Tuesday, 29 April 2014

Blue Circles

The Belfast Telegraph reports that a blue plaque in Mallusk Cemetery paid for by the Ulster-Scots Agency and commemorating United Irishman Jemmy Hope has been deliberately broken, most probably by Loyalists.
"Amid suspicions the attack was sectarian, [the Mayor of Newtownabbey Frazer] Agnew said the incident showed how 'much we have to do to educate the people who did this'. 
'Jemmy Hope was a good Presbyterian man. He wanted the working class to unite for better conditions, he was a champion of ordinary people,' he said. 
'To attack the plaque because the vandals think th[at] he was a republican shows their ignorance.'"
Suggesting that the United Irishmen were not Republicans is a bold argument on the part of Mr. Agnew, but there is no doubt that Jemmy Hope was a Presbyterian. In fact, the professional Ulster-Scots have never made any bones about the involvement of Protestants in historical rebellions, perhaps because it stresses the conditionality of their troubled relationship with Westminster.

This is of course not the first time that Ulster-Scots initiatives have fallen foul of contemporary sectarianism. In the late 1990s street signs erected on the Clonduff Estate in south-east Belfast were torn down by tumshies who assumed they were in Irish (more recently, Clonduff has gained an opulent Ulster-Scots "Kyefiel" welcome sign, so that lesson at least seems to have been learnt).

Such episodes serve to underline the gulf between the Christian intellectuals of the Ulster-Scots movement (and, in this case, secular history buffs) and the reductive, nihilistic, criminal numptitude of working-class Loyalism.

Now, who will square that circle?

Whose Union is it Anyway?

The Irish News, hidden behind a paywall, has reported that Loyalists counter-demonstrating against the Dearg le Fearg march at the corner of Castle Street gave Nazi salutes (they had stopped doing so by the time the Blether Region reached them, no doubt because the length of the parade had rendered the maintenance of such an impractical gesture even more testing than usual).

That democratic tidbit of course raises an interesting point. If, according to some accounts, there were 50 supporters of the British Union (or in this case, perhaps even of the British Union of Fascists) demonstrating against Irish, how many Unionists were demonstrating in its favour?

Well, if there were 6,000 people on the march, to find 50 Unionists among them, one would need less than 1% of those in attendance. The cross-community organisation Ultach Trust was marching, as was the Irish-speaking Anglican organisation Cumann Gaelach na hEaglaise, currently celebrating its hundredth anniversary. Moreover, there has always been a fair-sized minority of Catholics in favour of the Union anyway, and while that may be smaller among Irish-speakers, it's still reasonable to assume that it's higher than 1%.

Not only that, but the Nazism of the Loyalists will have been deeply offensive to many, if not most, people in their own community.

The avowed aim of the marchers was to normalise the Irish language. Whether they ultimately succeed in that remains to be seen, but the counter-demonstrators certainly succeeded in de-normalising opposition to it.

Friday, 25 April 2014

Getting Fresh

Much has been made in recent days of NI21's use of Irish in a billboard advertisement. Although the Irish itself could have been better, any concerns about linguistic purity will have been comprehensively offset by the immense and potent symbolism involved. It must surely be the first time that an avowedly Unionist political party has used the language in such a way.

Back in the days when the Blether Region first arrived in the North, an Irish-speaking colleague, evidently no friend of Sinn Féin, liked to point out that there were more and better speakers of the language in the SDLP. Nowadays, with continuing growth in Irish-medium education and a shift in the balance of power between the two Nationalist parties, that will be considerably less true. For many Unionists, Irish is a Republican affair and something to view with suspicion, if not outright hostility.

Conversely, of course, one could argue that it is just NI21's Unionism that gives it the leeway to make such gestures towards the other community. It is also a testament to the far-sightedness of its founders, who appear to realise better than most Unionists the change in demographic realities with which they are faced.

Another recent development in Northern Ireland politics concerned Anna Lo's declaration in favour of a united Ireland. To those familiar with the history of the Alliance Party, whose genesis can be traced to a coming together in the early 1970s of Unionists and Nationalists, it should come as no surprise that some at least of its members are in favour of doing away with the border. All the same, it riled many within and without the party, whose advocacy of internal solutions means that it is often viewed as soft Unionist.

