Friday, 22 February 2013

Boxing Stupid

The Scotsman has an interesting article on a project aimed at encouraging councillors in the Highland area to learn Gaelic. Unfortunately for it, like much of the paper's news offering in recent years, the reporting seems to have been skewed to its detriment by a high-level injunction to attack the SNP — so that the article is introduced with the statistics "just 5 of 80 Highland councillors speak Gaelic" and "only 10 have signed up for basic Gaelic classes".

As if that were some kind of indictment. If Gaelic had such high levels of existing speakers and interest in the general population, it would be a cause for some celebration.

The paper's stance is saddening, for in Scotland, unlike Northern Ireland, support for or opposition to Gaelic has not depended on one's stance on the constitutional question. Admittedly, Nationalists may have been slightly more in favour, but there were plenty of ardent Unionists who did their bit for Gaelic: Brian Wilson on the Labour side; and on the Tory, the unlikely figure of Michael Forsyth. Indeed, in that respect, one might almost mention the Scotsman's own Gaelic column. There is also no shortage of native speakers who have no time for the SNP.

That all stands in stark contrast to the world of Scots. Since the early twentieth century, the vast majority of people who support the notion that Scots is a language and should be treated as such have also been political Nationalists.

It is also true to say that, the above observations notwithstanding, Nationalism in Scotland has been far too coy about culture. The rates of joblessness or child poverty are cogent arguments for independence, but they are by no means the only ones. As Oscar Wilde might have said: to lose one language is unfortunate; to lose two is careless. In Scotland's case, it speaks of a land that successively valued confessional politics and the wealth of empire above secular culture.

It would be naive to think that, in the event of a no vote in 2014, the yes camp would scatter to the four winds. More likely, independence would enjoy a lasting boost, and could well become the majority view fairly quickly thereafter. To attempt to make political capital out of support for Scotland's benighted national languages in support of a short-term political goal is a morally repugnant strategy. It is also a high-risk one, since interest in Gaelic, a genie that got out of the bottle in the early 1990s, is only going to grow, regardless of what happens to the language's native communities.

In short, the Scotsman should be careful for what it wishes for.

Tuesday, 19 February 2013

A Road to Nowhere

The Detail reports that the Northern Ireland Tourist Board refused a £200,000 grant to Down District Council until it agreed to scrap its original plans and make any signage connected with a tourism project monolingual in English. NITB Chief Executive Alan Clarke even claimed in writing that the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment, Arlene Foster, had issued a "Ministerial Decision" prohibiting it from funding bilingual projects.

Under the Good Friday Agreement and the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages, the institutiuons of UK Government — clearly including the Northern Ireland Executive, which is the most relevant — are committed to promoting the Irish language. Former Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure Nelson McCausland tested this when he cut funding to the Northern Ireland Place-Name Project, which resulted in the closure of an academic initiative whose research work, ironically, probably found greater approval among Protestants than many other Irish-language projects one could mention. Ultimately, however, even during Mr. McCausland's tenure, DCAL was still spending money on Irish (albeit no that muckle), and its decision to withdraw funds could be seen as being within his legitimate purview as Minister.

Actually attaching blanket anti-Irish stipulations to grant conditions is another matter, however, differing fundamentally from not having a policy or having a bad one. Not only that, at a local government level, applications for funding to cover English-Irish signage are much more likely to originate from districts with majorities of Catholics and Nationalists, groups protected under section 75 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998. If there were evidence that such councils were losing out in the funding stakes because of grĂ¡ na Gaeilge, or incurring re-design costs as a result of the ban, the NITB would have to be on very firm ground with its reasoning.

Unfortunately for it, that seems unlikely, as it appears to be arguing that "bilingual signs could present a road safety hazard".
"NITB works closely with local councils to contribute part funding to tourist signage. NITB is entirely focused on the experience of the visitor to Northern Ireland, and therefore keen to ensure that all tourist interpretation and signage is clear, does not confuse our visitors and assists them in understanding the importance of the destination. The approach adopted by NITB, and which is already in place for white and brown road traffic signs, is consistent with Roads Service policy i.e. all signs should be in English except where an attraction is already known in Irish."
There is already a wealth of data confirming that bilingual road signage is not dangerous, most recently from Scotland, where only last year a report found that "while there is evidence that bilingual signs may have increased the demand of the driving task, this increase can be absorbed and managed by the driver and therefore does not result in a significant increase in crash risk and accident involvement". It concluded that "Analysis of accident data in Scotland concurred with this conclusion, finding no evidence that accidents increased or decreased as a result of the installation of bilingual signs." The same is of course the long-term experience of the Irish Republic, where many tourists to Northern Ireland in any case originate.

Moreover, the sentence "all signs should be in English except where an attraction is already known in Irish" seems distinctly ill-informed. The names of most attractions, after all, will involve place-names, and most of those originate in Irish. And even where the English form is not simply inexpertly transliterated Gaelic, there is nearly always a Gaelic alternative.

Meanwhile, artist Stephen Hall relates that the National Trust is refusing to stock his multi-lingual Giant's Causeway DVD — which includes not only an 18-minute English-Irish animation but a version in Scottish Gaelic and two separate Scots translations — in its new centre at the Causeway. The Trust, which recently came under fire for its inclusion at the same venue of creationist "lines to take" ("there is a debate", etc.), said at the time that it had no room for the DVD in its shop. That may of course be absolutely true. However, given the extreme relevance of the product to the site, it certainly does not have the ring of truth about it.

Monday, 4 February 2013

An Inspired Choice of Words

Few things demonstrate the statist orientation of the Northern Ireland economy better than the weirdly disproportionate level of public-information advertising on local television and radio — with an almost equally disproportionate level voiced by the irrepressible and now filthy-rich Dympna from Give My Head Peace. The same observation could of course be made of advertising on buses, recent examples being campaigns against domestic violence and human trafficking.

The more eagle-eyed Belfastards out there will have clocked the appearance of a new one adorning the Translink fleet, this time entitled "We're backin' Belfast". One need hardly be Sherlock Holmes to work out that this spending is a reaction to, as well as an item in, the economic damage done by the self-defeating Loyalist "fleg" protests — at once an attempt to persuade people to return to the city centre and, perhaps, a useful alternative to the "advertising for advertising" that crops up elsewhere in times of recession.

Whoever came up with the campaign is something of a genius (or maybe just an old fart), for — apart from being a pun on "back in" — the slogan harks back to a campaign of the late 1960s, "I'm Backing Britain", which began when five secretaries from Surbiton, "the queen of suburbs", volunteered to work half an hour extra each evening without pay. They soon found that they had attracted support from patriots as various as Harold Wilson and Robert Maxwell (both of whom, in an ironic coincidence, were later rumoured to be foreign spies) — as well as, no doubt, the odd person enjoying an office affair and thinking, presumably, not of Britain but of England. That the secretaries' initiative ended up not making the difference originally intended is unimportant here: the key fact is the glow of unalloyed patriotism represented by their slogan.

In its current incarnation it is a patriotism of course reclaimed from the protestors — and a recognition that Unionist attitudes can be counter-productive when it comes to their core goal of preserving the Union, and extreme Unionist attitudes extremely so. In fact, given the numbers of Catholics enumerated by the 2011 Census, just as Scottish Unionists living in England would be well advised to vote Labour rather than for the despised Tories, more thoughtful Northern Ireland Unionists might do well to avoid a toxic brand and lend their votes to the Alliance Party.

Perhaps the ad men too realised that simple, if disconcerting truth.