Thursday, 29 November 2012

A Part of the Main

The Irish Times reports that most people in the South claim to be able to speak "some Irish", although only 4% of them say they speak it "very well" — proof, if any was necessary, that competence is closely allied to use, since a similar figure has been ascertained with regard to daily usage outside the education system. Some 58% of people would like to see Irish used more widely, but only 24% were in favour of its being revived as the main language of communication. Still, given the fact that policy on Irish has had such mixed results for for so long, with Irish identity — once closely linked to Catholicism and the Gaelic revival — now beginning to follow the Scottish model of stressing institutional independence, that figure may not be so low after all.

Meanwhile, the Newry Times spoke to Dominic Bradley about the SDLP's response to the consultation on the Irish language strategy.

"Ample opportunities exist within the history of the Irish language and its links to Scotland for old attitudes to be changed enough for the language to be perceived in a more positive light across the community — this work should be an important part of the strategy."

Given the veto arrangements of the Good Friday and St. Andrews Agreements, this is only common sense. It is also the right thing to do, since Unionists, many of whom have Goidelic names and Gaelic-speaking ancestors, have a right to get to know about their home and heritage too.

Monday, 19 November 2012

Waste ... and Garbage

Liam Clarke has an interesting article on the Assembly in the Belfast Telegraph with which many people will sympathise.

However, one point is blatantly false.

"There doesn't seem to be the talent pool in local politics to fill all 108 places at any price. Many debates are leaden affairs. Many members read monotonous speeches written by taxpayerfunded backroom teams. That wouldn"t be allowed in other parliaments. Here, anything goes, and every word is translated into Irish and Ulster-Scots."

The fact is that there is no simultaneous translation into either speech variety. Neither is there written translation in the Official Report, which Mr. Clarke evidently seldom consults; as far as the Blether Region is aware, the only parliamentary assembly in Britain or Ireland where that happens is Wales. The Speaker has a translation facility from Irish and Ulster Scots into English so that he or she can be sure that no Standing Order is being broken. Despite the fact that the facility could be extended to ordinary Members at comparatively modest cost, the Assembly Commission has consistently refused to allow it for political reasons.

The only material translated into Irish or Scots is the occasional paragraph in a speech, usually during Second Stage debates, when MLAs do indeed often "read monotonous speeches". However, it would be impossible to prevent them from spending their money on such translations, and in any case the Blether Region strongly suspects that many are provided by supporters free of charge. Other MLAs will ad-lib in Irish or use their own notes.

Mr. Clarke has unthinkingly regurgitated dinner-party prejucide against minoritised tongues and — as the BBC recently found to its cost — not bothered to go and check the facts.

Friday, 9 November 2012

Make Your Voice Heard

Three Government consultations on language in Northern Ireland are currently seeking submissions: the Ulster-Scots Language and Culture Strategy (deadline 27 November); the Irish Language Strategy (also 27 November); and the proposed development and research strategy of the Ministerial Advisory Group on Ulster Scots (7 December).

With the Ulster-Scots Strategies, the important points to make are that:
  • DCAL's own statistics show that Ulster Scots is a genuine cross-community phenomenon, so it should not be sold as part of a cultural package aimed squarely at members of a single tradition;
  • the membership of the boards of MAGUS and the Ulster-Scots Agency has never reflected the bi-ethnic make-up of the speech community in Northern Ireland;
  • the difference in the roles of the two bodies mentioned above is not at all clear;
  • there is absolute academic consensus that Ulster Scots is a variety of Scots, clearly implying common development and a common written standard; and
  • nearly all Scots-language academics and nearly all contemporary writers of traditional Scots are in Scotland, and it will be impossible to make progress on language development without accessing that resource.
With the Irish-language strategy, the important points to make are that:
  • as Irish and Ulster Scots are very different tongues, at different stages of development, and with a different relationship to English, it is to be welcomed that plans for their development are no longer linked;
  • bilingualism is always about safeguarding the rights of the minority, and it is precisely the absence of consensus on the issue that makes an Irish Language Act necessary;
  • by not passing legislation to protect the language, Northern Ireland risks distancing itself not only from the Irish Republic but from Scotland and Wales; and
  • it is both in the interests of Irish and morally right that efforts be made to interest Unionists in the language.

Thursday, 8 November 2012

The Weight of Symbolism

Ian James Parsley has an interesting blog post about Irish-language road signs.

"Most obviously, returning to traffic signs, entering the Republic of Ireland, we move to kilometres but we also add the Irish (Gaelic) language. Again, this is not for any practical purpose – almost the entire population now speaks English in preference to Irish Gaelic, and thus Irish Gaelic is generally omitted from roadworks signs or temporary notices (as well as private advertisements, even in the Irish-speaking Gaeltacht area). Irish Gaelic is not added for any real practical purpose; it is, rather, a display of identity – again, a connection with Ireland’s Gaelic past (hence my use of the term “Irish Gaelic”) which provides for a unique sense of history and identity. This is not just a matter for traffic signs of course – match programmes for GAA games, for example, generally contain the names of the two teams on the cover in Irish Gaelic, with everything else in English, making the same essential symbolic point of identity. To others, it all seems daft – but then, to others, so do royal pageants, strange titles and distances in miles."

Many people who, with considerable personal investment of time and effort, have learnt Irish, or who struggle for the human right to have their children educated through the medium of the language, might take issue with the use of the word "preference" here. Equally, one suspects that not a few who found they had no particular aptitude for Irish taught as a foreign language at secondary school, given the hypothetical possibility of clickling their fingers to become fluent in it, would jump at the chance. That they have not learnt Irish is in many cases attributable to their personal talents, enthusiasm and level of education, but above all to the way in which they encountered the language — shorn of vitality and drowned in an English sea.

A relevant issue in that regard is the notion of "practical purpose", another term for which might be "communicative relevance". One could argue that it is precisely the presence of Irish on street signs and elsewhere in the public domain that gives it one. Learning a secret language to talk to people in bar-room snugs — that really would exhibit a lack of practical purpose. Gaeilgeoirí do that too, but that doesn't mean they wouldn't prefer to have their democratic and human rights as Irish-speakers realised in the form of services from the state (whichever state) to which they pay their taxes.

As often occurs in such cases, the Blether Region has found that someone else has already made the argument much more eloquently:

"The presence of Gaelic in the corporate identity and signs of a public authority greatly enhances the visibility of the language, increases its status and makes an important statement about how Gaelic is valued and how it is given recognition. Developing the use of Gaelic through signage can also enrich the vocabulary of Gaelic users, raise public awareness of the language and contribute to its development."

Readers might wonder who said that. Perhaps Republican Sinn Féin? Éirígí? The Thirty-two County Sovereignty Committee?

Actually it was the Scottish Parliament Corporate Body, in a recent consultation on its draft Gaelic Plan.

It would be odd if a bilingual archipelago stretching from Cork to Caithness were to emerge while Northern Ireland alone was defined by battleship-grey utilitarianism, a place apart from Ireland, of course, but also, increasingly, from Britain.

Yet that is just where we're headed.