Thursday, 18 December 2014

Madness in Omagh

The Ulster Herald reports on the language policy of the new Fermanagh and Omagh District Council, which "will see the new supercouncil embrace both Irish and English on letterheads, signage and on vehicles such as bin lorries".

The Blether Region thinks that the new council got it right. Unionists on the shadow body had backed a trilingual arrangement including Ulster Scots, but there have never been any Scots-speaking communities in Fermanagh — and few enough in Tyrone — and in any case some of the versions of the local dialect used in Omagh before have been ludicrously offensive to native speakers. Their intervention seems, as so often with the leid on this side of the Sheuch, to have been a calculated water-muddying exercise.

That wasn't the only daftness, however. One section of the article caught the Blether Region's eye and can't be left without comment.
"During the meeting, Sinn Féin stated that the party's preferred position was using the Irish language only on signage [...] agreeing to the inclusion of English as a compromise."
While that may have been said mid-flyte, arguing that signs should be Irish-only is every bit as bad as arguing that the language should be excluded. English-speakers have human rights too, after all. Not only that, but doing so confirms every cliché about Irish being symbolic and used mainly as a territorial marker (in this case, marking ownership of the council), as well as making it far less likely that progress will be made by language activists in areas farther east in which those with Irish-speaking relatives form a distinct minority. Indeed, since most Nationalists are monoglot English-speakers, one sure result of an Irish-only policy would be to make many of them line up behind its Unionist opposite.

People who use the language in such a way are addicted to conflict and need to have a long, hard think.

Wednesday, 17 December 2014

Human Rights or Conflict Management?

The High Court has dismissed an appeal against Belfast City Council's decision not to allow the erection of bilingual street signs despite an absolute majority of residents supporting the move.

This is disappointing for several reasons. First, it maintains a superfluous democratic test in something that is obviously a human-rights issue. Secondly, even when it does so, it is basically undemocratic. As the Belfast Telegraph put it:
"It is understood that out of 92 eligible residents 52 [57% of residents, or 98% of respondents] confirmed they wanted Irish signs, with only one opposed.
However, the remaining 39 did not respond to the survey."
The requirement for a weighted majority or minimum turnout, while having some currency when applied to the internal (constitutional) workings of organisations, is a rare bird indeed when it comes to elections. The only other instance that the Blether Region can recall was the 1979 referendum on Scottish devolution, which is now widely regarded as having thereby been rigged. Odd that such rules seem to be applied only against Nationalists. If they were instituted in England, one wonders how many elections for mayors or crime commissioners would be regarded as valid — or, for that matter, local councils.

The bizarre gerrymandering of requiring a weighted majority sneaks through because of the wishy-washy wording of section 11 of the Local Government (Miscellaneous Provisions) (Northern Ireland) Order 1995, which requires that councils "have regard to any views on the matter expressed by the occupiers of premises in that street" — but without laying down how they should do it. As far as the Blether Region is aware, no Nationalist-majority council moves the goalposts by requiring a weighted majority or minimum turnout; by adopting a policy that two-thirds of respondents should be in favour, Belfast effectively does both. In any case, a weighted majority is clearly a measure not of demand but of antipathy. If demand were being measured, a much lower percentage would be regarded as admissible, perhaps 5% or 10%. Catering for minority languages, after all, is always about the minority.

The Blether Region hopes that Nationalist councils will now go ahead and reduce their own criteria below 50% in order to encourage the courts to make a binding determination on what is fair.

While the Unionist reaction to bilingual signage is of course predictable, the Blether Region has been taken aback by the sophistical contortions of the Alliance Party, which takes a confrontational and doctrinaire attitude to gay cakes (remember: the whole incident may have been staged) while failing the equality test abysmally with regard to Irish. On balance, the Blether Region is in favour of gay cakes too, but that support is tempered by the knowledge that an evangelical Christian baker asked to craft icing in support of gay marriage may feel that he is being asked not to tolerate something but to lend it his active support. It is clearly a borderline case. It seems that the Alliance Party is willing aggressively to promote equality issues shared with England while treating those of the Celtic fringe as a sectarian breach of the peace (and yes, believe it or not, they do actually call it "sectarian").

It is an odd sort of concern for shared space that predicates itself on the exclusion of someone's language from public life — and one obviously cooked up at some remove from the mainstream, multi-layered Britishness that its supporters apparently so admire.

Thursday, 4 December 2014

Language, Sectarianism — and Dictionaries

Ian Malcolm has an interesting piece over at the Belfast Telegraph on the troubled Protestant relationship with Irish, tracing his co-religionists' alienation to infiltration of the language movement by Republicans in the years leading up to the Easter Rising and pointing out that some iconic Nationalist figures such as Daniel O'Connell were in favour of a wholesale switch to English.

The word "piece", interestingly enough, is thought by some scholars to be of Gaulish, i.e. Celtic, origin, cognate with Irish cuid and thus neatly demonstrating the difference between P- and Q-Celtic.

