Thursday, 20 October 2016

In Defens

Last night one of the Blether Region's Northern Ireland Facebook pals linked to an article reporting John Swinney's defence of Scottish Gaelic. He invited his friends to "discuss" it. Though an uninformed NI Unionist reading the article (or, as one admitted, only the headline) might be forgiven for thinking that Scottish glotto-politics is a mirror of its Ulster counterpart, in reality that is far from the case. In fact, the comments rather underlined the gulf.

While Scots may be ambivalent about Gaelic, they do not generally hate it. Rather, the picture is mixed, among both Unionists and Nationalists. Attitudes dividing along neat constitutional or sectarian lines to the extent found here would be thought odd.

Although it would be logical to assume that Scottish Nationalists had more time for Gaelic than Unionists, the actual difference may be quite slight, and may not even be as relevant as family history or regional considerations. In particular, planned, co-ordinated attacks on Gaelic by elected Unionist politicians are a very recent phenomenon in Scotland, limited, more or less, to the last two years; the Blether Region suspects that they may lose them as many friends as they win.

While there may be few or no traditional native speakers being raised in Northern Ireland, in Scotland a majority of speakers may fall into that category (just to be clear, the Blether Region is not saying that non-traditional native speakers don't count; the actual structural difference in how they speak is not great).

It is simply not true to say that "nobody speaks Gaelic" (which, even in NI, could only ever refer to its use as a community language, anyway). In Scotland, most speakers are native (see above), and Gaelic is a community language in the Western Isles and elsewhere.

Neither is it true to say that Gaelic is being aggressively promoted by the SNP for political reasons. The most relevant Gaelic legislation was passed by Labour and the Lib-Dems, while BBC Alba came into being during a Labour Government (broadcasting is, of course, reserved to Westminster). Arguably the key move on broadcasting prior to that was negotiated by the Conservative Michael Forsyth when he was Secretary of State for Scotland. One prominent Labour supporter of Gaelic in the 1970s and '80s, Brian Wilson, is also a fervent opponent of devolution.

The above should at least enable NI Unionists to achieve a good grounding in the facts before they criticse one of their ancestral languages.

Oh, and one other thing before I forget: in Scotland we don't generally call it "Garlic".

Wednesday, 19 October 2016

Crowd-source me this one

Last week's news that a Gaelic-speaker would be recruited to facilitate Wikipedia articles in the language was good news. A quick glance at the Uicipeid website shows that it has a mere 14,143 entries, meaning that many speakers will simply not bother consulting it, instead using the English version, whose article tally is an enormous 5,264,840. For Irish Gaelic, which of course enjoys a good deal of State support, if only for learning rather than in the form of vital services, the number is 38,586 — hardly a rival for English, yet more than twice the number for Gaelic, whose number of traditional native speakers is probably not actually that much lower.

Some of the reporting of the new post has mentioned the salary, £30,000 — less than the average wage but above the median. Is this an example of journalists graciously lending their newspapers to some free advertising in order to attract the right person and thus help save the language? Or is it just an example, conscious or unconscious, of the kind of pettifogging bean-counting that emerges as soon as someone has the idea of spending money on a minority language?

Answers on a postcard.

World Gone Wrong

An article on the BBC website about the Prince of Wales making a Gaelic learners' award to an Italian unintentionally sums up much that is wrong with modern Scotland.

A foreign citizen puts the natives to shame by learning the national language ignored by most, for no reason in particular a tartan-swathed prince gets to hand out his prize, and the president of An Comunn Gàidhealach switches to English to welcome said prince to the "Royal" National Mod.  What a country!

Thursday, 29 September 2016

Of Ginger Mutts and Nuts

The attacks on Paul Kavanagh, aka Wee Ginger Dug, for having the temerity to produce a Gaelic-language map of Glasgow raise serious questions about Scotland's relationship with linguistic culture. Many of those attacks were founded on specious or "straw man" arguments, such as the claim that Gaelic would somehow be foisted on the unwilling, or that bilingual signage costs substantially more than its monolingual counterpart (it disnae). Above all, they serve to confirm that perhaps Lowland Scots aren't so different from their Loyalist cousins in Northern Ireland: if it suits the interests of (Unionist) politics, it seems, it's acceptable to attack the languages of your ancestors.

As if to prove the utter disregard and ignorance of many Scots for matters linguistic, the Herald today chose to illustrate an article about Lowland Scots with a picture of two children reading Gaelic books.

