Wednesday, 25 June 2014

More Gaelic Here

Scotland's unofficial chief psephologist John Curtice is hosting an interesting article by Lindsey Paterson on what links there are between support for Gaelic and support for independence. The graphics are less than clearly laid out, with "full powers" the confusing choice of words for what most of us will know as "independence". His overall conclusion is that there is a link — hardly surprising, since what cultural Nationalists there are in Scotland are likely also to be political Nationalists. The fact that the correlation is not stronger, as it is in Northern Ireland, can be ascribed to the Highland-Lowland divide and to the historically multilingual nature of Scotland in general — as well as to a cultural factor discussed below.

One would of course expect a much stronger link in the case of Scots, whose status is inextricably linked with Scotland's seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Unions with England, and whose activist base is strongly Nationalist. However, that is unfortunately not investigated in the article (perhaps someone should drill into the 2012 Scottish Social Attitudes Survey for that too).

The headline figures for attitudes to Gaelic are that "42% of the sample [...] would like there to be more Gaelic speakers in 50 years' time [...]  39% [...] want the number to be unchanged  and [...] 10% [...] hope there will be fewer.". Yes, you read it right: a full 10% of Scots people hope that there will be fewer Gaelic-speakers 50 years from now. That may in part reflect the historical ambivalence of the dominant Presbyterians to secular linguistic culture of any kind, something given far fuller rein amongst their Ulster brethren.

That 39% want the number of Gaelic-speakers to be unchanged is perhaps not as bad as it seems, since few of them will have been acquent with the current number or the steep declines over successive Census cycles, something that may only now, perhaps, have been arrested.

Above all, maintenance presupposes state intervention and at the very least a continuation of current policies.

"Dae yer best!"

Recent Written Answers to Assembly Questions tabled for the Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure have revealed some interesting snippets of information about the Ulster-Scots Agency.

According to an answer to the DUP's David Hilditch (AQO 6392/11-15), the agency, which has been the focus of more than one financial and accounting scandal during its decade-and-a-half of existence, has still not had its budget for the year 2013 approved, despite the fact that the money has presumably already been spent.

The other question (AQO 6397/11-15), about "extra resource and finance", was asked by his party colleague William Humphrey, a former Director of the Ulster Scots Community Network, former Board Member of Ulster Scots Agency and former member of the Ulster Scots Academy Implementation Group.

In response, the Minister confirmed that "The Agency has been asked to provide a business case to enable Sponsor Departments to consider a modest increase in its staffing complement.".

Were that to happen, it would, of course, be in keeping with the top-down nature of the Ulster-Scots phenomenon, which at a community level has failed to take root — unless, of course, it's the kind of root that politicians trip over. The truth is that, leaving flute bands to one side, the agency has always found it easiest, given the sum of its talents and empathies, to spend money on itself. More worryingly, the Minister also stated that "The MAGUS and the Agency are working with the Sector to develop a collaborative approach to scoping a Líofa type initiative of Ulster-Scots that will include History, Heritage, Culture and Language.".

In view of the fact that the agency has a) hitherto failed adequately to promote any authentic version of the traditional dialect and b) instead relied on peddling the type of absurd ethnic packages that so limit cultural expression in Northern Ireland, that does not augur well. In that context, the Minister confirmed that she had "supported a bid for £20K as part of the June monitoring to fund this scoping and development work".

The initial stages of Líofa did not involve spending of that magnitude, but then Líofa had a clear and simple goal, the acquisition of fluency in Irish, whereas those of the agency are considerably broader and vaguer, as well as being highly unlikely to have language at their core, since the agency has failed to develop the dialect in the ways required to render it teachable outside universities.

So, if this turns out not be yet another false start, it looks like we can look forward to people up and down the Province pledging their allegiance to an Ulster-Scots Covenant through some umlauted form of "DYB DYB DYB!" — at considerable cost to those taxpayers.

Tuesday, 24 June 2014

Irish and Officialdom

A somewhat misleading headline in today's Belfast Telegraph reads "Richard Haass calls for Irish to be official language in Northern Ireland". In fact, he said that "Irish identity could and should be respected in many ways within existing constitutional arrangements, possibly including a larger, official role for the Irish language". Official acknowledgment is a long way from official status, which would presumably mean complete bilingualism in many aspects of Government interaction with the public, something that even the Irish Republic, where the language is "officially" official, has failed to implement.

What is more likely, as Liam Clarke points out, is "more use of Irish on roads signs, State documents and court proceedings", which is hardly the far-reaching change in the culture of the polity that some Unionists would have us believe.

Mr. Haass is in fact calling for a language Act, something that speakers of Celtic languages in Wales and Scotland already enjoy and that Irish-speakers have hitherto been denied for obviously sectarian reasons.

Thursday, 19 June 2014

The Draft Interim Constitution of Scotland

The Scottish Government is currently seeking responses to a consultation on its draft interim Constitution for an independent Scotland. Depending on the result of September's referendum, the interim document will form the new state's basic law until such time as a yet-to-be-convened constitutional convention has produced a final version, which will in turn no doubt have to be separately endorsed by voters.

