Thursday, 22 May 2014

Shaken with a Twist

Further to the controversy surrounding Foras na Gaeilge's stewardship of Irish-language organisations and the almost total funding wipeout facing those in the North, in a bizarre twist the six Southern-based lead organisations chosen to take over have issued an angry press release decrying the funding on offer to them — ironically, using some of the very same words.

The document, dated yesterday and signed by the heads of each of the six organisations, mentions a "crisis" in Irish-language organisations and accuses Foras na Gaeilge of not following best practice. Among its detailed criticisms are: a reduction in staff in almost every field; a lowering of the level of posts; no provision made for redundancy payments; the pace of change; a denial of the rights of workers in the sector; and a lack of staff so acute that the lead organisations may not be able to continue providing services.

With the handover scheduled for 1 July, questions are sure to be asked about the competence of the Foras na Gaeilge board and the two Ministers, North and South.

Wednesday, 21 May 2014

UKIP and the Stability of Northern Ireland

The question of what effect Scots independence might have on Northern Ireland has been raised by more than one commentator recently, with some controversy surrounding the reporting of remarks by former UUP leader David Trimble. Looked at dispassionately however, it's clear that, while Scotland going its own way would disconcert Unionists and give heart to Nationalists in equal measure, there's no reason why it should, of itself, lead to renewed violence or to Irish unity, for the simple truth is that it's not, of itself, a game-changer. Probably its biggest impact would be to nip in the bud the development of deep-seated and sustainable Unionist sentiment among middle-class Catholics, who, the Irish language and contentious parades notwithstanding, aren't nearly as oppressed as they were in the 1960s. Unionists would continue to vote in line with how they view their national identity, and even if a few more might stay at home on election day or even emigrate to Britain, that would hardly change much.

Such developments are significant only in conjunction with demographic change, which is a slow process. Although Catholics will be a majority in the general population by 2017, that will not be true among voters until a few years later, and there has always been a reasonable minority of Catholics who would vote against unity in any referendum.

A far greater threat to the stability of Northern Ireland is the re-imposition of a manned land border complete with customs posts between North and South, something that a UK exit from the European Union would make a distinct possibility. Although there's an outside chance that some sort of derogation could be negotiated, it remains at least a very likely scenario.

In the late 1950s and early 1960s, before the advent of the more recent Troubles, the IRA commonly attacked customs posts along the wavy and indefensible border, and it's hard to envisage that, to some degree at least, the same wouldn't happen again. Imagine what would happen if troops had to be drafted in to protect isolated outposts, if they were themselves attacked, necessitating the drafting in of more troops. Not only that, but imagine that same scenario attended by a slender Catholic majority in the North, by Scots independence, and by political stasis or collapse at Stormont, all within the space of a few years.

One scenario is that there will be a narrow "no" vote in September, followed by a second referendum after England votes to leave the European Union while Scotland opts to stay. A triumph for UKIP tomorrow could therefore ultimately result in England losing both Scotland and Northern Ireland, in the latter case following another upsurge of violence. As with Scots independence, that violence would not itself result in British — or, more correctly, "English" — withdrawal, but it would persuade many more Catholics, by that stage a voting majority, that their future lay with the South.

For its part, the Republic's Government would be quite justified in viewing the re-imposition of a manned border as a breach of the Good Friday/Belfast Agreement, although it would almost certainly refrain from stating that publicly.

In Northern Ireland, many Unionists have sympathies with UKIP. To some extent, this may simply be another case of seeking friends without bothering too much about how savoury they are. There have been far worse examples. In one bizarre incident, the West Belfast UDA festooned lamp-posts with Israeli flags as a counter to the Palestinian ones in Republican areas only to be advised to take them down again to avoid offending a visiting delegation from the neo-Nazi Combat 18 — whose name allegedly derives from the first and eighth letters of the alphabet. Of course, it's also possible that some Unionist UKIP sympathisers will have done the math with regard to the border. While the siege mentality is rejected by some, for others it is the ultimate recognition of partition.

As for England, it will make its decision without any regard for the consequences in Scotland or Northern Ireland — or for the wishes of Wales, a relatively poor country that has been a major beneficiary of EU funding over the years. And the EU will fall victim to a proxy hatred genteelly deflected from the brown people next door.

Friday, 16 May 2014

Devo Much?

Yesterday evening the Blether Region attended a fascinating lecture by Alan Trench at the University of Ulster on what happens after the Scottish independence referendum. Professor Trench, who has his own Devolution Matters blog, has also been an adviser to Westminster Committees and is working with the Institute for Public Policy Research on its Devo More project.

