region may be mistaken, but there seems to be have been very little use of Ulster Scots at all in the Assembly since the departure of the redoubtable Jim Shannon for the Mother of Parliaments in mid-2010. Like the simultaneous translation facility for Irish, that for the Ulster variety of Scots is available only to the Speaker and the Clerk. However, unlike Irish, Ulster Scots has probably never been used in the Assembly to an extent that would justify the service, even when both Mr. Shannon and Ian Adamson were Members. Moreover, long before Mr. Shannon's departure, he had abandoned maximally differentiated New Ulster Scots in favour of thin dialect arguably requiring no translation at all.

The service was originally introduced after Ian Paisley Jr., another MLA who has now opted for Westminster, asked then Speaker Lord Alderdice if it might not be discriminatory to have interpretation for Irish but not for Ulster Scots. As ordinary MLAs never got to hear the Irish translation anyway, the merit of Mr. Paisley's argument may have been somewhat moot. Be that as it may, the uncomfortable truth is that having someone on standby for Ulster-Scots simultaneous translation may actually cost more than providing the real existierender service for Irish, since Ulster-Scots translators are not salaried employees but feed consultants working for a generous daily rate.

MSPs in Scotland are required to give prior notice when they use Gaelic to enable the Parliament to arrange simultaneous translation. If there is no Gaelic, no translator is needed, and there is no cost. That stands in marked contrast to the practice of the Northern Ireland Assembly, which pays for full-time simultaneous translation for two varieties but does not let Members listen to the English version of either.

What would the best system for Stormont be? There is no doubt that knowledge of Irish is proportionately much more widespread than knowledge of Gaelic in Scotland, and it would therefore be sensible to retain simultaneous translation for it, which should of course be extended to ordinary Members.

The case of Ulster Scots is less clear. When Scots is used at Holyrood, simultaneous translation is considered unnecessary, and the original Scots text of the speech is incorporated into the Official Report. How to treat Scots is of course an inherently political question, and there is no reason not to have oral and written translation where there is sufficient political demand. Whether it is a sensible use of public resources to have someone on standby all the time is another matter, however, and one that the Assembly has perhaps waited too long to address.