Friday, 31 October 2014

Ultach Trust

Today marks the last day of existence for Ultach Trust. Back in the 1980s, the trust was one of the very first Irish-language organisations to win funding from the UK Government, and for most of the intervening years it was a centre of expertise on the cross-community promotion of the language — acumen that will be hard to re-assemble in future.

The Blether Region has had the pleasure of knowing Ultach's staff members, as well as some of its trustees, for many years, and has found them a very open-minded, knowledgeable and dedicated group of people. It would like to take this opportunity to wish them all the best for the future.

Thursday, 23 October 2014

Immoral Majorities

The Belfast Telegraph reports on a judicial review of the case of a West Belfast woman who has complained that she was denied bilingual signage on her street — not because not enough people voted in favour but because not enough people voted.
"Out of 92 eligible residents 52 confirmed they wanted Irish signs, with only one opposed.
But because the other 39 did not respond to the survey the two-thirds requirement was not met."
As the Blether Region pointed out on 25 March, this policy is eerily similar to the 40% rule employed to deny Scots devolution in 1979 — the difference in this case being that the figure is a whopping 67%.

Imagine if 67% super-majorities (of eligible rather than actual electors) were required for votes at Westminster. Would homosexuality and abortion ever have become legal? Would the death penalty ever have been abolished? And would it actually be possible to pass a budget each year?

A few days ago the UK Parliament voted by 274 votes to 12 to recognise Palestine as a state — a figure described as a "landslide". Under the rules followed by Belfast City Council, however, that vote too would have been null and void, since Conservative whips instructed their MPs to stay away from what is a controversial issue.

This being Northern Ireland, of course, the council is free to twist every vote on bilingualism into a referendum on Irish unity and to project a notion of offensiveness onto the language that any reasonable person would dismiss as absurd. The truth is that having bilingual street signs is not the same as publicly sacrificing sheep at the end of the road. If people are offended by it, the problem is theirs — and theirs alone.

Tuesday, 14 October 2014

No More Language Cuts

Although the need to find a settlement on social security may be a little less urgent now, following the agreement of an emergency £100 million loan from Westminster that will surely never be repaid, it's nice to read that there will be no cuts to the Northern Ireland budget for autochthonous languages.

Apart from anything else, of course, much of that budget would be going on the cross-border language bodies anyway — with little room for last-minute one-sided tweaking.

Mocking Convention

Outrage has been expressed in many quarters about the UK Government's apparent decision to withdraw from the European Convention on Human Rights — which may even result in its being ejected from the Council of Europe while some far less democratic states in eastern Europe (notably Russia) remain. Should current plans ever come to fruition, it would raise a number of issues:

The ECHR was made directly justiciable through British courts by an Act of Parliament. In Northern Ireland, however, that justiciability is guaranteed by agreements that the UK Government cannot breach without extremely serious political consequences, conceivably extending to renewed civil strife.

If Northern Ireland keeps its right to have the ECHR directly justiciable, which it probably will owing to the fact that the current system is itself underpinned by an international treaty in the form of the Good Friday/Belfast Agreement, will post-referendum Scotland be allowed to do the same?

If Scotland can, in relative isolation, make the ECHR justiciable, can it do the same for other Council of Europe treaties and protocols, such as the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages? At present the Charter has no legal status in the UK, and its provisions are in any case a "shopping list" rather than an iteration of binding rules. There is surely scope, however, to give legal backing to some of those provisions, such as by introducing an absolute right to Gaelic-medium education. Although GME is coming from a low base, the more pupils attend, the greater the practicality of copperfastening such a right in law, and the greater the pressure to do so.

Monday, 6 October 2014

"Scots English"

The Guardian has an article on what it originally called "Scots English" that unfortunately regurgitates some of the commonest misunderstandings about the speech variety. For a start, if it's English, as many academics quite respectably believe, the national adjective might just as well be "Scottish". The use of "Scots" in this case is no doubt influenced by the native name, but it all rather puts the Blether Region in mind of those many people here in Ireland who habitually say "Scottish" except for some reason in the case of "Scots Gaelic", i.e. just where it's most liable to confuse.

Of course, not everyone will agree: a lecturer friend said he rather liked "Scots English" as a name because it captured the hybridity of how most Lowlanders now speak and the uncertain status of their tongue. Nevertheless, standard terminology it ain't. In fact, the Wikipedia entry on Scottish English states up front that it is "not to be confused with Scots language".

The difference between dialect and slang is another area where the paper could do with going back to school. The word doo is clearly the former (being a geographically delimited cognate of Standard English dove) but not the latter (i.e., not a jokey or familiar low-register synonym for the initiated).