That could hardly be said of another word chosen by Malcolm himself:
"What really interests my students is what I call 'living Irish' - that's the language that's around us all in our everyday lives. My own favourite word is 'skitter', an epithet often applied to me when I was a wean.
It literally translates as 's****'. You'll also encounter it in the context 'I've a quare dose of the skitters', something one might endure after an ill-advised feed of curry and yoghurt."
The Concise Ulster Dictionary is very clear that skitter is of Scots and English dialectal origin. The Irish equivalent of the word, sciotar, makes no appearance in the magnum opus compiled by Father Dinneen during breaks from his detective work. There is the verb sciotaim, meaning clip or shorten, while a woman in a skimpy dress is termed a sciotóg. There is also the past participle sciotuighthe and sciotán, a word for a dart. But sciotar there is none. Irish influence seems to be limited to reinforcement. There is no need to invoke the substrate when the word is so well attested in more obvious places. Indeed, even if we had no other evidence to go on, the fact that, as Malcolm accepts, the word has something to do with excrement strongly suggests a Germanic origin. It is true that the word is included in Ó Dónaill's 1977 dictionary, but then so is that other Scots and English dialectal word craic.

That's not to say that there is no Irish influence on Ulster English. Indeed, there is rather a lot. Only yesterday evening the Blether Region watched a programme about the campaigning newspaper editor Jim McDowell in which the film's subject mentioned someone who, if its memory serves it correctly, "had a drop on him" — a clear lift from the Irish. Just as in France, however, few words of Celtic origin are heard in everyday speech — even if the French still count in twenties and talk about quatre-vingt-dix, while their Swiss and Belgian neighbours favour the dourly Latin nonante.

The skitter episode, on the other hand, makes the Blether Region want to say, "Would you ever use a dictionary, y'ould skitter, ye!"

Just to prove that it can annoy everyone equally, the Blether Region reports the following. Last week it attended a very informative lecture by Dr. Jacob King of Ainmean-Àite na h-Alba, who had an interesting tale to tell about the town of Kilwinning in Ayrshire.

In the olden days it was common to use hypocoristic forms of saints' names incorporating a possessive pronoun, an Irish example being Mo-Báeth. Although Gaelic has not been spoken in the area around Kilwinning for many hundreds of years, research revealed that the original version of the name had been preserved in the speech of some of the last Gaels on the Isle of Arran. Like Mo-Báeth, it involved a possessive pronoun, this time for the second person singular. Soon after bilingual signs were erected at the local train station welcoming people to "Cill D'Fhinnein", Ainmean-Àite na h-Alba was summarily called to account for the name that it had researched and asked to provide an explanation of the favoured etymology. Kilwinning is in a part of the west of Scotland where sectarianism lingers even if Gaelic doesn't, and more than one local had interpreted the Gaelic name as "Kill da Fenian"!

And with that the Blether Region is off to eat its piece, or as one might say in Irish, "Ith do chuid" ...

Friday, 28 November 2014

Tapas Chive?

John McCallister, writing in the Bel-Tel, makes the obvious and very reasonable point that Gregory Campbell's culinary satirisation of Irish might equally well have been applied to Scottish Gaelic (in Argyll, they do indeed say "Gun robh math agad", though the Blether Region is not aware of how they like their yoghurt).

Scottish Gaelic (in Northern Ireland known as "Scots Gaylick") is of course not particularly associated with Nationalism, and a substantial minority of its speakers stand out because of their adherence to the tenets of the Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland, a staunchly Protestant sect whose name presumably inspired Rev. Ian Paisley when he founded his own Free Presbyterian Church. Indeed, anyone with an ounce of knowledge of Scottish history will recognise Campbell (Caimbeul, or "twisted mouth") as a surname that is as Protestant as it is Gaelic.

A pity that politics seem to have coloured Mr. Campbell's attitude to his own heritage.

Wednesday, 26 November 2014

Equine Outrageous

Gerry Adams's recent comments about "bastards" and "Trojan horses" have attracted widespread comment. It is a fact of life in Northern Ireland, and of politics everywhere, that quite a lot of the people consider quite a lot of their elected representatives bastards quite a lot of the time. Indeed, that would apply as much to Gerry Adams himself as to anyone else. In this case, it seems clear enough that he was referring to Gregory Campbell and people like him rather than Unionists in general. Many Irish-speakers and Catholics, the overt and covert targets of Mr. Campbell's childishness, will share that view — even if they may well think it peculiarly impolitic to air it in public.

On the other hand, it is difficult to find any excuse for Mr. Adams's comments about the pursuit of equality being a "Trojan horse" intended to "break" his opponents. Surely equality should be sought by and for everyone whatever their background, even if they have trouble agreeing about what that might actually constitute. The phrase is also alarmingly reminiscent of Unionist criticism of the civil rights movement at the start of the Troubles. The only potential mitigating factor that the Blether Region can think of is that Mr. Adams may have been trying to assuage dissident Republican sentiment through martial hyperbole. Whatever the truth, it seems certain that the phrase, like "bullet in the freedom struggle" before it, will be used against Nationalist Irish-speakers for many years to come.

