Friday, 29 November 2013

The Devolution of Broadcasting

A Sinn Féin Private Member's motion at Stormont has called for the devolution of broadcasting powers — and attracted the support of the current Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure, Carál Ní Chuilín, who specifically related it to the Irish Language and Ulster-Scots Broadcast Funds in her speech.

One of the more ironic aspects of devolution since the DUP entered Government in 2007 has been that, in many important ways, Irish has fared less well that it might otherwise have, mainly because of its increased exposure to that party's prejudices. Ulster Scots is a similar story, but for different reasons. Although the DUP has been quite willing to commit resources to the "fardel-leid", that willingness has not been equalled by a determination to ensure that any money be spent solely on sensible and non-sectarian language initiatives, in ways likely to prolong rather than curtail the existence of a distinctive Scots dialect in Northern Ireland.

Perhaps people should be careful what they wish for.

Nevertheless, it is true that devolving broadcasting could bring great financial and cultural benefits to Northern Ireland, which, like Scotland and Wales, has suffered the ignominy of watching licence-payers' money head south while being force-fed a whole slew of irrelevant news reports about education and health in England. Getting the best deal for Northern Ireland would depend on the DUP being amenable to doing a deal, including recognising in a new BBC Northern Ireland — or NIBC — charter the rightfulness of spending a certain percentage of licence-fee income on Irish. On the Sinn Féin side there would need to be an acceptance that the process is not simply about integration with RTE, grandstanding that would have no chance of success.

Another big winner of any plans to devolve broadcasting is likely to be Scotland. Devolution is an unequal process, but thus far the direction of travel has been overwhelmingly in one direction. Late developers in Cardiff Bay have been able to benefit retrospectively from powers won by the Scots, while the mooted devolution of corporation tax to Northern Ireland has also provoked a few envious glances from Holyrood. Unionist observers sometimes forget the extent to which Scots identity, like that of Northern Ireland Protestants, rests on politics and institutions — and the extent to which being more devolved than anyone else has become part of the Scots self-image. It would be quite impossible to devolve broadcasting to Northern Ireland without doing the same in Scotland. Indeed, if the "yes" camp failed to achieve a majority but got more than 40% of the vote in next September's referendum, broadcasting would have to be discussed anyway.

Perhaps a "yes" vote or a near miss is the way forward for the Scots: judging by the Petition of Concern raised by Unionists, any consensus on devolving broadcasting to Stormont may be some way off.

As an aside, the Blether Region couldn't help noticing in the transcript of the debate that both Karen McKevitt of the SDLP and Anna Lo of the Alliance Party referred to "the Ulster-Scots dialect". Long may such realism continue.

Wednesday, 27 November 2013

The Independence White Paper

Scotland's Future, the long-awaited White Paper on Scottish independence, was issued at 10 o'clock yesterday morning, with its political significance matched by its size and scope, covering every imaginable topic, both constitutional and political, and even including 650 frequently asked questions to assuage the timorous. While the Blether Region counts itself among those gung-ho Scots for whom exclusion from NATO and an inability to watch Strictly Come Dancing would make independence more rather than less attractive, its chief interest lay in what the weighty tome contained on the subject of Scotland's languages.