On the language issue, NI21, which evidently supports an Irish language Act, seems to have outmanoeuvred Alliance, which antagonised many in the Irish-language community with its stance on signage. At times one almost believes that Alliance policy is formulated in a bubble, one that self-defines as liberal but is in fact merely non-sectarian. One friend of the Blether Region in the party even defended the necessity of gaining two-thirds majorities in favour before bilingual street names could be erected — a requirement that may soon be declared illegal — and claimed that gay marriage, an institution with no legal advantages over civil partnership, was a more pressing issue than a language Act, something that would transform speakers' relationship with the state, and perhaps their view of it.

Clearly, we are in changed times, but, just as in the early 1970s, power-sharing still has its share of slow learners.

Monday, 14 April 2014

Twenty-four to Go

Last month the Blether Region discussed how three Ulster Unionist councillors had walked out of a presentation on Irish given to Down District Council by Linda Ervine.

Now it appears that the same stunt has been pulled in Magherafelt, with the councillors involved this time around bizarrely retaining the right to pass remarks about the percentage of Irish spoken at the boycotted event (presumably a veiled attack on Mrs. Ervine, who came to the language late in life).

What next? Well, there are another 24 councils to go, and come next year there will be 11 new ones, although, unfortunately for those whose lives revolve around such grand gestures, on some of them more enlightened attitudes towards Irish are likely to prevail.

The Irish Language and Demographic Change

Anyone who has watched the news over the years will be familiar with a phenomenon that has played out after any big demonstration: the organisers claim one figure for those taking part, while the police produce another, much smaller tally. Not being given to demonstrating as a rule, the Blether Region had never experienced it personally — never, that is, until last Saturday, when the Blether Family took part in the Dearg le Fearg parade from the Falls Road to Custom House Square.

By far the most egregious underestimate, however, came not from the PSNI but from the BBC, whose first report claimed that there were only 2,000 people in attendance, a total that was certainly only a third of the true number, perhaps as low as a fifth. Not only that, but the event was covered third in Saturday's BBC news bulletin, the lead story being — wait for it — a couple arrested because they had a block of cannabis.

On the corporation's website, the story is, if anything, yet worse, for the pre-parade report has not even been updated properly, still beginning "Irish language speakers are marching in Belfast on Saturday in protest over what they described as Stormont's 'failure' to protect the language."

Yes, dear reader, it's biased too. Note to BBC sub-eds: if one prefaces someone's opinion that something is a failure with "what they described as", there is clearly no need to put the word "failure" in inverted commas — unless one thinks said opinion particularly loopy and wishes to distance oneself from it rather more than usual.

Given the spectacular bias shown by the BBC in its coverage of the Scots referendum campaign, including giving the platform of two one-hour documentaries to a Conservative MP (apparently a romantic Brittonic nationalist) so that he could refer to the existence of Scotland as a "pernicious scar", it is fair to say that the corporation is not acquitting itself particularly well nowadays. Of course, similar such claims have been made in the past, even including the allegation that TV news transposed the order of charges made by police and pickets during the mediaeval pitched battles of the 1984-5 miners' strike.

While demonstrators may with some justification be dearg le fearg about the reporting of the event, there was little sign of anger on the day — except from a lone Loyalist whom no one had informed that the Union Flag is two-thirds Gaelic (and whose ancestry, indeed, may hardly differ).

The reason for the parade's good nature may be down to two connected reasons, the number of children from Gaelscoileanna taking part and the fact that it has been estimated that Northern Ireland will have a Catholic majority as soon as 30 January 2017 (a voting majority will take a while longer).

Although the end of the Union is by no means guaranteed by that, an Irish Language Act is clearly coming, the only question being whether it will be achieved through devolution or, should Unionists choose to shoot themselves in the foot, direct rule. Indeed, any party that wishes to prosper would do well to take that into account. At the moment, while economic discrimination may be in its death throes, cultural discrimination — and provocation — continues unabated.

Hawf Nelson McCausland

A friend of the Blether Region recently alerted it to the existence of a blog and Twitter account belonging to one "Hawf Nelson McCausland".