As an aside, the Blether Region recalls that 20 years or so ago the Conservative Prime Minister John Major made similar "bastard" comments about the Eurosceptics in his own party. At that time, the BBC was quite content to write out the offending word in full. Not so on this occasion, and one cannot but consider the resulting splay of asterisks a bizarre concession to prissy evangelicals and their topsy-turvy concerns.

Monday, 24 November 2014

Parity of Esteem or Parity of Outcome?

The Guardian has an interesting article on the unfortunate Gregory Campbell, who has evidently received plausible death threats after compounding his "curry my yoghurt" comments at the St. Trinian's Annual Jamboree (sorry, DUP conference).

In both the strapline and the text, it states that an Irish Language Act would give "Gaelic" (by which the Blether Region assumes that the Grauniad means the Irish variety) equal status to English. There are in fact many ways in which Irish could be promoted short of equal status to English. The Irish-language community would favour a rights-based Act, while the probable compromise would be something more akin to the Gaelic Language (Scotland) Act 2005, which promotes Scottish Gaelic through a national plan.

The proposals from Pobal, probably much stronger than any final Act, mention "equal validity", "resolute action" to promote the language, and providing services "to the maximum extent practicable". That doesn't sound like equal status to the Blether Region — and it may scare off some more moderate Protestants to suggest otherwise.

Fredome is a Noble Thing

Wee Ginger Dug has a guest post from Clear Contrair Spirit over on his blog.

While Northern Ireland produces huge numbers of informed and motivated people when it comes to Irish, one is struck again and again that Scotland simply has a better class of activist when it comes to Scots, including those whose motivation is avowedly as much political as cultural. Issues of class, nation and both internal and external hybridity are clearly and concisely dealt with in the piece, as is the nexus between linguistic and political nationalism, which in Wales, Spirit rightly points out, has proven as limiting as it is inspirational.

Just one wee point, though. We are told that the Scots word for independence is "unthirldom". That's as may be, but is it actually a word?

A Break with History

The Irish Times reports on a court case involving the Irish Revenue Commissioners, who have been taken to task over sending out leaflets in English only, despite having a statutory duty to communicate with the public bilingually.

That of course comes as no surprise, since much of the Republic's support for Irish is little more than lip-service (perhaps small wonder given the fact that Bunreacht na hÉireann contains so many provisions not only unenforced but incapable of enforcement). What is perhaps more shocking is the brazen sophistry with which the Revenue Commissioners' barrister is defending the case.
"Ben Ó Floinn, for Revenue, said the parcels sent to 1.7 million households last year were not communications with the public in general because each information parcel was addressed to a specific citizen, whose name was written clearly on the envelope along with the words 'Private and Confidential'."
Ultimately some of that brazenness may owe something to the fact that Fine Gael are in power, the party that in the late 1970s removed the requirement for civil servants to have Irish (and therefore, among other things, to be able to communicate with the public bilingually), a setback from which the language has never recovered. More recently, it even attempted to make Irish an optional subject at secondary school (while English, presumably, would have remained compulsory).

In recent months senior Fine Gael politicians past and present have argued that the Easter Rising was unnecessary and counterproductive, its participants traitors to the Irish people. Like many aspects of Irish history, that is eminently debatable. What is not debatable, however, is that the vast majority of the generation that founded the State, including both sides in the Civil War and moderate Anglicans such as Douglas Hyde, considered the Irish language an awful lot more important than Fine Gael in 2014.

Tuesday, 18 November 2014

Where Your Granny Walks Her Dog

The BBC reports that owing to a technical glitch users of the Líofa website were able to access the names and addresses of people who had signed up to become fluent in Irish by 2015.

In any normal country, of course, that would have been relevant only to the fight against identity theft or credit-card fraud; the worst-case scenario, perhaps, would be a violent stalker. In Northern Ireland, on the other hand, there are a whole plethora of other fears relating to communal strife, and even politicians who regard themselves as moderate go around declaring that Sinn Féin is "using" the language to rile Protestants — without any regard to the fact that by making such claims they may be promoting sectarian stereotypes.

Given the deep-seated sectarianism of Protestant paramilitaries, however, the increased threat to those Catholics whose names were published must be fairly minimal.

Indeed, it occurs to the Blether Region that Protestant learners might have less luck.

Back in the early 1970s the IRA made a point of killing Catholic recruits to the RUC. Of course, during the course of the Troubles it killed far more Protestant members, but the killing of Catholic policemen was both easier, since they visited Catholic areas, and, very likely, seen as an effective tool in discouraging other Catholics from joining up. While in the 1970s the IRA sometimes also killed Protestant civilians in tit-for-tat operations (the most notorious being the Kingsmill massacre), and, where it killed members of the security forces in border areas, may have preferred to kill Protestant farmers' eldest sons, little acknowledgment has been made of its targeting of Catholic RUC men.