On Gaelic it has the following to say on page 314:
"We plan to create a secure future for Gaelic in Scotland by increasing the numbers learning, speaking and using Gaelic, through Gaelic education in all sectors and all stages such as early years, primary and secondary education. We will continue our support for the work of Bòrd na Gàidhlig in promoting the use of Gaelic in Scottish public, cultural and community life. In addition, we will maintain our support for MG ALBA, which has brought significant benefits for Gaelic."
There is more detail on Gaelic and Scots in the FAQs:
232. What will independence mean for Gaelic?
Gaelic has been a continuing element in Scottish heritage, identity and history for many centuries. Gaelic has official recognition and it is an increasingly visible part of Scottish public life reaching into education, the arts, media and broadcasting. In an independent Scotland, Gaelic will have a central place in Scottish public life.
233. What would the priorities be for Gaelic in an independent Scotland?
Our aim as a government would be to continue to reverse the decline of Gaelic in Scotland. The most recent Census has demonstrated that initiatives in support of Gaelic have significantly slowed down the decline of the language. Policy and resources would continue to be directed to the priority of increasing the numbers speaking, learning and using the language.
234. Will Gaelic be recognised as an official language in an independent Scotland?
In Scotland, Gaelic has a significant level of official support from the Scottish Government. Official recognition for Gaelic is also provided by the 2005 Gaelic Act. In an independent Scotland this official recognition would be confirmed and maintained.
235. Will there be more support for the Scots Language in an independent Scotland?
The 2011 Census, for the first time, provided information on the numbers of Scots speakers. This information, in an independent Scotland, will assist in developing policy and promoting the use and status of the Scots language and supporting communities that speak Scots.
471. What would happen to Gaelic broadcasting in an independent Scotland?
The Scottish Government is committed to the continuation of the BBC Alba channel and Radio nan Gàidheal, under the auspices of the Scottish Broadcasting Service.
589. What will our national languages be?
We propose no change on independence to the status of Scotland's languages such as English, Gaelic, Scots and British Sign Language.
The Constitutional Convention appointed after independence could consider the position of Scotland's languages within the permanent written constitution.
The aim to "continue to reverse the decline of Gaelic in Scotland" is of course misleading, since, as the document itself acknowledges in the next sentence, overall that decline has only yet been slowed.

But one can't fault the policy. Reading between the lines, "a central place in Scottish public life" for Gaelic suggests the mainstreaming of bilingual signage, with Scotland's public face increasingly like that of the Irish Republic, and Northern Ireland becoming even more of "a place apart" than at present. When one takes into account BBC Alba and the recent emphasis on immersion education, both of which will certainly continue, and an expected increase in learners outwith Gaelic-medium schooling, the similarities with Ireland become quite striking. Even if the Scots plan no galvanising constitutional fiction about the "first national language", it is presumably no coincidence that the Education Minister is to be responsible for Gaelic. So it is likely that the language will be better off in an independent Scotland, although doubters will of course make the valid criticism that many of the expected benefits could — and, in fact, already are — being delivered under devolution. Indeed, growth from a low base is likely to attend either scenario, the key difference perhaps being the psychological effect of nationhood in softening Scotland's not inconsiderable strain of linguistic utilitarianism — since, as any child knows, nations have languages.

One can infer too that the fortunes of Scots would also enjoy an upturn under any SNP-led independent Administration. Although no specific promises are made, the logic of including a question on Scots in the Census unmistakably points in that direction. In this case, the reticence exhibited by the White Paper's authors may be the result of the ridicule that might attach itself to any concrete proposals. With sensitive development, much of it decidedly academic and unsexy, that will, over time, become less of a concern. At the moment, however, Scots is political in a way that Gaelic isn't, and there is no doubt that the more nationalist the Government, the better Scots will do.

Bring it on.

Wednesday, 6 November 2013

Ivory Towers

Culture Minister Carál Ní Chuilín has confirmed in an answer to an Assembly Question (AQO 4843/11-15) that the Department is developing proposals for an Irish Language Academy. Among the tasks to come within its remit will be: making Irish more accessible to all; establishing a uniform spoken curriculum that provides consistency in content, teaching strategies, resources and assessment; providing support to the parents of Irish-medium children; and providing training, resources and quality assurance for Irish language classes.

Reading between the lines, that sounds as if aspects of Irish promotion currently dealt with by other organisations, both statutory and voluntary, will be amalgamated into the new body. The curriculum work, for example, is undertaken by the CCEA. Similarly, the phrase "more accessible to all" may mean "more accessible to non-Nationalists", which would suggest taking on part of Ultach Trust's remit.

Ultach Trust is one of a clutch of Northern organisations that may well go to the wall when new all-island funding arrangements come into force. It may be the case that the Minister has decided to provide a large-scale Irish-language organisation of her own to save some of the jobs and expertise that might otherwise be lost, and deflect some of the political criticism that would surely follow.