Given the number of hats he wears, and the obvious political sensitivity of his field, Professor Trench's statements don't always go down well with everyone. Indeed, the Blether Region felt that some of his comments during the first half of the lecture, on what happens next if Scotland says "yes" in September, came close to betraying political opinions, particularly when discussing the UK Government's apparent ruling out of a currency union and the consequent prospect of Scotland refusing to accept a share of UK national debt (the UK has in fact guaranteed all such debt, so an independent Scotland would have no legal obligations in that regard unless it made a voluntary commitment).

Nevertheless, his talk included many interesting points:

If Scotland votes "yes" in September, Professor Trench does not believe that there is any realistic prospect of a second referendum being foisted on people on whatever deal is reached, as Scots will have clearly repudiated the UK.

If they vote, "no", on the other hand, he believes that it will have great democratic significance, as it will be the first time that they have explicitly endorsed the UK at the ballot box.

He envisages income tax rates, bands and reliefs being devolved following a "no" vote, but not corporation tax, which he apparently does not view as desirable, or baseline welfare rates, although the DAs are evidently to be granted a right to "supplement" them. Holyrood would also be assigned a share of VAT, which seemingly cannot be fully devolved because of EU law. When the Blether Region asked him about the impact of the West Lothian question on prospects for devolving income tax, his answer addressed English political concerns but not the personal ones of Labour's Scottish MPs.

Likewise, he refused to be drawn publicly on the role played by Westminster's creaking democracy in resurgent nationalism, although in conversation after the event it became clear that he had given some personal thought to moving the seat of the House of Lords — even if his own preference of Birmingham is surely not far enough north to fix Britain.

He spoke tantalisingly, and slightly condescendingly, of an oil-for-debt swap whereby Scotland might wish to divest itself of the tricky business of regulating the North Sea oil industry. Reading between the lines, the Blether Region suspects that the UK might offer a partial deal on the waters annexed in 1999, no doubt based on an underestimate of remaining reserves. As oil is but one asset in that part of the North Sea, and as there may well be a knock-on effect on where oil companies pay corporation tax, it hopes that Scotland refuses.

Finally, and perhaps surprisingly given his background, he came very close to saying that the question of an independent Scotland's continuing membership of the EU would have to be resolved by politicians rather than lawyers.

And would Professor Trench's post-referendum prescription be enough to save the Union?

In the long term, probably not.  

Monday, 12 May 2014

Lions and Unicorns

Gavin McCrone's suggestion of reviving an old name for a new Scots currency has certainly got tongues wagging, and for all the wrong reasons. Of course, it's fair to say that Professor McCrone, an erudite man, may have anticipated the response. If so, however, one suspects that the result may have exceeded even his wildest projections — with by far the most attention lavished on the strangest-sounding name.

A major, if shoogly, plank of the "no" campaign over the past few months, in a carefully co-ordinated push to rubbish the economics of self-government, has been to suggest that Scotland would not be "allowed" to continue to use the pound sterling. The Unionist media's current touting of the name "unicorn" for the assumed independent currency that a new state would be forced to adopt in its stead makes the whole notion of life without Westminster sound almost impossibly outlandish.

A unicorn is, after all, a mythical beastie, non-existent outside the workshops of a few shady but enterprising taxidermists. In Northern Ireland, the term has even been used to refer to people voting outside their community bloc, the strong, if not strictly correct, implication being that it never occurs. The BBC opined that it "sounds like the start of a bad joke", while the Guardian noted that "you could also carry about a half-unicorn which wasn't as horrific as it sounds."

Such rhetorical flourishes aside, on a deeper level a convincing case can be made for retaining or reviving Scotland's traditional political nomenclature, which is, after all, merely another aspect of linguistic diversity. Many Scots do just that every day already when they refer to themselves as being "Scots" rather than "Scottish" or even "Scotch", the latter term having been perfectly acceptable until around 100 years ago.

Although all Lowlanders spoke Scots at the time of the Union of the Crowns and for some time thereafter, by the end of the century nearly everyone had got out of the habit of writing it. What Scots vocabulary was still committed to paper was often Latinate and closely associated with a few areas of national distinctiveness, the independent Scots legal system (advocate, interdict), the Church of Scotland (moderator, precentor) and, to a certain extent, burgh records (convener, demit). That terminology is still with us today.

Where Scotland's contemporary political nomenclature could make better use of the nation's distinctive linguistic patrimony is in those areas where there has been a hiatus imposed by the Union, areas like the currency and the Scottish Parliament. In practical terms, since the currency is very likely either to be the pound sterling or to be pegged to it, the Scottish Government will almost certainly want to reassure people by calling it "pound". Given that, at one time, there was also the pound Scots, that's perfectly defensible, even if it doesn't have the maximal differentiation of Professor McCrone's "merk".

