Friday, 30 March 2012

Dialect and Quality of Life

The Blether Region has long been an admirer of bilingual signage in Greyabbey that uses traditional local names alongside their modern-day English replacements, a superior initiative on the part of the Ulster-Scots movement from an era before it lost contact with reality.

The above photograph, from the Scotsman, shows another example, this time from Shetland. The report that it adorns, which addresses the enviable quality of life enjoyed by islanders, might also have mentioned culture. With a strong dialect and sense of identity — and, as we can see, signage that acknowledges that diversity — the Shetlanders are one up on many of us in that respect too.

No Sign of Change

It is no great surprise that the Minister for Regional Development, Danny Kennedy, has announced that there will be no bilingual road signs. Everyone knew that, under the safeguards added to the Good Friday/Belfast Agreement by the DUP at St. Andrews, the party had the power to block policy proposals that, in its estimation, were "novel or contentious". What to some people might be more surprising is that in this case it is the UUP Minister that has done the blocking. However, as those who live in Northern Ireland know, for every UUP member who views his or her party as a more moderate alternative to the DUP, there may be another who looks back with nostalgia to the days of a single Unionist party and its attendant domination of the political scene.

Mr. Kennedy acknowledged the two-thirds majority in favour of bilingual signage (which could have been Ulster-Scots as well as Irish) but cited the low numbers of respondents and the lack of community consensus. But is bilingualism not the natural way of dealing with such diversity? It certainly is most other places.

The UUP's reluctance to differentiate itself from the DUP on this issue and others may to some extent presage what lies in store for the party a few years down the line. Given that there will almost certainly be a Catholic/Nationalist majority in Northern Ireland next decade, Unionists have two choices to maintain their majority at Stormont: attract the support of those Catholics who would vote in favour of the Union at a future referendum by ridding themselves of what that group might consider unreasonably sectarian policies and baggage; or opt for some sort of voting pact, and quite possibly merger, involving the DUP and UUP. On present trends, it will be the latter, and Catholic Unionists will vote Alliance or, more likely, for one of the Nationalist parties.

Notwithstanding the slow decline of the SDLP, there is simply not as much pressure for consolidation on the Nationalist side, for "a rising tide lifts all boats". And the split between constitutional and physical-force Nationalism may, even in a time of peace, prove harder to mend than that between the two wings of Unionism.

At some point, therefore, we may see a single Unionist party, the Alliance and two Nationalist parties. Although Unionists may lose their voting majority, they will fight to retain the St. Andrews system for electing the First Minister and wield their policy veto widely.

Indeed, that may have been just the scenario in Peter Robinson's mind when he negotiated those changes.

Thursday, 29 March 2012

No Such Thing as the Bad Kind

Former Ulster-Scots Agency "heid yin" (or, as we say in Scots, "convener") John Laird finds himself making news again, this time because of his opposition to new rules introduced to limit the number of questions that peers may ask in the House of Lords. Regular readers of the Northern Ireland press will recall that, at a cost of millions, Lord Laird regularly tops league tables for questions posed by UK parliamentarians — one of which addressed the pressing issue of whether fire engines should be yellow rather than red.

On this occasion the noble Lord has argued that the imposition of an arbitrary numerical cap on the questions that individual Members may submit in a given week constitutes a scandalous curtailment of democracy and a grotesque over-reaction to his own activity.

But what if he is right about the first part and wrong on the second?

Monday, 26 March 2012

Black Swan?

The DUP's Robin Swann has tabled some interesting Assembly questions on matters Ulster-Scots in recent days. Last Thursday, for example, he asked the Minister "whether she has received or sought any advice from the Ministerial Advisory Group on the Ulster Scots Academy in relation to how the decade of centenaries should be commemorated or celebrated."

In the past the Blether Region has been mildly critical of the ministerial advisory group for spending part of its funds on "history, heritage and culture" projects, which have included Plantation archaeology, its argument being that such non-linguistic funding has the effect of needlessly alienating the third of speakers who are Catholic and thus bringing forward the dialect's foreseeable demise. That is not to say that Plantation archaeology is not of vital historical interest, but it is surely not beyond the capability of Government to fund it through another channel — nor beyond the nous of the ministerial advisory group to think of something linguistic to spend its siller on.

The "decade of centenaries" is of course a calendar of political anniversaries and as such has more to do with Unionism vs. Nationalism than with Lowland Scots vis-à-vis Standard English. Thus far the ministerial advisory group has shown only slight signs of emulating the Ulster-Scots Agency's wilful and in many cases laughably anachronistic conflation of linguistic, political and religious traditions.

It would be a great shame altogether if its members paid any attention to Robin Swann.

Friday, 23 March 2012

A Tale of Two Schools

The Belfast Telegraph reports on the closure of Ballykeigle Primary near Comber, whose school roll had fallen to fewer than 40 pupils. As part of rescue efforts, the Ulster-Scots Agency had been interested in creating the first specialist primary to place "Ulster-Scots culture and heritage" centre-stage.

Over the water, meanwhile, Glasgow Gaelic School has secured a £200,000 grant to cater for its ever-increasing numbers of students.

It could be argued that it's unfair to compare apples with oranges in this way — until one considers that it is just that trap into which the Ulster-Scots Agency may be falling.

The success of Irish-medium education can easily translate across the Irish border and, as we have seen in this case, to Gaelic in Scotland too. What doesn't work so well is attempting to create a Protestant version of Irish-medium education, particularly one in which language plays second fiddle to broader — or, indeed, narrower — cultural concerns.

Of course, the Ulster-Scots angle in the story may be a minor and misleading one. The teachers and parents will no doubt have been desperate to save their school by entertaining any scheme that held out that prospect. The Agency, however, would do better to concentrate on diffusing the dialect more widely among adults, many of whom will find Ulster-Scots literature hard to access, and some of whom may even doubt that it is still spoken at all.