Regardless of the truth of that, those who follow Ulster Scots will be intrigued by the fact that the Minister appears to be contemplating for Irish what some Ulster-Scots activists have long wished for their speech variety — an "academy". More usually it is those Ulster-Scots campaigners who reflexively demand what Irish gets. Of course, the reason that they wanted an academy for Ulster Scots was probably to raise their status enough for them to impose their orthographic practices on an unsuspecting public, which would hardly apply in the case of Irish. They will be particularly annoyed, however, that Irish has got an academy before Ulster Scots, which only has a "ministerial advisory group".

It is an intriguing turn of events.

Tuesday, 5 November 2013

A Peculiar People

The BBC has revealed that the Ulster-Scots Agency spent £400,000 without DFP approval in 2009-10, including £126,000 in rent and service charges for its landmark offices, which include an unused tourist information bureau and sweetheart accommodation for voluntary-sector Ulster-Scots organisations staffed by more than their fair share of British-Israelites. It also spent £176,000 on its "chauvinistic and naive" newspaper The Ulster-Scot.

Bizarrely, the BBC article states that "The accounts of the north-south language body are traditionally late so the most recent figures are for 2010."

Not the first time that people misbehaving in Northern Ireland have been able to appeal to tradition, and probably not the last, either.

Friday, 1 November 2013

Tongues in Our Heads

The Guardian has an interesting article on the value of learning indigenous languages. It is part of the standard rhetoric of many people espousing utilitarian views of linguistic diversity that our children should learn Chinese instead of Welsh, but, as the article points out, there is nothing to prevent one learning both, and bilingual children get better results in English too.

The Blether Region was also struck by the generally sympathetic tenor of the appended comments. Generally when one reads articles on autochthonous languages in the online editions of Scottish or Northern Ireland newspapers, there is a mixture of positive and negative opinion, one of the key differences of course being that in Northern Ireland the split mirrors other differences to do with denomination and one's views on the constitution.

Indeed, although it's sometimes said with regard to Irish that "real Brits quite like it", it's clear that real English people like it even more.

Slegs vir Blankes

The News Letter reports that a DUP member of Down District Council is to boycott its new bilingual notepaper. Like a hardy US survivalist, William Walker has stocked up on the current English-only design and promised, when that runs out, to print his own rather than use the new version, which has the temerity to feature Irish alongside the English.

Not so long ago the Blether Region was at Glasgow Museum of Transport in its swish new home by the River Clyde. One display discussed the railways in apartheid South Africa. Although, notionally speaking, facilities such as waiting rooms were provided for both whites and blacks, in practice it was very often a case of whites only. Where that extended to bridges over the tracks, blacks simply had to chance it, since using a route intended for whites would risk beating or arrest. The upshot of this was that many people were needlessly killed or maimed when trains ploughed into them.

Mr. Walker seems to have something of an apartheid attitude himself, although in his case it is he who seems intent on breenging over the tracks. Indeed, the phrase "cutting off one's nose to spite one's face" springs to mind.

The Afrikaans for "white", incidentally, is blank — which, by a strange caprice of fate, is also an English word perfectly describing both his notepaper and his mind.

Fine Gall

Those taking an historical interest in the promotion of Irish since independence will know that one of the key reasons why its position remains so insecure is that although the State has been quite willing to have people learn the language, it has also been reluctant in the extreme to provide them with plausible reasons to speak it. It has failed to provide services, and even broadcasting provision for what is constitutionally the first national language was remarkably slow in materialising.

There has also been a rowing back on what the State expects of its own. Until the Fine Gael-Labour Government of the 1970s, civil servants were expected to have Irish. After that date, Irish-speaking candidates for posts or promotion received a 6% bonus vis-à-vis their competitors.

Now another Fine Gael-Labour coalition has done away with that too, instead settling on a rule that 6% of civil servants be able to speak Irish. One need hardly be an actuary to notice that there is an element of voodoo statistics in the decision, since a 6% boost to an individual candidate's interview or exam score is clearly not the same as decreeing that 6% of civil servants be able to speak Irish. Nor is this the first time that the present Government has backslid on the language: not so long ago Fine Gael even attempted to make it a voluntary subject for leaving certificate students. In the end it had to withdraw those plans after a public outcry.

It has for many years been the case that it would be difficult or impossible for someone who feels that the Irish language is fairly or very important to vote for a Northern Unionist party.

Now the same thing seems to be happening in the South.