And then there's the title of the article, which the Guardian changed as a result of comments from readers. Apart from anything else, half of it's not about Scots at all but about Scottish Gaelic — which, as the comments section confirms, had to be re-written. And it's still not right: gràidh should surely be a ghràidh, whether the hearer actually registers the fricative or not. Oh dear.

Of course, at the risk of going off topic, the fact that the Guardian appears to know so little about the languages of Scotland may also go some way to explaining its reporting of the country's recent independence referendum ...

Wednesday, 1 October 2014

Past, Present and Kincora

The simmering scandal of Kincora has once again bubbled its way into the newspapers, with the News Letter arguing for its inclusion within the remit of inquiries into other serious instances of child sex abuse, and a Private Member's Motion debated at Stormont.

And it is a suave piece of news management on the part of UUP leader Mike Nesbitt during that debate that is perhaps the most interesting tidbit to emerge.
"So, there remain key questions, despite all the inquiries to date. When did the abuse begin? Who was responsible for it? Who knew about it? When did they know about it? Why was it not discovered sooner? Was there a cover-up? If there was, in whose interests did it suit people to cover up what was happening? What was the nature and extent of any involvement or knowledge of unionists, the Orange Order, the business community, military people and senior civil servants, including the secret services?
For decades now, there has been speculation that senior politicians were involved, including members of the Ulster Unionist Party. If the Ulster Unionist Party is implicated through individuals or corporately, I stand here to say that I will accept that guilt. The time has come to find out what really happened.
In a previous life, I worked with journalists, including Chris Moore, who has dedicated himself to exposing the abuse at Kincora as well as the Father Brendan Smyth case. I have been very critical of the Catholic Church and the way that it covered up members who abused children. I have been critical of political parties in the House whose senior members and family members were involved in abuse, and they did not do the right thing. So, if it is our turn as the Ulster Unionist Party, so be it. If any of our members were guilty, let us expose that, and I will acknowledge our guilt. There should be no hiding place because, if this is true, it is a national scandal. If it had happened in Birmingham, Swansea or Glasgow, it would be a national scandal. If it happened here in Belfast, it is a national scandal. Therefore, it needs a national investigation."
Does Mr. Nesbitt know something that we don't, or at least strongly suspect it?

As an aside, the Blether Region notes that Nelson McCausland, now on the back benches, spoke about the Kincora scandal as if it were something to which he had not even the most tangential connection. It is true that Northern Ireland is a small place, and links of some kind or other are to be expected and thus might not always be newsworthy, but why the silence over the fact that he knew the most egregious abuser William McGrath and was — according to one journalist — a member of McGrath's legal-but-loopy paramilitary band Tara? A reference to McGrath "having fooled me too" would surely have been appropriate.

Of course, Mr. McCausland, much of whose electoral support must come from conventional evangelical Christians, may simply be loath to draw attention to his belief in British-Israel theories, his membership of the BI-tinged Cross of Saint Patrick LOL 688 (co-founded by McGrath) or his speaking engagements at events hosted by the British-Israel World Federation, in which fellow McGrath acolyte and professional Ulster-Scot Clifford Smyth is an office-holder.

Gideon's Bible

Many people will have been incensed at George Osborne's plans for an absolute freeze on working-age (and child) benefits until 2017-18. His reasoning, that their development should mirror that of wages since the beginning of the great recession, is obviously flawed, since most of them have been frozen since 1980, while, even with the current difficulties and another planned freeze for the public sector, wages are now much higher than they were then (indeed, MPs' pay, which seems not to be subject to restraint of any kind, is set to rise 11% in a single year).

Be that as it may, students of Northern Ireland politics will have gleaned something completely different from his announcement. It is now absolutely certain that Stormont will fall and that, for a period at least — and probably a long one at that — there will be direct rule from Westminster. Indeed, even had there been no plans further to reduce the welfare bill, that outcome would have been quite likely, since the DUP and Sinn Féin have failed to agree on replicating earlier welfare cuts in Northern Ireland — to which, Scots Nationalists take note — the competence is devolved. The result has been a budget squeeze and the imposition of mounting fines from Westminster.

All ill and bad, but what relevance has any of this to language? Well, apart from the fact that language, like many parts of government, is suffering from the slump (and apparently also from the recovery), renewed direct rule from Westminster raises again the question of the language Act promised under the St. Andrews Agreement.

While there may or may not have been some excuse not to legislate during devolved government, there is clearly none when it is Westminster itself that is calling the shots.