Wednesday, 21 March 2012

Unpicking the Glue

There has been much talk over the past few days of the current Conservative/Lib-Dem Westminster coalition introducing regional pay for civil servants and other Government employees. While such a scheme might well save a few bob here and there, it will also constitute a further attack on one of the most fundamental pillars of any successful nation state — solidarity.

The rationale for regional pay is the somewhat shaky one that private-sector employers cannot "compete" with the public sector for the brightest and best individuals. But what about all those talented people on northern dole queues? And do northerners living elsewhere really move there in order to earn more, or simply to earn at all? What's undisputed is that the bulk of the British private sector today is in fact the service sector, and, through the local deflationary impact, that will probably suffer considerably more than it gains.

Along with national rates for social security benefits, national pay rates for public-sector workers are a key tool to transfer money from richer to poorer areas — according to economists part of what makes a common currency possible. Yet the Conservatives, the very people who correctly predicted the Eurozone's difficulties in the absence of fiscal union, seem to be planning to replicate just that unsustainable situation in England.

Even if regional pay rates are justified on the level of an individual's purchasing power, the question will remain of how best to even out disparities in wealth between the English regions, then. And it is not merely an economic issue. Given that Scotland and Northern Ireland may soon be granted the power to vary corporation tax, one need hardly own a crystal ball to predict increasing demands from people in the north of England, and the north-east in particular, that money saved through the introduction of regional pay be put towards lowering it in their area. After all, they will be among the biggest losers if businesses decide to relocate to Scotland (Newcastle is closer to Edinburgh than it is to Sheffield, never mind London). And the smaller private sector means that any monetary savings can go further on that front too.

Brian Ashcroft has said: "An alternative view that chimes better with the ethos of regional variation and the rejection of national pay is that it should be the people in the North East themselves, who should decide. But to do that they would require a government that raises and spends taxes in the region according to regional preferences. In other words, it seems to me that the logic of regional variations in public sector pay is fiscal federalism with regional governments having responsibility for a range of taxes and the provision of public services including setting the pay rates of public workers."

Scotland, which is more or less in the middle when it comes to GDP, will presumably also be more or less in the middle when it comes to the allowance made for public-sector wages in the block grant (equivalent to the average English rate as delivered via the Barnett formula). But if George Osborne thinks that those troublesome Picts will be happy with that, he clearly doesn't know Scottish Nationalists. In the absence of complete fiscal autonomy, and particularly if there is any sort of notional Scottish budget surplus based on oil revenues not under Scottish control, people in Scotland will, quite rightly, demand to be paid at the highest effective English rate — and will vote SNP, and perhaps for independence, if they don't get it. Remember that regional pay is being introduced now in the absence of full-blown fiscal autonomy, whereas the vote on independence will not be until the autumn of 2014.

It gets even worse for Britain if the concept of regional pay scales is extended to benefits, one of the last remaining mechanisms for fiscal transfer. Of course, since 1979 benefits in Britain have largely been pegged to inflation rather than average earnings, and they are now well on their way to becoming, as Michael Portillo once candidly predicted in the case of the basic state pension, of "nugatory" value. In economic terms, reducing social security rates in the north would be a double whammy. It would also be damaging socially. Imagine the middle-brow southern English media complaining of benefit tourism on the part of unemployed northern jobseekers living in their area, while on the street people use that most disgusting of expressions, "northern monkeys".

Small wonder that the Herald has predicted: "Once George Osborne is done cutting public sector pay in the English north, "England" could become a fragile concept."

Like Margaret Thatcher's attacks on solidarity in the 1980s, regional pay may increase the centrifugal tendencies at play on the British state. For the first time, they may also be extended to England itself.

Tuesday, 20 March 2012

Plan B

The Blether Region couldn't help noticing a welcome discrepancy in the way that Irish and Ulster Scots are referred to in the final Programme for Government issued a few days ago. Page 49 refers to a "Strategy for the Irish Language" but to a "Strategy for Ulster Scots Language, Heritage and Culture". Of course, promoting the hamely tongue as a cross-community resource, as its speaker profile demands, is well nigh impossible if "heritage [Unionist history] and culture [Orangeism]" remain part of the mix. The lack of a definite article before "Ulster Scots language", however, is a long overdue return to the real world on the part of politicians and civil servants. Carál Ní Chuilín's choice of special adviser may have set back public acceptance of linguistic diversity, but at least she's not a British Israelite — and it shows.

Saturday, 17 March 2012

Phobes' Corner

The Belfast Telegraph reports on Unionists boycotting St. Patrick's Day celebrations in Downpatrick as a result of their antipathy to the presence on flags issued by the local council of the original Irish name of the town, Dún Pádraig, alongside the usual jarring English transliteration (ironically, the BT gets it the wrong way around and refers to the Irish as a "translation").

Last year there were problems associated with the unfurling of a tricolour, and it seems that the current spat may be connected. But a tricolour is the flag of a polity, whereas writing "Dún Pádraig" as well as "Downpatrick" is simply an example of bilingualism in practice.

Jim Wells, the DUP MLA who has previously caused waves with his open homophobia, is quoted as follows:

"I most certainly will not be attending the parade," he said.

"It is my personal protest against the adoption of Irish language on the flag. I believe this is a highly retrograde step. Unfortunately, by adopting this stance they are alienating moderate unionists who would have very much liked to be associated with the the event."

The truth is that moderate Unionists do not have a problem with the Irish language. Indeed, moderate human beings do not have a problem with other people's culture, just as they don't have a problem with what sexual orientation they were born with.

If they do, then we shall simply have to find another adjective for them.