Wednesday, 29 January 2014

No Man is an Island

The Derry Journal has reported on new bilingual street signs in the village of Park. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the process is the differentiation made between "street" and "road" signs, one presumably being considered residential and one not.

Street signs are governed by section 11 of the Local Government (Miscellaneous Provisions) (Northern Ireland) Order 1995. Although that section stipulates that names be in English, it allows additional languages where residents are in favour. The rule has already caused problems. For example, in August 2013 there was a political dispute on Fermanagh District Council about whether the name Crannog Way should be written with an accent or not, with Unionists complaining that having one meant that the monolingual sign was in Irish rather than English (they had obviously never heard of syntax). Dean Swift's satires about high heels and boiled eggs spring to mind.

The section also discourages the use of bilingual signs because organising a local plebiscite costs councils money.

Not only that, in the case of routes with few or no residents, there is no way to have bilingual signs. The legislation is therefore partly responsible for making the language more political than it need be — in essence making a reality of the Unionist trope that any use of the Gaelic is about marking out territory. It also stands in marked contrast to arguments advanced by the likes of the Orange Order, and apparently accepted by the UK Government, that "the Queen's highway" is for everyone's equal enjoyment, even where it offends others.

Political Illiteracy

The Blether Region was interested to read a Belfast Telegraph blog on the redrawing of Northern Ireland's local council boundaries by the Newry and Mourne UKIP (formerly UUP) councillor Henry Reilly, who was recently confirmed as his party's candidate in this year's European elections.

Political arguments about local government reform are one thing, but it is highly disconcerting to say the least to read them in a style so consistently oral that it can only be described as illiterate. To quote:
"If the DUP-Sinn Fein was [recte were or, better still, had been] seriously concerned about saving cash [missing comma] it would have went [recte gone] to chief executives of the existing councils and gave [recte given] them saving [recte savings] to make which could have been quietly [recte quietly and or, more likely, quite] easily done by co-operating with neighbouring councils on joint tenders and bulk purchasing etc."
David Cameron once memorably branded UKIP "closet racists". It seems that the books have stayed in the cupboard too.

Thursday, 23 January 2014

Doddery's Brig

The BBC has revealed that a new footbridge is being mooted to link the gasworks business park and Ormeau Embankment in Belfast, with nine different designs currently being assessed.

Some time ago the Blether Region read an article about the Ulster-Scots poet and songwriter Robert Huddleston (1814-1887), the Bard of Moneyreagh, whose longest — and arguably best — work, "Doddery Willowaim", an Ulster take on Burns's "Tam o' Shanter", includes a memorable Lagan-bridging leap on the part of the title character:

When at the brink ae spring an' tantrum,
Clean out o' Down launched him in Antrim:

("Doddery Willowaim", Poems and Songs on Rural Subjects, 1844, p. 50)

Huddleston, a non-subscribing Nationalist radical who later expressed sympathies with Unionism, is surely a figure capable, like his poetic creation, of bringing together the Catholic Lower Ormeau with the more mixed areas on the other side of the river.

As such, the Blether Region respectfully suggests that the new creation be named "Doddery's Brig".

Tuesday, 21 January 2014

Sinn Féin's New Clothes

The Irish-language community is in shock at the news that no Northern organisation is to receive core funding after June this year. Where once there were 19 such organisations across the island, there will now be only six, all of which are situated south of the border.

In a press statement, Ultach Trust cited bad faith, stating:
"Chuaigh Foras na Gaeilge chuig na sé eagras a roghnaíodh i bhfómhar na bliana 2012 ag [fiafraí] cé acu a bheadh [...] sásta feidhmiú mar cheanneagras ar bhonn uile-oileánda."
The decision means that there will soon be no Irish-language organisation in the North dedicated to cross-community work. In that respect, it seems strange that An tÁisaonad and Raidió Feirste are to be funded on a project basis while no account is taken of the far greater need to tackle the North's yawning sectarian divide and give Unionists the confidence to engage with their heritage.