Nowadays, of course, a death related to political conflict is a relatively rare occurrence in Northern Ireland, but many people, particularly those in interface areas or ethnic minorities living in working-class Protestant redoubts, still find themselves intimidated or attacked. The Alliance Party office on the Upper Newtownards Road has been bombed or vandalised many times as a result of the flag protest whirlwind unleashed by its Westminster rivals the DUP — precisely because it reached out to the other side.

It remains to be seen if anything will come out of the incident with the Líofa website — probably not. But, as ever in Northern Ireland, the nagging fear of being targeted for being different remains.

Wednesday, 5 November 2014

"Curry My Yoghurt"

Those watching the news or reading the papers over the last few days will have been treated to the unedifying spectacle of a former Executive Minister trotting out carefully crafted gibberish in order to disparage the language responsible for his own surname. In fact, Gregory Campbell even managed to fluff his self-penned lines (perhaps an unsurprising slip, given that he has such little regard for practical linguists).

Once upon a time it would have been acceptable to attack someone's religion in a similar fashion, and a lasting reminder of such tactics still adorns English in the form of "hocus pocus" ("hoc est corpus"). Nowadays, of course, new coinages at least are a no-no, but, given the existence of clearly understood cultural packages in Northern Ireland, for the incorrigible chauvinist language can be an attractive point-scoring proxy — like criticising someone's huge trousers because you're not allowed to call them fat. Mr. Gregory's culinary bent in that respect has form. For many years, sectarian wags have referred to Irish Gaelic as "garlic", which sums up many of the things they hate: middle-class Ulster-British pretension; cosmopolitanism; and Catholic southern Europe. It's unlikely that he could have got away with treating the language of an ethnic minority in the same fashion, although had he done so, a DUP petition of concern would no doubt have been mobilised to protect him.

Later, after suffering a day's speaking ban at a time when he was in any case away in London, Mr. Campbell appeared on UTV Live and, when Caitríona Ruane was interviewed in the main studio, feigned the involuntary whistle of a bad sleeper. Embarrassingly for Northern Ireland and the DUP in particular, such schoolboy behaviour will have done the 61-year-old no harm whatsoever with the voters. Indeed, like many an instance of forthright sectarian banter, it will merely have underlined how very different Northern Ireland is from Wales and, in particular, Scotland, with which many Protestants claim a special bond. Among the politicians of those countries, autochthonous Celtic languages enjoy overwhelming support or at least lip-service.

But why did Mr. Campbell wait until now before expressing such "long overdue" thoughts on Irish? It is true that it happened when discussing an Assembly Question on the language, and that is no doubt a factor. However, the Blether Region suspects that it is also because there is a Westminster election coming up and the DUP would like Protestants to forget that in 2007 it willingly entered a coalition with Sinn Féin.

They must think folk are stupid.

Friday, 31 October 2014

Ultach Trust

Today marks the last day of existence for Ultach Trust. Back in the 1980s, the trust was one of the very first Irish-language organisations to win funding from the UK Government, and for most of the intervening years it was a centre of expertise on the cross-community promotion of the language — acumen that will be hard to re-assemble in future.

The Blether Region has had the pleasure of knowing Ultach's staff members, as well as some of its trustees, for many years, and has found them a very open-minded, knowledgeable and dedicated group of people. It would like to take this opportunity to wish them all the best for the future.

Thursday, 23 October 2014

Immoral Majorities

The Belfast Telegraph reports on a judicial review of the case of a West Belfast woman who has complained that she was denied bilingual signage on her street — not because not enough people voted in favour but because not enough people voted.
"Out of 92 eligible residents 52 confirmed they wanted Irish signs, with only one opposed.
But because the other 39 did not respond to the survey the two-thirds requirement was not met."
As the Blether Region pointed out on 25 March, this policy is eerily similar to the 40% rule employed to deny Scots devolution in 1979 — the difference in this case being that the figure is a whopping 67%.

Imagine if 67% super-majorities (of eligible rather than actual electors) were required for votes at Westminster. Would homosexuality and abortion ever have become legal? Would the death penalty ever have been abolished? And would it actually be possible to pass a budget each year?

A few days ago the UK Parliament voted by 274 votes to 12 to recognise Palestine as a state — a figure described as a "landslide". Under the rules followed by Belfast City Council, however, that vote too would have been null and void, since Conservative whips instructed their MPs to stay away from what is a controversial issue.

This being Northern Ireland, of course, the council is free to twist every vote on bilingualism into a referendum on Irish unity and to project a notion of offensiveness onto the language that any reasonable person would dismiss as absurd. The truth is that having bilingual street signs is not the same as publicly sacrificing sheep at the end of the road. If people are offended by it, the problem is theirs — and theirs alone.

Tuesday, 14 October 2014

No More Language Cuts

Although the need to find a settlement on social security may be a little less urgent now, following the agreement of an emergency £100 million loan from Westminster that will surely never be repaid, it's nice to read that there will be no cuts to the Northern Ireland budget for autochthonous languages.

