Wednesday, 26 June 2013

Northern Exposure

The DUP's Peter Weir has asked Culture Minister Carál Ní Chuilín to detail grants awarded to organisations in his North Down constituency (AQW 22291/11-15).

The answer makes for sobering reading — sobering, that is, if one's main interest lies in linguistic rather than sectarian culture.

Ostensible expenditure on "languages" included £11,000 in 2010/11 for digitisation of the Raven maps, while MAGUS spent a total of £35,000 over two years developing Ulster-Scots audio tours. If the Blether Region were an MLA, it would now be asking how many people downloaded the files and what the cost per customer was.

But an even bigger spender has been the Ulster-Scots Agency, which awarded grants, some over multiple years, to a dozen or so kick-the-Pope bands.

On the other hand, the Blether Region was hard pressed to find any spending that might uncontroversially be identified as relating solely or mainly to the Ulster dialect of Scots.

Regarding Irish, NI Events gave £15,000 to Féile an Earraigh in 2010/11, which was presumably not limited to language-related shows. The following year Foras na Gaeilge gave £1,000 to Holywood Irish Society for Nasca Community Festival, which, as the Blether Region can personally testify, did have a genuine language focus.

All in all, it is a depressing litany.

Thursday, 13 June 2013

Scots Aroond Us

The Blether Region spotted this poster for a play at Belfast's Lyric Theatre while out and about this afternoon.

The word weein (more usually spelt wean) of course derives from wee ane or "little one" and originates in Central Scots. Originally disyllablic, the word, according to the DSL, has not completely coalesced to form a monophthong in Perthshire, Angus and Northern Scots, where it may still be viewed as two distinct elements (in today's Central Belt, wean exists alongside wee yin and wee one).

Ulster may be a little different, in that the region has "vowel breaking" whereby a monophthong becomes a diphthong. Thus many Northern Ireland people would pronounce the second element in "Sinn Féin" disyllabically despite its being a monophtong in Irish (the second element in the digraph actually indicates only a palatal consonant).

Wee itself may be used rather differently in Ulster from how it is used in Scotland. Rather than describing physical size or the lack thereof, it often appears as a mitigator to indicate politeness: "Take a wee seat"; "You all right for a wee ticket?"; "Can I see your wee number?". On the other hand, constructions such as "It's a bit wee" would be rare. It also forms a stressed element in new compounds such as wee-girl, weefla (wee + fallae) and weetchil (wee + chield) — which, as far as the Blether Region can make out, have not yet made it into the DSL, although the last two are in the Concise Ulster Dictionary. The words' origin may lie in the fact that, although adjectives more usually follow the noun in Irish, on those occasions where they precede it, they are stressed.

Radio for Help

The BBC reports that two new community radio stations, one Irish and one Ulster-Scots, are to be granted licences.

fUSe FM in Ballymoney has promised to "reflect the traditions, language and culture of Ulster Scots in Ballymoney and surrounding areas".

Whoever those "Ulster Scots" are — some definitions would include English-speaking evangelicals like Nelson McCausland while excluding native speakers such as the SDLP's Liam Logan. Far better to talk about "speakers".

The BBC's report set the Blether Region thinking of two German words. The first, Vorfreude, refers to the happy feeling of anticipation that one gets when contemplating a coming pleasure. The second, Schadenfreude, better known in these airts an pairts, refers to a perverse feeling of satisfaction derived from the misfortune of another.

It could of course be the case that the Ballymoney venture will be a roaring success, universally acclaimed by speakers of the dialect, including the substantial Catholic minority. On the other hand, the many and well-documented problems surrounding Ulster-Scots initiatives — problems to do with chauvinism, lacking authenticity, wayward financial management and a surprising lack of interest in Scots itself as a speech variety — do not bode well. Especially when, unlike the Ulster-Scots Agency, fUSe FM is presumably to be staffed mainly or wholly by volunteers.