Neither will the North have any professional advocacy organisation (even if DCAL were to provide replacement funding to Pobal, which has consistently highlighted the lack of an Irish Language Act, it could hardly be considered sufficiently independent of the Executive).

Particularly controversial has been the way in which Sinn Féin welcomed the news, appearing to prioritise the cosmetic aspect of all-island organisations being in charge of language promotion over the more salient one of their effectiveness — a criticism that could arguably be applied to Foras na Gaeilge itself. Veteran Irish-language campaigner Séamus Mac Seáin castigated the party for issuing an English-only press release on the issue.  Another Gaeilgeoir stated that a truly cross-border set-up would have seen at least one Northern organisation being chosen to take the lead on one of Foras na Gaeilge's six themes, while yet another complained of a basic ignorance of the North among Southern activists, with many unaware that Irish was not a compulsory subject in post-primary schools.

Friday, 17 January 2014

A Tendentious Claim

The News Letter has reported on Unionist reaction to the Committee of Experts' criticism of the Northern Ireland Executive with regard to its record on Irish.

The report contains two factual howlers, one by the newspaper and one by Michael McGimpsey — who among other achievements was the Northern Ireland Assembly's first Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure, and whose brother, former Belfast Councillor Chris McGimpsey, was for a time learning the language. First, the sub-editor who wrote the headline appears to be believe that the Council of Europe has something to do with the EU. It most emphatically does not; the CoE's membership is much wider, and it should not be confused with the European Council, which actually is an EU body.

Secondly, although both Diane Dodds and Michael McGimpsey correctly point out that the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages is not justiciable — or, in the latter's terms, "binding" — Mr. McGimpsey makes the tendentious claim that "the 1998 Belfast Agreement was the settlement regarding minority languages in Northern Ireland and we have fulfilled our obligations under it." That blithely ignores the fact that the UK Government signed up to the European Charter only after the Agreement. Indeed, it is by this stage quite likely that a suspension of the Executive of any reasonable duration would see the UK Government passing an Irish Language Act, although perhaps not one with the teeth that activists would wish for. Such a suspension would be a disaster for community relations and quite possibly peace but may nevertheless be the best hope of bringing the treatment of Irish more closely into line with that of Scottish Gaelic and Welsh.

The overall impression? Head-in-the-sand parochialism.

Thursday, 16 January 2014

The View from Without

The UK Government has been strongly criticised by the Council of Europe's Committee of Experts responsible for the monitoring of undertakings made under the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages. Last year the Blether Region reported that the Northern Ireland Executive had failed to agree a joint response to the Council's triennial request for a report on implementation of the Charter, perhaps because some criteria were no longer being fulfilled. Now the Committee of Experts has issued its own report castigating the failure of the Executive to pass a language Act, remove unwarranted restrictions on the use of Irish before the courts, and introduce a system of simultaneous translation for Members of the Northern Ireland Assembly, which already pays for such a system for the benefit of the Speaker and Clerk but for political reasons refuses to extend it further at what would presumably be minimal cost. In a blow to Unionists and the Alliance Party, the Council also sided with Sinn Féin on the use of bilingual signage.

On Ulster Scots, the tenor was markedly more positive, even if the report found that the dialect was still largely "absent from public life" — with the Ulster-Scots Agency in particular singled out for praise. Such positivity reflects the Council of Europe's adherence to the fiction that Ulster Scots is a language separate from Scots and its lack of any expert linguistic input to determine the value of relevant initiatives, deficiencies that may well be linked.

Ironically, Richard Haass, chair of recent failed round-table talks in Northern Ireland, has appeared on CNN studiously avoiding any mention of the province but describing the Arab world in the following terms:
"These are societies that have never really dealt successfully with modernity.
You've never had a clear divide between the religious and the secular. People confuse democracy and majoritarianism. There's not a real sense of minority rights or places in these societies."
Sound familiar? 

Monday, 13 January 2014

The Revised Version

The Bel-Tel's Malachi O'Doherty has given his view on the reasonableness of reflexively demanding an Ulster-Scots translation just because one has been provided into Irish. O'Doherty, who has consistently defied political and religious pigeon-holing, does not mince his words; the headline refers to "narrow-minded morons".