Given that many of the themes discussed by "Hawf Nelson" overlap with those dealt with by the Blether Region — indeed, some weeks one could almost accuse this blog of being "hawf Nelson McCausland" itself — it may be appropriate to point out here that there is in fact no connection and no co-ordination between the two. Although the Blether Region and the author of the blog by some accounts share one or two biographical details, they are not the same person and do not know each other. "Hawf Nelson" would appear to be live or work in the south-east Antrim area, whereas the Blether Region is a Belfastard.

True, there are similarities of interests and opinion, but those are perhaps best explained by the following sage advice from Robert Burns — advice upon which the professional "Ulster-Scots" might do well to reflect.

"O wad some Pow'r the giftie gie us.
To see oursels as ithers see us!"

Tuesday, 8 April 2014

Distasteful Polemics

The Daily Mail has launched an astonishing attack on Gaelic-medium schooling in Edinburgh, even going so far as to link the local council's funding of the popular Bunsgoil Taobh na Pàirce with the tragic death of a first-year student when a changing-room wall collapsed at the city's Liberton High.

Internet commentators have been quick to point out that there is in fact no excess cost to providing Gaelic-medium education, since Bunsgoil Taobh na Pàirce is fully subscribed.

It may be the case that the Daily Mail's editorial team believes that Gaelic is a nationalist shibboleth and a legitimate target as the independence referendum campaign becomes increasingly polarised. However, for every Scot who believes Gaelic's significance to be national, there is another who believes the language to be a regional or ethnic affair, leaving the Daily Mail piece looking like another prejudiced attack upon a minority, something in which the newspaper unfortunately has some form.

Sunday, 6 April 2014

An Advert for Scots?

A trilingual advertisement seeking a new PSNI Chief Constable for the PSNI has attracted criticism in the press. Given the fact that the experience required (two years as an Assistant Chief Constable in another police service) deliberately excludes a local candidate, no doubt some might argue that English would have sufficed — and, indeed, only the most basic information is included in Irish and Ulster Scots. Yet, in the latter case, even a single sentence has excited criticism:
"Tha Norlin Airlan Polis-wark Boord is leukkin tae tak oan a Heid Offyser furtae jyne tha PSNI Ontak Guidin Core."
The case illustrates the bind that Ulster Scots — and especially the inauthentic variety promoted by the Language Society — finds itself in. Top-down promotion envisages Scots appearing wherever Irish does, but native speakers themselves reject it.

While it is of course possible to use Scots sensitively in higher registers, another approach would be to concentrate on supporting it in the areas where it is strong (literature, song, arts in general).

In fact, it might even mean the Ulster-Scots Agency could stop giving all its money to flute bands.

Justice Postponed

The Belfast Telegraph reports on the case of a man arrested by police simply for giving his name and address in Irish. Although the judge has yet to reach a determination, he has already made sceptical noises regarding the PSNI's contention that the man had committed a crime under the Justice and Security Act 2013 — and agreed to let the case be heard in Irish, in apparent contravention of the Administration of Justice (Language) Act (Ireland) 1737.

Campaigners hoping for the immediate arrival of linguistic equality may be disappointed, however, for the simple reason that the address given as Gaeilge was in Dublin. As a native of another state whose first official language is Irish and where there is, still, a Gaeltacht, it seems the defendant can enjoy rights denied to Midnight's Children on the other side of the border.

The Huddleston Bicentenary

Last Saturday marked the two-hundredth anniversary of the birth of Robert Huddleston, with a modest event held to honour the poet at the Non-subscribing Presbyterian Church in his birthplace of Moneyreagh. Huddleston published only two collections during his lifetime, in 1844 and 1846, respectively, but he continued to write for more ephemeral publications, as well as for his family and himself, right up until his death in 1887.  And it is only fitting that his bicentenary be marked with a new selection from the Huddleston manuscripts now held by the Ulster Folk and Transport Museum.

This is important for three reasons. First, Huddleston's copious writing varies quite dramatically in its quality; he is better in Scots than in English, and the overall impression of his worth would be greatly improved by a discerning editor. When he is good, he is very good.

Secondly, Huddleston's long life covered a crucial period in the development of Presbyterian political thought. Like many of his generation, he started as a Nationalist and ended as a Unionist. That is extremely interesting for historians, and not just of the literary variety.

Thirdly, one part of Huddleston's unpublished work never saw the light of day because of its bawdiness. In these more liberal times, there is no longer any reason for us not to enjoy it.