Apart from anything else, of course, much of that budget would be going on the cross-border language bodies anyway — with little room for last-minute one-sided tweaking.

Mocking Convention

Outrage has been expressed in many quarters about the UK Government's apparent decision to withdraw from the European Convention on Human Rights — which may even result in its being ejected from the Council of Europe while some far less democratic states in eastern Europe (notably Russia) remain. Should current plans ever come to fruition, it would raise a number of issues:

The ECHR was made directly justiciable through British courts by an Act of Parliament. In Northern Ireland, however, that justiciability is guaranteed by agreements that the UK Government cannot breach without extremely serious political consequences, conceivably extending to renewed civil strife.

If Northern Ireland keeps its right to have the ECHR directly justiciable, which it probably will owing to the fact that the current system is itself underpinned by an international treaty in the form of the Good Friday/Belfast Agreement, will post-referendum Scotland be allowed to do the same?

If Scotland can, in relative isolation, make the ECHR justiciable, can it do the same for other Council of Europe treaties and protocols, such as the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages? At present the Charter has no legal status in the UK, and its provisions are in any case a "shopping list" rather than an iteration of binding rules. There is surely scope, however, to give legal backing to some of those provisions, such as by introducing an absolute right to Gaelic-medium education. Although GME is coming from a low base, the more pupils attend, the greater the practicality of copperfastening such a right in law, and the greater the pressure to do so.

Monday, 6 October 2014

"Scots English"

The Guardian has an article on what it originally called "Scots English" that unfortunately regurgitates some of the commonest misunderstandings about the speech variety. For a start, if it's English, as many academics quite respectably believe, the national adjective might just as well be "Scottish". The use of "Scots" in this case is no doubt influenced by the native name, but it all rather puts the Blether Region in mind of those many people here in Ireland who habitually say "Scottish" except for some reason in the case of "Scots Gaelic", i.e. just where it's most liable to confuse.

Of course, not everyone will agree: a lecturer friend said he rather liked "Scots English" as a name because it captured the hybridity of how most Lowlanders now speak and the uncertain status of their tongue. Nevertheless, standard terminology it ain't. In fact, the Wikipedia entry on Scottish English states up front that it is "not to be confused with Scots language".

The difference between dialect and slang is another area where the paper could do with going back to school. The word doo is clearly the former (being a geographically delimited cognate of Standard English dove) but not the latter (i.e., not a jokey or familiar low-register synonym for the initiated).

And then there's the title of the article, which the Guardian changed as a result of comments from readers. Apart from anything else, half of it's not about Scots at all but about Scottish Gaelic — which, as the comments section confirms, had to be re-written. And it's still not right: gràidh should surely be a ghràidh, whether the hearer actually registers the fricative or not. Oh dear.

Of course, at the risk of going off topic, the fact that the Guardian appears to know so little about the languages of Scotland may also go some way to explaining its reporting of the country's recent independence referendum ...

Wednesday, 1 October 2014

Past, Present and Kincora

The simmering scandal of Kincora has once again bubbled its way into the newspapers, with the News Letter arguing for its inclusion within the remit of inquiries into other serious instances of child sex abuse, and a Private Member's Motion debated at Stormont.

And it is a suave piece of news management on the part of UUP leader Mike Nesbitt during that debate that is perhaps the most interesting tidbit to emerge.
"So, there remain key questions, despite all the inquiries to date. When did the abuse begin? Who was responsible for it? Who knew about it? When did they know about it? Why was it not discovered sooner? Was there a cover-up? If there was, in whose interests did it suit people to cover up what was happening? What was the nature and extent of any involvement or knowledge of unionists, the Orange Order, the business community, military people and senior civil servants, including the secret services?
For decades now, there has been speculation that senior politicians were involved, including members of the Ulster Unionist Party. If the Ulster Unionist Party is implicated through individuals or corporately, I stand here to say that I will accept that guilt. The time has come to find out what really happened.
In a previous life, I worked with journalists, including Chris Moore, who has dedicated himself to exposing the abuse at Kincora as well as the Father Brendan Smyth case. I have been very critical of the Catholic Church and the way that it covered up members who abused children. I have been critical of political parties in the House whose senior members and family members were involved in abuse, and they did not do the right thing. So, if it is our turn as the Ulster Unionist Party, so be it. If any of our members were guilty, let us expose that, and I will acknowledge our guilt. There should be no hiding place because, if this is true, it is a national scandal. If it had happened in Birmingham, Swansea or Glasgow, it would be a national scandal. If it happened here in Belfast, it is a national scandal. Therefore, it needs a national investigation."
Does Mr. Nesbitt know something that we don't, or at least strongly suspect it?

As an aside, the Blether Region notes that Nelson McCausland, now on the back benches, spoke about the Kincora scandal as if it were something to which he had not even the most tangential connection. It is true that Northern Ireland is a small place, and links of some kind or other are to be expected and thus might not always be newsworthy, but why the silence over the fact that he knew the most egregious abuser William McGrath and was — according to one journalist — a member of McGrath's legal-but-loopy paramilitary band Tara? A reference to McGrath "having fooled me too" would surely have been appropriate.