He is equally forthright with regard to the Ulster-Scots revival:
"Well, for a start, Ulster Scots is not the property of a sectarian faction in Northern Ireland.
It is the rural voice of the forebears of most of us. Unionism and loyalism can no more claim it as their own than republicans can claim Irish.
And there isn't a single reader of this paper, I will bet, who would find this article easier to read if it was written in the revised version of Ulster Scots that is used in Government job ads."
Sectarianism and inauthenticity are the two big issues facing Ulster Scots. It's time they were tackled.

Thursday, 9 January 2014

Mr. Cab Driver

This week saw two stories that touch on the relationship of Irish with the sectarian divide. In the first, it was announced that East Belfast Mission has now dedicated an entire floor of the Skainos Centre to the Irish-language project Turas, where classes are taught by Linda Ervine, a schoolteacher and wife of former Progressive Unionist Party leader, Brian Ervine. There are now eight classes a week in the mission building, a testament to the level of interest among adult Protestants, most of whom, for political reasons, have had no opportunity to learn the language at school. While the project — unthinkable only a few years ago — is an undoubted success, it remains worthy of comment that it takes place in a building associated with evangelicalism and is taught by someone with familial links to the UVF, whose best-known members were perhaps the Shankill Butchers. What would happen, one wonders, were a more neutral organisation such as Ultach Trust to open an office in the same area?

The other case is a further instance of shame for Scotland — localised in the west, yes, but easily capable of embarrassing everyone (it is being reported as far afield as Cork). It seems that a taxi-driver upbraided two native speakers of Irish for using the language in the back of his cab and, when they complained, put everyone out. In a year when Scotland seems happily not to have embraced the worst of current overheated English rhetoric on immigration, it is a cause of sadness that racism is still acceptable for some — as long as it is connected with football or religion.

Monday, 6 January 2014

Lowpin the Sheuch

Issues of bilingualism exercised the Blether Region during its festive travels. First, it couldn't help but notice on a visit to the Falkirk Wheel that the Scottish Gaelic "welcome" sign was actually in Irish, i.e. the word displayed was not Fàilte but Fáilte. That may be a minor point, and aficionados of the tongue will point out that Scottish Gaelic once happily employed both graves and acutes before, relatively recently, adopting a reform whereby only the former would be used. However, that does not discharge the public authorities in Scotland from a duty to get right what is, after all, a fairly basic word. The episode underlines the low base from which the Gaelic revival is starting ower the Sheuch.

Then, upon returning to Norn Iron, Blethers was flabbergasted to read of the latest case of Ulster-Scots whitabootery, a police officer "threatened with being reported after posting a greeting on the PSNI Newry and Mourne Facebook page in Irish, Polish, Russian and Lithuanian, but not Ulster-Scots." The officer later explained that he had included only languages a) that he had encountered during the previous year and b) that came under the purview of Google Translate — the latter hardly likely given that Scots is unstandardised, largely untaught and, in the case of Ulster, riven by amateurish factionalism.

Newry and Mourne, the most Catholic of Northern Ireland's 26 local government districts at the time of the 2011 Census, is unsurprisingly also far from any core Ulster-Scots area. Joseph Carson of Kilpike (a Catholic) and Hugh Porter of Moneyslane (an Anglican) were notable County Down Scots-language poets in the first half of the nineteenth century, but both Kilpike and Moneyslane are in the Banbridge District Council area (Carson was evidently born in Lurgan, but that is in the Craigavon Borough Council area). Notwithstanding Carson's Lurgan heritage, the bulk of (barely) English-settled Armagh, as far as the Blether Region can ascertain, has never produced an Ulster-Scots poet, and Scots may never have enjoyed the status of community language in the county.

Although the UUP's Ross Hussey correctly identified the threat to report the PSNI member as unreasonable, in the same breath he referred to his actions as a "genuine oversight", from which the Blether Region infers that the all-pervading rationale of the zero-sum game has been suspended in this case out of respect for the forces of law and order.

A Guid New Year tae ye aw.