The great beneficiary of such embedded dilettantism is of course the BBC, which for many decades played a decisive role in suppressing the UK's indigenous languages and grinding down its traditional dialects. Nowadays the BBC provides Welsh and Scottish Gaelic radio stations and, in Scotland, even BBC Alba. But speakers of both Scots and Irish have obvious and genuine cause for complaint. To put it bluntly, there is no convincing explanation why there should not be an Irish-language radio station in Northern Ireland — except the exercise of a tacit political veto (so much for BBC independence!). Similarly, although Scots is now de jure a language, the BBC has yet to make any substantial provision, presumably because it (correctly) interprets the official recognition accorded to it as a Civil Service buy-off, a sequined wooden spoon intended not to stir up change but to help the medicine go down.

The ideal solution for Scots broadcasting would perhaps be a joint Scottish-Northern Ireland radio station funded by the licence fee and run by the BBC. Germany and France have a shared TV arts channel called ARTE, despite the fact that they are different states with different languages. Scots and Ulster Scots are the same language in the same state. Along with quality, a further advantage would be that the sectarian elements present in so much Ulster-Scots promotion could be diluted (although Scotland has its own problems with sectarianism, they are not connected with Scots). And regular broadcasting in different forms of Scots would give the lie to any orra notions of Ulster languageness.

Ironically, it may take Scottish independence or the devolution of broadcasting (another buy-off) to achieve a Scots radio station. In either case, the BBC would soon bend to the prevailing political winds.

Here's to you, ARTE.

Wednesday, 12 June 2013

The Ulster-Scot

An interesting series of Assembly Questions casts a light on what can only be seen as the improving financial governance of the Ulster-Scots Agency over the years — and, conversely, quite how bad that governance was ten years ago.

To give one answer in full:
"From 2004-2009, the average cost of the Ulster-Scots newspaper was £18,138 per circulation issue for 42 issues totaling £761,796. From 2010-2011 the average cost per circulation issue fell to £11,094 for 12 issues totaling £133,128 due to the phasing out of overseas distribution in favour of internet publication. During 2012 there was a gap in production of the Ulster-Scots newspaper while the Agency re-launched the production of the paper, and from the end of 2012 the average cost per circulation issue is £5,600 for 6 issues totaling £33,600."
It is reassuring to know that the newspaper is no longer distributed overseas, i.e. no longer being used in an attempt to promote tourism — or, as some would have it, to set up an "Ulster" lobby to rival the more established Irish-American one. Indeed, the Ulster-Scot is given away with the News Letter only in Counties Antrim, Down and Derry, the only three in Northern Ireland with Scots-speaking communities.

And that is only as it should be.

Monday, 10 June 2013

Cumann Yet For A' That

The Orange Order has written to the University of Ulster to complain about students' wearing of modified GAA shirts with IRA-themed images — and in the same letter about the presence of bilingual signs on campus. While the Blether Region sympathises with its arguments regarding whether the shirts are contributing towards the creation of a shared space, it is clearly a logical fallacy to maintain that Protestants should necessarily feel alienated or afraid every time they clock a word of Irish. Quite apart from anything else, many people in Northern Ireland wallow in such deep-seated ignorance of the Gaelic that they are prone to mistake other languages for it — Ulster Scots in the case of a bilingual sign at Tullyard Way on Belfast's Clonduff Estate, and Scottish Gaelic in the case of UK passports, to name but two cringeworthy incidents. One feels sorry for such dyed-in-the-wool non-linguists, who must pass their entire day jumping at shadows.

It is also a distasteful irony that the complaint should emanate from a pathologically sectarian organisation such as the Orange Order.

Some years ago an official equality body adjudicated on the presence of bilingual signage in Queen's University Student Union. Its decision was spectacularly wrong, in the Blether Region's view raising serious questions about whether the organisation was, to use a modish phrase, "fit for purpose". However, as that decision was never overturned, senior Orangeman and solicitor Drew Nelson remains free to cite it as precedent:
"If multiple languages representing many nationalities of students were used it could be lawful – as at Belfast City Hall – but because only Irish is used so prominently, that is in breach of section 75 of the Northern Ireland Act and the university’s own diversity policy. This sort of ethos is creating a cold house for Protestant students, whereas Queen’s University Belfast dealt with these same issues 10 years ago."
The UK is of course now a signatory to the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages, which means that the promotion of Irish has, to some extent at least, received the official imprimatur of the state. The notion that the language should be judged on its mere presence rather than what is said in it is, frankly, bizarre. Although fluent speakers may be a small percentage of any visitors, on a practical level the presence of signs is amply justified by the maxim of "use it or lose it". Perhaps most relevant of all, the Gaelachas of Ireland is an unalterable historical fact, so that one cannot deny the culture without denying the person.