Of course, Mr. McCausland, much of whose electoral support must come from conventional evangelical Christians, may simply be loath to draw attention to his belief in British-Israel theories, his membership of the BI-tinged Cross of Saint Patrick LOL 688 (co-founded by McGrath) or his speaking engagements at events hosted by the British-Israel World Federation, in which fellow McGrath acolyte and professional Ulster-Scot Clifford Smyth is an office-holder.

Gideon's Bible

Many people will have been incensed at George Osborne's plans for an absolute freeze on working-age (and child) benefits until 2017-18. His reasoning, that their development should mirror that of wages since the beginning of the great recession, is obviously flawed, since most of them have been frozen since 1980, while, even with the current difficulties and another planned freeze for the public sector, wages are now much higher than they were then (indeed, MPs' pay, which seems not to be subject to restraint of any kind, is set to rise 11% in a single year).

Be that as it may, students of Northern Ireland politics will have gleaned something completely different from his announcement. It is now absolutely certain that Stormont will fall and that, for a period at least — and probably a long one at that — there will be direct rule from Westminster. Indeed, even had there been no plans further to reduce the welfare bill, that outcome would have been quite likely, since the DUP and Sinn Féin have failed to agree on replicating earlier welfare cuts in Northern Ireland — to which, Scots Nationalists take note — the competence is devolved. The result has been a budget squeeze and the imposition of mounting fines from Westminster.

All ill and bad, but what relevance has any of this to language? Well, apart from the fact that language, like many parts of government, is suffering from the slump (and apparently also from the recovery), renewed direct rule from Westminster raises again the question of the language Act promised under the St. Andrews Agreement.

While there may or may not have been some excuse not to legislate during devolved government, there is clearly none when it is Westminster itself that is calling the shots.

Thursday, 11 September 2014

Tweaks and Pique

The University of Ulster's Alan Trench has penned a long and rather melodramatic article on negotiations in the event of a "yes" vote — with the focus perhaps unsurprisingly on what he sees as the dire uncertainties of independence.

But do independence-supporters really have grounds to get worked up? For example, Prof. Trench asks why the UK should continue to dole out pensions to Scottish citizens after independence, it being borne in mind that UK pensions are of course not paid out of a pensions fund, which would be far too sensible, but rather from the proceeds of general taxation.

Presumably in this case he is talking about the administration of pensions payments to those living in Scotland rather than the right of Scots citizens to receive them in England; if the UK's arrangements with Ireland are anything to go by, Scots are likely to be retain all the rights of British citizens under the law. Indeed, for many people on both sides of the border, the choice of nationality will, as in Northern Ireland, merely be a choice of passport.

Prof. Trench claims that "the obligations of the UK Government to its citizens living in Scotland are not ended immediately, but they are attenuated". But could the UK Government simply stop administering the pensions of people living in Scotland regardless of the fact that Scotland has had no chance to establish a pensions system of its own and is willing to finance them? They certainly couldn't if Scotland, as most neutral observers expect, remains in the EU. Nor could they realistically do something so obviously against the interests of natural justice. After all, Scots pensioners have paid national insurance too, and many of them will have worked in England at some point. And while people living in Scotland do not have a vote, almost half of Scots have relatives on the other side of the border. Suppose the UK Government did stop administering pensions to people living in Scotland. The English 10% or so, along with many others, would probably move south, and the UK Government would then have to pay for them until they died. Indeed, the likelihood is that legally any Scot would have the right to move to Berwick-upon-Tweed and receive a pension there.

Another hole in Prof. Trench's argument is to assume that independence-supporters actually want a common currency with England and membership of NATO. Indeed, some of them may not even wish to be part of the EU. The Blether Region is not part of the "yes" campaign and not privy to its thinking, but one cannot avoid the conclusion that at their heart these are referendum stances aimed at winning over the doubters. Once the referendum has been won, they become far less pressing. It has been stated, for example, that a common currency would entail limits on borrowing and perhaps tax rates, and that, while Scotland and England are currently an optimum shared currency area, their economies would be likely to diverge, eventually causing the kind of stresses seen in the eurozone. It may, therefore, be attractive only as a temporary solution, allowing Scotland the time to prove its fiscal rectitude as an independent state and England to do something about its huge balance-of-payments deficit — which Prof. Trench signally fails to mention.

There is also obvious potential to tie the issue to that of Trident. Prof. Trench is absolutely correct when he points out that the SNP has little room for manoeuvre when it comes to the ultimate aim of removing the subs; suggestions to the contrary from some quarters are pie-in-the-sky stuff, since the party would split if it tried to strike a long-term deal on English nuclear weapons. If England could bring itself to suffer a currency union for ten years or so, however, Trident could stay that long too, which would at least enable them to adapt Milford Haven or Falmouth (both, incidentally, on the Celtic fringe). The alternative for Restukanien would be bleak: it would be perfectly legal for Scotland to start laying mines around Faslane on the day of independence. As many independence-supporters don't want Scotland in NATO, there would also be scope to link negotiations to the country's continued membership. No currency deal, no NATO, and some very angry Americans for England to deal with. After all, Scotland has no enemies — except, perhaps, as readers of Prof. Trench's blog might well infer, the auld one.