The key argument of the piece is that, with the world getting smaller owing to the rise of the Internet, many Scots elements retained in colloquial speech may die out. That is of course possible, but on the other hand social media offer just the sort of informal fora in which Scots, or at least renderings of working-class Scots' speech, might thrive; Swiss German has also recently made its way into new domains. Indeed, the point has already been made by many observers that such fora allow alternative political narratives to thrive too (the BBC, particularly around charter renewal time, allows neither).

Meanwhile, the Belfast Telegraph reports that a national museum of languages is coming to British high streets. When one reads on, however, it transpires that the museum is a "pop-up" centred on the University of Cambridge, with "regional" centres in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Nottingham. If Scots and Gaelic really are to avoid ending in the museum, it seems that we may have some way to go.

Monday, 22 August 2016

Iggy Pap

Newton Emerson is off in a flap about bilingual signs, and, of all places, in the Irish News, which must be bitterly regretting contracting out its column inches to this "liberal Unionist". Indeed, he seems on this occasion to have forgotten to include any jokes, too — unless, of course, they are of the gasp-inducingly unintentional variety. Apart from making a false comparison of bilingual signage with "Welcome to Northern Ireland" placards marking the border, he actually uses the expression "bog-standard" to describe their "ethnic territorial marking". That one's sure to go down well with the Paddies.

But why show any tolerance of diversity when you can retrospectively legitimise criminal acts as giving the two fingers to Republicans? "It is hard to sympathise with Sinn Féin councillors on Newry, Mourne and Down District Council as bilingual signs are defaced in unionist-majority towns and villages," he writes, paying scant attention to the fact that such signs can be vandalised anywhere by roving teams of obsessives. "We can spare ourselves the sophistry that accompanies language 'debates' in Northern Ireland, such as how Irish belongs to everyone (except Gregory Campbell) or how most of our place-names are in Irish already (so why have bilingual signs?)," he continues — apparently oblivious to the fact that he has just made an argument for getting rid of the garbled and meaningless English versions.

This is surely a man whose ignorance knows no bounds, writing as he does that we think of incredibly diverse France as "solidly monolingual" (one suspects that the qualification about what "we" apparently think may have been smuggled in by the sub-editor). Even his attempts at compromise are weird, as he suggests that "The 'national minority' concept may offer a way around this. It is acceptable under the charter to take 'special measures' in favour of a minority, without this counting as discrimination against the majority."

No, Newton, no one is discriminated against by the existence of a bilingual sign. The clue is in the name. They may feel politically aggrieved by being reminded that their closest neighbours are not clones of themselves, but as long as the English remains, they are merely enriched.

As, presumably, is Newton himself, getting paid for this old rope.

* * *

As an aside, the Blether Region noticed yesterday that the bilingual English / Ulster-Scots signs that previously welcomed visitors to the Ards Borough Council area have been replaced by monolingual ones since its merger with North Down. However, as "Fair Fa' Ye" does not mean "welcome", its sadness was held in reasonable bounds.

Friday, 29 July 2016

Closed Books

The Belfast Telegraph has an interesting article on how "British" or "Irish" people are according to a DNA study. Eyebrows will be raised at the way "British" has been defined as "Anglo-Saxon" — both in Wales, home of the actual Britons, and in Scotland, where, owing to the limitations of the method, native Gaels are presumably being classed as "Irish", a conflation last flung at them as a Lowlander's term of abuse in the eighteenth century.

If that is the case, one of the findings must be that Scotland, prior to mass Irish immigration in the nineteenth century, was almost equally Anglic and Gaelic (if the utopian plans voiced in some quarters for a post-Brexit union of Scotland and Ireland are ever to come to pass, those mooting them might be well advised to drop the term "Celtic"). Regrettably, no markers of Pictish or Welsh ancestry seem to have been followed up (in the case of Wales, the derived statistics must therefore be of doubtful value).

No figures are offered regarding the make-up of those in southern Ireland, but it would be unsurprising if the "British" constituent were really quite large. Indeed, some people already quote statistics about how those with British (or Norman) surnames are, ironically enough, more likely to support Fine Gael.

Of course, perhaps the most fruitful conclusion that we can draw from the study is that we're all Jock Tamson's bairns and all a mixtur-maxtur (we kind of knew that anyway). The best way that we can celebrate that hidden diversity is to fight racism and support our languages.

