Friday, 28 March 2014

The Heilan' Man

Conservative MP Rory Stewart, who is somewhat hopefully planning to persuade 100,000 people to link hands across the Scottish border in a symbolic rejection of independence, has blamed the present renaissance of separatist sentiment on the Romans, and in particular the Emperor Hadrian of the eponymous wall. 
"Hadrian literally drew a line on the map — created this pernicious scar across the landscape — and in doing so set up, in a way he could never have imagined, problems that would last 1,600 [sic] years."

But is that right?

The Romans of course conquered Britain from the south, and at a time when the climate was slightly colder than it is today. The further up the island one proceeds, the more one's supply lines are stretched, and the less attractive the land becomes for farming. Having taken what they wanted for themselves, the conquerors made the pragmatic decision that, rather than fight their way into what, for Italians, may have seemed like a Hyperborean wasteland, it would be easier simply to build a bulwark against the original inhabitants across the north of the island. There are two obvious places to do so — where the island is narrow but just before it becomes broad — and so it was that Hadrian's, and then the Antonine, Wall came into being.

The real reasons for the genesis of a separate Scottish state are only obliquely related to the Romans, however. In terms of latitude, Denmark, from whence many speakers of North Sea Germanic dialects embarked on their conquest of England, extends only half way up the Scottish coast. Not only that, but western Scotland is very close to Ireland, with many islands capable of acting as jumping-off points for migratory ventures in either direction. It was therefore much easier for the expanding Irish Gaels to establish themselves in Scotland than, say, the northern and southern peninsulas of Wales, where they also at one time had colonies. Although scholars don't know an awful lot about the language of the Picts, most believe that, if there was only one, it was at least partially P-Celtic, meaning that the Q-Celtic Gaels could more easily diffuse their language once they had arrived. Indeed, even today, while the languages are far from being mutually intelligible, many common words, such as those for "door" (drws / dorus) and "house" (tŷ / taigh), are recognisably similar.

Old Etonian Mr. Stewart argues that the border region once enjoyed a common culture: 
"I thought I could undermine the whole idea of splitting by emphasising these multiple historical identities, resurrecting the old kingdom of Cumbria, or Northumbria, and making people see they have a common heritage."

But Cumbria and Northumbria were themselves territories at odds with each other, respectively P-Celtic and Anglian, and while what became south-east Scotland has spoken Anglic dialects for many centuries, south-west Scotland went straight from being P-Celtic to being Q-Celtic, with Gaelic only dying out in the region in the seventeenth, or perhaps even eighteenth, century. Even if that had not been the case, and English had established itself in the south-west of Scotland earlier, the end result would probably only have shifted the border to the north. Had that happened, Scotland today might be smaller, but Gaelic-speaking and, quite possibly, already independent.

The locations of the two Roman walls are not arbitrary lines on a map but natural frontiers, now best known as the respective historical borders between Scotland and England, Highland and Lowland, but more or less always there. As Britain is a long, thin island whose over-mighty capital is very much at one end, it is hardly surprising that there is a secessionist movement along at least one of them.

And, given the naturalness of the border marked out by Hadrian, perhaps Mr. Stewart should reconsider whether his scheme is the best way of preventing its upgrade.

Tuesday, 25 March 2014

Down with the Dafties

The BBC reports that three Ulster Unionist councillors have walked out of a Down District Council presentation on Irish by East Belfast activist Linda Ervine. Down District covers a majority-Nationalist area, with a total of six Unionist councillors as against 14 for the SDLP and Sinn Féin.

Ironically, one of the councillors, Walter Lyons, phoned Mrs. Ervine in advance to assure her that his action was not to be construed as a slight to her — she has family links to the UVF — but rather "was intended to send a message to [the mainly SDLP] nationalist councillors". Mrs. Ervine described Mr. Lyons as an "old friend" of her husband, former PUP leader Brian Ervine.

One of the complaints advanced by Mr. Lyons concerned street signs: 
"It used to be 70% of the replies had to be favour of the street signs. They changed that to the majority of the replies, so they could have 20 houses contacted and three people reply, and if two of those wanted the Irish sign on their street, it would be granted."