Nor have even the staunchest Unionists suggested that Scotland would be permanently shut out of the EU. If England is so hard on Scotland in negotiations, what likelihood is there that Scotland will not veto its constant childish demands for opt-outs and re-negotiation at EU level? Is it not therefore in England's interest to have a fair settlement? And is England's only concern that Scotland not become a failed state? Surely it is also in England's interest to protect its trade links — and part of that will mean avoiding recession in Scotland.

He also raises the issue of a common travel area, which he states is "much more marginal to rUK, and much more important to iScotland". Living as he does in Northern Ireland, Prof. Trench must surely be aware that a common travel area with Scotland is hugely important to people here, both economically and socially, and much more so than vice-versa. But as usual, the North seems to have fallen off the radar. In any case, if Scotland remains in the EU, there would be much less of a case against a common travel area, since any Scots citizen would be entitled to work in England anyway (indubitably so if, as expected, they retain the right to UK citizenship).

Similarly, Prof. Trench doubts that the BBC would agree to the re-broadcast of its services in Scotland. It currently allows the Irish to watch for a small charge. Presumably Scotland would be required to pay only slightly more. The Scottish Government has suggested that Scotland and England allow each other their programming for free, which would be an even better deal for England. Even in the unlikely event that there were no deal, it's worth remembering that many supporters of independence in any case now have serious misgivings about the BBC and, if there is a "no" vote, may soon stop paying their licence fees. For those who do not share their concerns, there are always satellite dishes.

Overall, Prof. Trench's analysis smacks of wishful thinking and pique, perhaps conditioned by the fact that his lucrative work as a planner of "enhanced devolution" — or "tweaks" as one might also say — will be severely curtailed by the advent of independence. Creating an imperfect and unstable devolutionary settlement well short of devo max and in periodic need of review and reform, on the other hand, is clearly in his interest.

BBC Ee-jits

The BBC has an interesting report on the finding of a 300-year-old gold "posy" ring near Newtownabbey.
"The delicate ring, which has been dated to the late 1600s and is 85% gold, bears the Old English inscription 'I noght on gift bot gifer'.
That translates as: "Look not on the gift, but the giver"."
If the quotation has been correctly transcribed, the "I" is presumably a form of the verb "ee", in this case used with the preposition "on".

People with a modicum of linguistic knowledge, of course, refer to the speech variety in question not as "Old English" but as "Middle" or, less precisely, "Older" Scots. Indeed, going by the picture of the ring on the BBC website, it may even read "nocht" rather than "noght", which would reduce its "Englishness" yet further. Here, of course, the BBC's ignorance is unfortunately only a part of the much wider ignorance of the Scots leid in Northern Ireland.

Monday, 8 September 2014

The Language of Political Identity

Wilson McLeod has a thoughtful article over at Bella Caledonia discussing "The non-issue of Gaelic in the indyref debate". Of course, Prof. McLeod — a diaspora Scot whose facility and dedication comprehensively put the rest of us to shame — draws embarrassing attention to our lack of cultural nationalism even before he embarks upon his analysis.

While concentrating on Gaelic, he also reminds us that the low profile of the language, which has traditionally not been linked to party-political or constitutional issues in Scotland, is probably still superior to that of Scots, whose activist circle has been strongly Nationalist since at least the time of MacDiarmid.

The more the Blether Region thinks about it, the clearer the affinities between Scots and Ulster Protestants become. At first glance, of course, they seem very different. The former are nowadays an increasingly secular and moderate group; the second, not so much. And while Scots can have a wide range of constitutional and cultural preferences while remaining Scots, Northern Ireland is very much in the business of cultural and political packages, whether about Highland dancing or Palestine-Israel.

On the other hand, the predominant lack of interest in language among Scots Nationalists would very much find an echo among Ulster Protestants, who generally view Irish as an inward-looking waste of time and have been sceptical about accepting Ulster Scots into their cultural portmanteau — as would the conditional, somewhat picky nature of their loyalty to the state.

Perhaps the chief differences on that front are that in Scotland 1) there is no longer any ethnic antagonism to Gaelic, which is nowadays an uncontroversial, if neglected, source of national symbolism and 2) Northern Ireland, or at least the Protestant half, clearly needs England a great deal more than Scotland does.

Whether attitudes change after independence remains to be seen. But apart from anything else, there is a referendum to win first.

Wednesday, 20 August 2014

Zany Analyses

Most Scots will by now have noticed that English-based commentators' takes on on the prospect of independence can leave something to be desired, what with their insistence that Scotland's is a "romantic nationalism", their quaint belief that England subsidises the country, and their glib acceptance of Unionist politicians' declarations about everything from the desirability of a shared currency to Scotland's continued membership of the EU and NATO. That the above statement can be true of otherwise experienced and thoughtful journalists of course comes as a shock to the many Scots who had hitherto enjoyed their work. But it sums up much of the unequal relationship. Why on earth bother swotting up about 8% of the population?