To do so would be a wee bit racist.

Tuesday, 4 June 2013

Town Bloody Hall?

The News Letter reports that Belfast City Council — crucially, with the support of Alliance Party councillors — has voted down an attempt to apply for Foras na Gaeilge funding for an Irish-language officer.

Although the Blether Region haes its douts that the post came close to being worth its proposed salary of £40,000, it's difficult not to conclude that the affair typifies some of the most egregiously depressing elements of language politics in Northern Ireland: the reflexive opposition of Unionists to anything Gaelic; the fact that, in this case taking their lead from no less than one-time Ulster-Scots activist Lee Reynolds, they were prepared to oppose the move in the full knowledge that they might well scupper the chances of an Ulster-Scots officer being appointed; and the casual prostitution of the Alliance Party as it attempts to ingratiate itself with moderate — or, as is becoming increasingly clear, not-so-moderate — Unionists.

Remember: the Alliance Party's Máire Hendron was the one who supported the idea of taking down the Union Flag from City Hall — where no one actually noticed it — and as a quid pro quo favoured putting one up permanently over the Cenotaph — where it would have been in full view of everyone, one or two at least of whom would have been likely to vandalise a war memorial as a result.

They don't think.

Monday, 3 June 2013

Dictionnaire Ideologues

The Ulster-Scots Agency is developing proposals for the equivalent of Gaeltachtaí in rural areas. The information came as part of a written answer supplied by the Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure, Carál Ní Chuilín. The Minister confirmed that the newly recognised districts would be known as "hairtlan areas" and that "the aim is to preserve, protect and promote Ulster-Scots heritage through geographical designations".

In a further twist, Ms Ní Chuilín also hinted that the Ulster-Scots Academy model might be emulated for Irish: "Through the Academy approach, we will aim to make both the Irish Language and Ulster-Scots more accessible to all communities in the north, including in rural areas."

Does this mean that the Minister intends to standardise Ulster Irish separately from Irish in the rest of Ireland?

The answer is most likely a resounding "No". After all, she could hardly be that stupid.

To Top It All

The current scandal surrounding John Laird is of course not the first. Indeed, one would have to be a very brave or very well-informed person to claim to be able to state with certainty what the first actually was. An oft-cited example involved expenses claims on the public purse for taxis taken between Belfast and Derry and Belfast and Dublin back in the days when Lord Laird chaired the grotesquely mismanaged Ulster-Scots Agency.

Yet even that must be small beer compared with the huge sums Laird has caused to be spent on administration answering an almost constant barrage of parliamentary questions, some of them ridiculously trivial in nature.

He has also not once but three times been an innocent (or, in the third case, knowing) associate of paedophiles, first with British Israelite William McGrath of Tara (see p. 32 of Chris Moore's The Kincora Scandal), secondly with Stan Mallon, a civil servant drafted in to run the agency, and thirdly with Christopher Charles Knight, the American who planned to buy the Belfast Giants ice hockey team. Depite being aware of the Florida entrepreneur's conviction — and oddly lenient sentence — for a "minor misdemeanour" (Laird) that must surely have constituted the violent rape of a child, the peer not only agreed to advise Knight Communications but set up another business, Time is On Your Side Ltd., with him.

It is not inconceivable that Laird will ultimately be vindicated and return to the UUP fold; after all, they both need each other. Nevertheless, the peer does now appear scandal-prone, and in politics that is its own crime.

Interesting too was the reaction of the UUP in suspending from the parliamentary party a man who, like a good PR professional, had already pre-emptively resigned the whip and referred himself to the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards — impotence that might sum up its barely justified contemporary existence.