In a further irony, the Belfast Telegraph is carrying a story about a legal challenge by a West Belfast resident canvassed about just that issue. Belfast currently adheres to a policy similar to that which Down has since modified. Under those rules, in any survey of attitudes to bilingual street signs, two thirds of residents must be in favour for there to be a change. Not only that, but: 
"According to Ms Reid's legal team [...] non-returned votes were wrongly counted as being opposed to dual signage. They contend that the two-thirds policy does not comply with a requirement in local government legislation for the views of residents to be taken into consideration."

Scottish readers with long memories will recall the 1979 devolution referendum, in which a similar rule ensured that non-voters, some of whom were actually dead but remained on the electoral roll, were counted as having voted against constitutional change.

Section 11 of the Local Government (Miscellaneous Provisions) (Northern Ireland) Order 1995 mandates local consultation on bilingual signage, but — in a bizarre but quite possibly intentional omission — fails to lay down rules on what constitutes fair play. It seems that the courts are now going to be asked to make law on the hoof where direct-rule Ministers failed, and their decision could have wide-ranging implications not just for Belfast but for all 11 of the new councils.

Personally, the Blether Region feels that even requiring that a majority of respondents declare themselves in favour of bilingualism before it can be made a reality is a gross breach of human rights. After all, bilingualism is always about the minority, and no one is disadvantaged by the addition of another line of text.

What the current system encapsulates, in Down as well as in Belfast, is not democracy but ugly majoritarianism.

Brute Force

Two recent articles highlight the challenges faced by Irish in the twenty-first century and the extent to which its defence is hobbled by the empty symbolism, lip-service and half-measures of the Southern state.

First, the Limerick Post reports on the controversy surrounding the exclusion of anything marking Seachtain na Gaeilge from the City of Culture celebrations (the designation is a national one and has no connection with the European scheme).

The cultural highlight of the week was instead the Argentinean theatre show Fuerza Bruta ("brute force").

Secondly, the Irish Times is carrying an opinion piece by the new Coimisinéir Teanga, Rónán Ó Domhnaill, in which he describes languages rights as "basic human rights" that are also "key to the survival of the language".  In other words, use it or lose it.

It remains to be seen how the Government will react to this re-statement of basic common sense.

Forensic Accounting

The DUP's Stephen Moutray has asked a pair of interesting questions (AQW 31668/11-15 and AQW 31669/11-15) aimed at getting to the bottom of DCAL's spending on the promotion of Irish and Ulster Scots.

While Mr. Moutray may have been riled by the increased presence accorded to the former by the Líofa campaign, the fact is that its spending on advertising has remained remarkably small, currently standing at just £51,614.

No doubt if we had a full disaggregation of what Foras na Gaeilge, the Ulster-Scots Agency et al. had spent their money on, it would be more interesting still. Foras na Gaeilge has for many years acted as a sponsor for the GAA, a relationship that, in the North at least, may hinder the diffusion of Irish as much as it helps it.

As for what the Ulster-Scots Agency spends its money on, well, let's not go there.

Friday, 21 March 2014

The Rules of the Game

This week the Irish Times carried stories discussing the fortunes of Gaeilge North and South. In the august halls of Parliament Buildings, Stormont, an event was held to celebrate Seachtain na Gaeilge, with special emphasis on the Líofa campaign and an impressive contingent of musicians lending their talents. However, the extent to which warm words can suffice given the Minister's failure to defend the existing, functional configuration of language groups in the North is open to question.

In the South, 50 employees of RTE have written to the head of the corporation raising the issue of whether its news service is providing adequate, grown-up coverage and analysis of Irish-language issues, chief among them the resignation of Commissioner Seán Ó Cuirreáin, which recently seems to have merited only a voiceover. The letter compares the way RTE dealt with his departure — owing to dissatisfaction at the Government's enforcement of its own laws — with how it might have covered reaction to the resignations of similar ombudsmen responsible for children or the Garda Síochána.

Overall, it seems that much of the progress that Irish makes, whether it be through Líofa or the Official Languages Act, is negated shortly afterwards by ill-thought-out policy or half-hearted enforcement. Activists and experts are left to plan as best they can for a game of whose exact rules they remain ignorant.

One step forwards, two steps back.