Not that England's journalists are alone (or even the worst) in that context. After all, England is, still, the same country, so there is a limit to how ignorant one can be. Irish pieces on independence can be spectacularly bad. Thus Aonghus Ó Ceallaigh claims both that the three Unionist parties have all signed up to devo-max and that independence agitation might lead to the emergence of sectarian warfare in the west of Scotland:
"The doomsday scenario of course is that a close referendum result in Scotland leads to violence on the streets and underlying sectarian fault lines in particular in the west of Scotland merge with increasing dissatisfaction with the direction of events in Northern Ireland, unlikely as that may seem at this juncture."
Ahem, yes.

Almost as weird, however, are the opinions of Northern Ireland Protestants, people for whom political union is part of their identity and who might be expected to be a little better informed about their near neighbour.

In a BBC website article, East Belfast community worker Gary Lenaghan states that ""If [independence] happened I think an influx of people might move from Scotland to the remaining part of the UK to stay in the union, and their first choice of residence would probably be Northern Ireland".

Obviously, like.

Meanwhile "fellow Rangers supporter" Jim Wilson can envisage Scots politics beginning to mirror those of the North: "Not in a physical violence way, but I can see it turning into saxonised [sic] politics — voting for pro-union candidates in the future," he says. 

Whether he intended to say "polarised", "radicalised" or "balkanised" is anyone's guess, but one could hardly imagine that independent Scots Unionist parties might form along the lines of the DUP and UUP. After all, the integration of Labour and the Lib-Dems into the well-oiled — in both financial and beverage terms — Westminster system is in all likelihood a large part of what is keeping them Unionist.

And we still have a month to go.

Thursday, 31 July 2014

Dubious Dark Alleys

Henry McDonald has an illuminating article over at the Belfast Telegraph in which he describes how the fraught circumstances of the 1970s "took the State down some morally dubious, highly questionable dark alleyways, one of which was the Kincora Boys Home scandal."
"Both [Chris] Moore [author of the book The Kincora Scandal] and myself are confident that one loyalist extremist, who is deeply mistrusted even by the UDA and UVF, has connections to Kincora as well as being a suspect in a number of other paedophile-related incidents.
This character, however, has never been seriously investigated or questioned by police over what he knew about Kincora or any of the other allegations that were made about him during the 1980s. 
We are equally convinced that this individual was a state asset and long time "agent provocateur" within extreme loyalism for decades and that the role meant he was also a protected asset.
One of his former associates was John McKeague, an ex-leader in the terror group the Red Hand Commando, who has also been linked to or had at least knowledge about the abuse regime at Kincora."
Those who have been following the Kincora scandal may well have their own ideas of who might fit the bill. One man in particular — like McGrath, a long-time British-Israelite preacher who has straddled the line between evangelicalism and Loyalism for most of his life — has been bitterly denounced by former protégés who have fallen foul of the law. He is also someone on whom Henry McDonald has reported, in veiled terms, for many years.

Quite apart from the question of whether the guilty are to be brought to book, or the calumniated vindicated, through a formal legal process, the fact that the suspect is also an alleged agent provocateur raises some interesting legal questions that could conceivably result in the convictions of his one-time acolytes being quashed. If that were relevant only to Northern Ireland, where peace is now well established, it might not be a problem. However, similar tactics are almost certainly still being employed against others, ranging from animal-rights activists to anti-fracking campaigners — and, most notably, British Muslims. For that reason, the state security apparatus will be loath to let the matter get to court.

If it does, expect an unofficial plea bargain of the kind that William McGrath enjoyed 30 years ago.

Thursday, 24 July 2014

Willie Mullan

The Belfast Telegraph continues to provide evidence suggesting that there is much more yet to emerge about the Kincora Boys' Home scandal. This time the finger is being pointed at Willie Mullan, a friend of Ian Paisley and former homeless alcoholic who became a preacher after successfully turning his life around.

Mullan committed suicide at the age of 79 in December 1980, using a legally held firearm. At the time, his death was thought to have been the tragic epilogue to that of his wife, but it has now emerged that he had been questioned about Kincora shortly before. He was a friend of both the convicted paedophile William McGrath and Joss Cardwell, who the Bel-Tel is now openly stating "preyed on kids at the home", and who in 1983 followed Mullan in taking his own life, likewise after being questioned by the RUC about Kincora.

The revelations appear to confirm long-held suspicions that some sort of prostitution ring was operating at the boys' home. They also confirm Ian Paisley, who married William McGrath's children and in whose church John McKeague was at one time active, as a key figure in the scandal. As the Belfast Telegraph points out, however, although Paisley expelled McKeague and was alleged to have ignored warnings about McGrath, "There is no suggestion Dr Paisley knew anything about claims linking Mullan to Kincora."