Thursday, 19 December 2013

The Price of Our Labour

The Economist is carrying a lengthy article on Irish in Northern Ireland.

Unfortunately, there is a basic flaw in it, which is the claim that the language has been doing better since devolution was restored in 2007. In many important respects, it is faring worse. Indeed, the fact that the magazine is fully cognisant of the accommodation endured by Coláiste Feirste — suboptimal to say the least — may suggest that its opinion is mere spin.

While the (American?) author may think that linguistic diversity in Northern Ireland is being given a huge Government boost, that is true only if one compares it with polities that do not actually have any regional languages with substantial demographics behind them.

The fact is that the DUP has been able to block any language Bill from passing as well as proposals that would have allowed bilingual signage. Indeed, through its control of the Department of Finance and Personnel, petitions of concern and its Executive veto, the party is well equipped to do the same with most future proposals to promote the language. The Northern Ireland Place-name Project has already closed, and at one stage a former DUP Culture Minister even planned to spend more on Ulster Scots (a dialect attracting only limited and unrepresentative interest even among Protestants) than Irish. The economic crisis in the south (coupled with a dourly unsympathetic Fine Gall-led Government) has meant that nearly all voluntary Irish-language groups in the North are threatened with closure as part of a cost-saving re-organisation, including Ultach Trust, which was originally set up with UK Government seed money as a direct response to the Troubles.

Recently the Executive failed to agree a response to the Committee of Experts studying the UK's fulfilment of its obligations under the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages, the suspicion being that, since the DUP eclipsed the UUP and signed up to power-sharing, some criteria are no longer being fulfilled.

True, the language has a vibrant culture on the ground. Much of that, however, is despite, not because of, the current dispensation.

Wednesday, 11 December 2013

A Slow-motion Car Crash

The Alliance Party's Trevor Lunn has asked two Questions on the subject of Ulster Scots. One of them, AQW 28585/11-15, deals with the controversial theme of the North/South Language Body's accounts, which have never been delivered on time owing to a "backlog" built up during the chaotic early days of the Ulster-Scots Agency — a time when it was chaired by the now disgraced Lord Laird and the gormless paedophile Stan Mallon was its administrative chief.

The other Question, AQW 28584/11-15, addresses an even more vexed issue, that of the three orthographic advisers to the Ministerial Advisory Group on the Ulster-Scots Academy (MAGUS). Two of those advisers, Michael Montgomery and Alison Henry, are reputable linguists. The third, Anne Smyth, is not. In all likelihood hers was a political appointment to represent the Ulster-Scots Language Society and thus the British-Israelite cabal centred around the self-promoting Cross of Saint Patrick LOL 688, the influential Orange lodge of former Heritage Council supremo Nelson McCausland. True, Mrs. Smyth is employed as a dialect archivist at the Ulster Folk and Transport Museum, but a dialect archivist need not be a theoretical linguist. The fact that a previous incumbent of the post, Brendan Adams, actually was a good theoretical linguist only renders Mrs. Smyth's deficiencies in that regard all the more stark.

Indeed, she is a surprising choice as spelling adviser on at least three counts: her lack of formal qualifications and the poor quality of all her published solo forays into matters linguistic; her vested interest, having co-produced the laughable Ulster-Scots Spelling and Pronunciation Guide (she is now being asked to adjudicate on consultation responses on just that subject); and her involvement with the odious British-Israel World Federation, which one would have thought would make anyone unfit for public office.

Although one of the orthographic advisers hails from as far afield as Tennessee, there is no one to represent the aspirations or acumen of the more than 95% of Scots-speakers who come from Scotland, and no one to represent the Catholic third of speakers in Ulster, people for whom the rationale of pretending Ulster Scots is a language so that the dialect can compete with, and stymie, Irish presumably holds few attractions.

The Blether Region confidently predicts that: a) the process of attempting to standardise Ulster Scots separately from Scots in Scotland will be an expensive one; b) anything produced will be rejected by the community, and conceivably by every academic linguist in the world with one exception; and c) the process will either have to be started afresh after a suitably Kissinger-esque interval or what is ostensibly a work of finalisation will be relegated to the status of a mere stage in a larger process.

That is a tragedy, since Northern Ireland, perhaps the territory where Scots sees most use for transactional purposes, might otherwise have provided an impetus to the sensible codification of the entire language.

Fine Gall II

The South's governing Fine Gael / Labour coalition has been criticised for its failure to provide services in Irish by An Coimisinéir Teanga, Seán Ó Cuirreáin, who also signalled his intention to quit in protest. The Commissioner, who has held the post since 2004, questioned whether the Government was serious about the survival of the Gaeltacht, since three-quarters of statutory language schemes have been allowed to lapse since the coalition came to power, with a quarter out of date for three years or more. Mr. Ó Cuirreáin also expressed doubts about the standard of many of the schemes currently in force.

Speaking later on RTE, he said that under the new policy of no longer awarding points for an ability to speak Irish during the recruitment process, it would take "28 years to increase the number of administrative staff with Irish in the Department of Education from 1.5% to 3%."

The current low figure for Irish-speakers may suggest that linguistic skills have been allowed to atrophy after schooling, ironically because civil servants are not required to provide a service through the medium of Irish. In that respect, Fine Gael, whose leader is a fluent Irish-speaker, may typify the basic problem of the State: all learning and very little practical usage. The party has had a history of dismantling protections enjoyed by the language in the Civil Service since the 1970s and recently attempted to make it optional in schools.

Monday, 9 December 2013

Taking Ownership

The Northern Ireland media have been abuzz over the past week with the news that the US diplomat Richard Haass has suggested a new flag for the territory. Belfast Telegraph journalist Malachi O'Doherty has reacted sceptically, pointing out that the Irish flag, the RUC badge and the "Ulster banner" have already attempted to unite the two communities — only to fall victim to (Northern) Ireland's underlying instability and fractiousness.

Perhaps the key prerequisite to gaining the reflexive support of the two ethnicities is a basic absence of partiality. In employment, housing, and the conduct of elections, that has already largely been achieved. The cultural sphere is another matter, however. It has become commonplace over the last few years for politicians to speak of a "culture war" in Northern Ireland, whereby Unionist symbols (such as marches and flags) are usurped by Nationalist ones (such as bilingual signage).

While in the United States there may well be a reasonable number of small-state libertarians who would side with the Unionists on both marches and signage, one suspects that most European — including most British — liberals, considering each issue separately, would side with the Nationalists. After all, it would be surprising if many other cultures entertained the notion of something that is at once a "demonstration" and "traditional". Indeed, while BBC Northern Ireland may be loath to call Orange marches sectarian, there would be an outcry were BBC Scotland to claim the contrary. Bilingual signage, meanwhile, is de rigueur in Wales and becoming ever more visible in Scotland. By linking the two issues of marches and signage, however, Unionists have succeeded in muddying the waters, making the constitutional status of Northern Ireland part of what might otherwise have remained a question of (competing) human rights.

This all goes to the paradoxical heart of what has been called the "siege mentality". Were Northern Ireland to embrace bilingualism, and outlaw the Loyal Orders — or perhaps simply the sectarian marches that are their raison d'être — its existence as an entity would be assured, or at the very least greatly extended. At that point, it might be time to consider symbolically drawing a line under the past through the adoption of a new flag.

Unfortunately, however, that basic prerequisite of fairness remains to be fulfilled.