The current name for the Scots equivalent of "Prime Minister" is "First Minister", a relatively arbitrary formulation intended to underline the inferior competences of the title's bearer. The related term "Executive" has already been ditched in favour of "Government", and it's a fair bet that "First Minister" would go the same way if Scotland voted for independence. "Prime Minister" would be an obvious alternative. Meanwhile, the SNP proposes that, in the event of independence, "Chancellor of Scotland" should be revived as the new title of the Presiding Officer.

The same probably can't be said of "Commissioner", the pre-1707 rough equivalent of an MSP. Re-introducing the term would have a serious knock-on effect on the many other "commissioners" in public life, and could easily engender widespread confusion and a serious administrative guddle at a time when civil servants and parliamentarians are likely to have enough on their plates.

Of course, given the closeness with which the undemocratic and fustian elements of Westminster are related to the institution's long history, some may make the case for a tabula rasa with regard to nomenclature too. This is what happened when Americans founded the functional-sounding House of Representatives, although they departed from that philosophy somewhat when they called the upper house the Senate, which was never a particularly democratic institution in ancient Rome.

Another element to consider is Gaelic, which received just as little official acknowledgment in Scotland in the centuries immediately preceding 1707 as it did under unitary Westminster rule. The Scottish Parliament already has bilingual signage, and it's likely that the language will be making an appearance on banknotes at some point too, regardless of the currency involved.

As for the "unicorn", well, the Scottish Government may well wish to sell commemorative coins through a re-nationalised Post Office, and "unicorn" is as good a name as any. Personally, the Blether Region would be happy to see it do so for as long as it can raise money for the state — and just as happy to see it stop if that ever ceased to be the case.

Finally, it's worth making a more serious point that will have occurred to many of you while reading this: all such speculation is idle until "yes" carries the day.

Friday, 9 May 2014

Lazy Assumptions

The Blether Region, whose civilian name has evidently been added to some DCAL circulation list for Ulster-Scots events, was this week invited to the launch of "the Ulster Covenant and Scotland Research Project". As a body whose interests extend to Scots and Irish but not Loyalism, it wrote back asking not to be invited to any more such politically and confessionally tinged events with no discernible linguistic connection. DCAL responded saying that "it would take a considerable amount of time to tailor" its invitee lists in such an obviously sensible way and offering instead to remove the Blether Region's name entirely, a suggestion to which it has now reluctantly acceded.

Surely, however, it is not too much to ask of DCAL to maintain a list of invitees for genuine Scots- (and Irish-) language events, thus keeping secular Scottish Nationalists such as the Blether Region — not to mention Irish Catholic speakers — in the loop.

To do otherwise smacks of institutional sectarianism.

Tuesday, 6 May 2014

An tUltach

Two written answers to Assembly Questions from the Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure cast light on the financial realities facing the Irish-language magazine An tUltach and the Ulster-Scots Agency.

Funding to the latter has fallen year on year, from £2,304,267 in 2009 to £1,893,749 four years later. While the agency has recently downsized its accommodation, a real issue that it must face is whether its modest and problematic contribution to Scots justifies its staff complement (wags might say "its existence").

Meanwhile, from a 2009 level of £21,026, the annual subvention to An tUltach has similarly fallen each year, so that in 2013 it stood at a mere £16,554. When funding ceases on 1 July 2014, the magazine may well be forced to close.

Given the comparatively tiny sum involved, one really must question the logic behind the move. An tUltach was set up in order to provide a forum for speakers of Ulster Irish, who remain ill-served by Southern Irish-language media, despite the Donegal Gaeltacht, in contemporary terms, being the largest by territory and second-largest by population (there are considerably more native speakers of the Ulster dialect than of that of Munster). That foundational argument therefore still holds.

Moreover, at 90 years old, it is a relatively venerable publication, being able to look back on an impressive literary history that is, for some, no doubt interwoven with the cultural case for the language itself.

More to the point, An tUltach is also actually worth picking up and reading, something that could not always be said of Conradh na Gaeilge's Southern magazine Feasta (a comparative youth founded in 1948), which far too often reproduces verbatim transcripts of speeches at book launches and barely edited official press releases.

It seems to the Blether Region that An tUltach's measly stipend could easily be scraped up elsewhere, perhaps by taking a harder look at the expenses claims of Foras na Gaeilge board members or by delaying (even slightly) the replacement of staff members who have left.

It would certainly be an occasion of considerable shame for the magazine to disappear at a time when there is a Sinn Féin Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure in the North. Thus far, Carál Ní Chuilín's actions with regard to the future of the language have been dubious and disruptive, akin to some mercurial dictator bulldozing an ancient city in order to build a gleaming new capital — but with no guarantee that it will in any way equal the old.

Allowing something as precious as An tUltach to die on her watch really would prove that she has her head in the clouds.