Wednesday, 28 August 2013

Potemkin Villages

Looking at a map of Belfast coloured according to its sectarian demography, one could be forgiven for thinking that the city was solidly, even overwhelmingly, Protestant. In fact, of course, matters are much more finely balanced. That's because, owing to the Troubles — with their legacy of peace lines and prejudice running hot (and cold) — in working-class areas at least, not that much has changed since the early 70s. One result has been that inner-city East Belfast looks much poorer than inner-city West Belfast, which has much higher levels of occupancy, fewer gap sites, and fewer boarded-up shops. In the east of the city, some of those empty shops were recently fitted with Potemkin facades to spruce up the area in readiness for President Obama's visit.

But what's all that to do with language?

Well, long-time stalwarts of the Blether Region will recall that, back in 2009, it speculated about whether an incoming Tory Government might wish to introduce a language Act over the head of the locally elected Stormont Assembly. During the negotiations that led up to the Saint Andrews Agreement, the previous Labour Government had, somewhat duplicitously, solemnly promised the carrot of such an Act to the Nationalist representatives while simultaneously using same as a stick to browbeat the DUP into acceptance of power-sharing — a set-up that, in its reformed Saint Andrews guise, would allow it to veto just about anything dreamt up by its mandatory Executive partners.

Well, one can only assume that the cold light of day got the better of any Conservative plans in that regard. After all, an arrangement whereby an Executive veto existed in theory but particularly controversial issues were exempt was never likely to attract the tolerance of people whose wonted electoral strategy has been to attempt to outdo each other in principled awkwardness.

The issue of a language Act has not disappeared off the radar completely, however. From time to time a rogue blip has made itself known, and just such a come-to-pass occurred recently in the shape of the hullabaloo over the UK's fourth periodical report presented in accordance with Article 15 of the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages. While data on Welsh and Scottish Gaelic were abundant, the information on Irish and Ulster Scots was more or less limited to broadcasting, for which Westminster retains responsibility. The Stormont Executive, which has for many years now failed to agree policies on language, in this case failed even to agree a line.

This is all very embarrassing for the British Government, with whom, under the charter, the buck stops. Essentially, it means that language policy, like Belfast geography, remains frozen in time, regardless of what happens in the wider world. It may not, of course, mean that London feels obligated to step in while the devolved Executive is, just about, ticking along. While the issue of a language Act is a burning one for the Blether Region, for most people it hardly comes close to the question of federal anti-slavery laws versus states' rights that precipitated the US Civil War.

The time when such calculations come into play, if that ever occurs, will be when power-sharing next breaks down. Although that could hardly be described as imminent, the past few months have shown undeniable tensions, starting with the flag protests and ending with the DUP's decision to backtrack on plans to redevelop the former site of the Maze prison. Were such a breakdown to occur for any length of time, there would be clear pressure on the UK Government to make good on its previous promise. In the end, that might even be good for Unionists. Contrary to common belief, there is no ratchet effect at work regarding Irish Nationalism. Irishness on the ground does not make a united Ireland any more likely — in fact, as NI21 alone seem have realised, the opposite may be true.

It is of course odd, given the widespread belief that the Troubles arose in large part because of the arbitrary rule of one side of the community in Northern Ireland, that Westminster seems to have deliberately engineered another signal injustice on that front. It seems odd too that guaranteeing minority rights should be viewed through the prism of a perceived need for unanimity.

However, that is just the scenario that we — and London — seem doomed to live with for some time to come.

Friday, 23 August 2013

Reactionary Whitabootery

The Belfast Telegraph is carrying an opinion piece by Ulster-Scots Agency Chief Executive Ian Crozier in response to its recent front-page exposé of, and associated editorial on, the Government Ulster-Scots voicemail service, which has received not a single call during its decade-long existence. Although the Blether Region suspects that the original article may have had something to do with the Ulster-Scots Agency's closeness to the Bel-Tel's rival the News Letter, its criticism is sound.

Mr. Crozier makes the point that "Ulster-Scots" didn't ask for the phone line.

Well, that all depends on how one defines them. If the term refers to members of the speech community, then he is entirely correct; there was never any groundswell of opinion that Ulster Scots should be promoted in lock-step with Irish in contempt of the two speech varieties' different stages of development. If "Ulster-Scots" includes (English-speaking, evangelical, British-Israelite, fellow-DUP) activists such as Nelson McCausland, however, as it so often does in public discourse, Mr. Crozier's statement falls down flat, since the phone line was instituted in direct response to the Part II recognition of Ulster Scots under the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages, recognition that came about because of activist pressure and their false and thoroughly sectarian analogies with Irish. Indeed, those same activists have since been campaigning for Ulster Scots to be recognised under Part III. Why? For the simple reason that Irish is recognised under Part III, and what's sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander.

It is just that kind of reactionary whitabootery that has led to a lost decade of development for Scots in Ulster.

Thursday, 1 August 2013

Books of Numbers

This week's Belfast Telegraph carried an interesting article attacking Irish-medium education. Unfortunately for the author, it's an article of the sort that says more about him, and his party, than about the subject under discussion (the guest writer, Danny Kinahan, is UUP education spokesman).

On the face of it, Mr. Kinahan has some telling arguments to deploy against IME:
"On the issue of quality education, figures show that, in 2012/13, 43.5% of pupils who attended the only Irish-medium post-primary school, Colaiste Feirste, achieved five GCSEs, including English and maths at grades A* to C. This is significantly below the overall Northern Ireland average of 60.1% for post-primaries."
For a moment, he had the Blether Region spooked.

That is, until it realised that West Belfast is the second-worst constituency for child poverty in the UK, and the second-worst constituency in Northern Ireland for GCSE results. Comparing the grades of Coláiste Feirste's students with those for the whole of Northern Ireland, which includes high-achieving areas such as South Belfast and North Down, is seriously misleading.

Then there's the fact that Coláiste Feirste is not selective. Yes, dear reader, the comparison is actually unfair on two counts, since the statistics for Northern Ireland include not only secondaries but grammars.

Most unfortunately of all for Mr. Kinahan, there's the small matter of the figure for Coláiste Feirste's GCSE results itself not being quite what it seems. If one removes the need for Maths and English (odd in an IME school) to be included in the GCSE results, the percentage of students with good GCSE passes was not 43.5% but 90% — more than double. Coláiste Feirste in fact had among the very best results for a non-selective school. That could be because the act of sending one's child to an IME school is itself selective, because of smaller class sizes or more dedicated teaching staff, or simply because bilingualism stimulates the mind.

Whatever the reason, it is clear that the school has absolutely nothing to worry about academically.