The text is a carefully calibrated one aimed at winning the support of groups that will be key to the success or failure of the referendum. Thus it commits future Scottish Governments to nuclear disarmament (section 23) and to children's wellbeing (section 29), policy stances presumably intended to appeal to swithering Labour voters. It also seeks to safeguard the rights of island communities (section  30), which most people will interpret as an attempt to head off any separatist tendencies in Orkney and Shetland; though such tendencies have been overstated by the Unionist media, sometimes appearances can be as important as reality.

The trouble with the provisions on children and the islands — to neither of which, it should be said, any reasonable person could object — is the lack of clarity regarding what, if any, direct legal impact they might have on policy, i.e. how they will be justiciable. The Irish Constitution includes a number of unenforceable provisions, some of them now embarrassingly overtaken by societal change, and in general it can hardly be a good thing to include such vague proclamations, which may end up leaving the Constitution looking more like a stourie time capsule of social mores than a practical document. With regard to nuclear weapons, although it is of course highly likely that an independent Scotland would choose not to have them (i.e. not to allow the English to continue to station their Trident submarines in Scotland for more than a few years), that is surely a matter for a future Scottish Government.

The Blether Region's essential problem with the draft interim Constitution is not what it includes, however, but what it fails to include, notably, a statement that the maintenance of Gaelic (and Scots) is among the key missions of the state, and, by extension, one of the key justifications for its proposed separate existence. For all its failings in that regard, the Irish Republic not only includes such provisions in its Constitution, but in any dispute concerning interpretation, the Irish version takes precedence.

With regard to Scots, the Constitution should include a clear commitment to achievable developmental goals, including the formulation of a state-backed orthography taught in schools, university chairs of the language, a national Scots-language theatre, etc.

It is true that Scotland has always been a multilingual polity and that some people might view the explicit mention of autochthonous languages as inimical to the democratic, civic nationalism that it espouses. However, in essence such concerns are merely another manifestation of the cultural cringe and a reminder of the terrible damage wrought by incorporating Union. It is entirely possible — and, in fact, easy — to justify linguistic concerns within a biodiversity framework. If Gaelic and Scots die in Scotland, they will die everywhere, including in Nova Scotia and Ulster, where in social terms they currently fare even worse than at home.

The Scottish Government has already excluded the nation's autochthonous languages from the referendum question. It would be a tragedy of rare proportions were they to be excluded from the Constitution too.

Monday, 16 June 2014

Anti-Gaelic Bigots

Daibhidh Rothach has an interesting article on the Bella Caledonia website dealing with the contrived indignation at North Ayrshire Council's action to meet its legal responsibilities with regard to Gaelic (the council area includes the Isle of Arran, which was Gaelic-speaking until relatively recently). The comments appended by readers of the "yes"-supporting blog should nail the myth that Scotland has the same kind of cultural packages current in Northern Ireland, for far too many of them betray the kind of bigoted ignorance towards the language over which Ulster Unionists here have a virtual monopoly.

Much of their ire was directed at road signs, including one ludicrously high estimate of the extra cost associated with bilingual versions. As someone married to a person who learnt Irish after having their attention attracted to the language during an exchange to Dublin, the Blether Region can confirm that such signs are definitely not a waste of money. For the linguistically switched-on, they act as advertising for the language and raise awareness of place-names.

Nor are all Scots activists against Gaelic, for as one of them put it:
"Wantin tae tak spendin awa fae Gaelic an gie it tae Scots is like a blin man wantin the ee out o somebody's heid that's jist got the yin. Whit guid wad that dae ye? Ye cannae yaise it yersel! It winna fit in yer face! Aye, weel, tak his ee out an we'll baith be blin."
Sae that's thaim telt.

Wednesday, 4 June 2014

Stating the Obvious

The upsurge in racism in Northern Ireland is awful but entirely predictable, for how can a polity that cannot properly recognise its own internal diversity possibly accommodate the diversity of the modern globalised world?

Much has been made of the similarity in verbal attacks on Muslims and Catholics, instances where theological difference is abused in order to score points against ethnic groups whose religion is an integral part of their identity. That, in essence, is the problem with opposition to the Irish language too: what is in fact racism is dismissed as a tussle between confessional groups. The Blether Region has previously reported on how Unionists opposed bilingual signage. That opposition was unfortunately seconded by the Alliance Party, which spectacularly misread support for Irish as a cultural manifestation of sectarianism.

Not to put too fine a point on it, those were the views of beginners, reflecting the party's status as the obvious choice of well-meaning but in this case uninformed people from Great Britain. Anyone intimately aware of the problems of Northern Ireland, on the other hand, knows that the fundamental divide here concerns nationality. It follows that any stable settlement, whether internal or as a result of Irish unity, will have to recognise and celebrate autochthonous ethnic diversity — which is why it is so important to support not only Irish but the residual Scots dialect of Ulster. Opposition to bilingualism, which is always about cherishing the minority, is a form of racism, and it is no surprise that physical attacks have been concentrated in areas under the control of Loyalist paramilitaries, who are merely extending against others the tactics that they for generations employed against Catholics.

Until that simple fact is recognised, shameful attacks of the kind witnessed this week are likely to continue.