Monday, 18 July 2016

Soul and Bondage

Twenty years ago, when the Blether Region was a young whippersnapper at university in England, it found itself sharing a house with a Republican-minded landlord from Dublin. One night, out and about in an Irish haunt, someone stood up to give a rendition of "Four Green Fields". "How awful," remarked the landlord. "It's so passé."

That a person who is a Republican should find "Four Green Fields" passé might come as news to some, but upon further thought his annoyance was entirely logical. Those three words, summing up his approach to politics, were to others not their vital essence but their ossified entirety — a stick to beat him with, in other words.

Now Pól Ó Muirí has written an article about the struggle to keep the Gaeltacht alive, beginning as follows:
"Tír gan teanga, tír gan anam. Even if you are just one of the 'cúpla focal' brigade, you will most probably recognise the phrase — 'A country without a language is a country without a soul.'"
See the similarity?

And it gets worse:
"The Gaeltacht is as much a faith community as it is a linguistic one. In a very profound way, native speakers, and many other Irish speakers, have kept faith with the language; every word uttered is a prayer, a verbal expression in praise of another kingdom, a sigh from this Vale of Linguistic Tears.
Therein is one of the biggest challenges facing language groups. A country without a language is a country without a soul. A soul? The dominant culture in which we move is one in which value is placed on what can be bought, sold and screwed. It is easy enough to sell your soul but impossible to buy one. How do you protect a faith community; how do you get more people to join the prayer group?"
If the Blether Region were a young, secular Irish person who had not managed to become fluent in the language at school and found religion by turns infuriating and embarrassing, it could hardly be won over by such expansive comparisons.

The link with religion can be explained, of course, given that, in Ireland, Catholicism has functioned as a kind of proxy Gaelachas, and, particularly in the North, Catholic schools have been the custodians of an Irish ethnic tradition (for which reason, long may they continue). Indeed, one Irish-language organisation, Glór na nGael, was even founded by Cumann na Sagart (after all, both Gaels and Catholics have an interest in passing on their memes). Logically, however, in today's world one has to doubt whether the link with religion is as fundamental as the link with Nationalism (for which Gaelic is absolutely not a mere add-on to annoy Unionists).

So, regardless of whether we believe that a country without a language is a country without a soul, one has to doubt whether it's a good idea to articulate it. Instead the reaction should be: "Well, now that you say it I suppose that Irish-speakers are a little like Christians — after all, they're both groups who believe it's their duty to talk to you."

Monday, 27 June 2016

Nature, not Nurture

What with collapsing markets, political parties in turmoil, and the imminent break-up of the UK, it's worth remembering that there are some things that, in the longer run, are much, much more important. One of them is the Irish language, whose bizarre invisibility (or, rather, silence) in the state of which it is the first official language has attracted comment from the President, Michael D. Higgins. Mr. Higgins is of course able to broach the subject only because of the long-standing consensus in the South of Ireland that Irish is something to be cherished. To raise the same issues in the North would be to enter the political arena, from which a non-executive President should be at some remove.

On the other hand, some of the criticisms he has made will sound eerily familiar to those in the business of promoting the language ó thuaidh. One is the difficulty in setting up new schools, particularly at secondary level:
"We all understand the benefits of multilingualism and we have seen a huge increase in the number of parents seeking the gift of bilingualism for their children," Mr Higgins said. "It is clear that the demand exists for more Irish language secondary schools to give these children the opportunity to continue their education through the medium of Irish, and it is only right that they should be able to do so."
Meanwhile, in the North, new Education Minister Peter Weir has turned down a proposal that Gaelscoil an Lonnáin move from its present site on the Falls Road a short hop, skip and a jump to the former St. Comghall's Primary School, citing "sustainability and long-term viability issues".

While Mr. Weir deserves (faint) praise for his recent toe-in-the-water visit to Coláiste Feirste, it seems that he has some way to go when it comes to what President Higgins calls a "lack of goodwill" towards Irish.

And, if you think the Blether Region is being unfair to him, you might not be aware that he has just cut previously promised Nurture funding from Scoil an Droichid and Bunscoil Bheann Mhadagáin despite the schools making considerable investments out of tight budgets on the basis that the money would be forthcoming. Out of all the schools in Northern Ireland, those two Irish-medium schools, many of whose pupils come from deprived communities, were the only ones to be so affected.

Go figure.

Wednesday, 1 June 2016

Things to Come?

Conradh na Gaeilge, responsible for advocacy since the Ní Chuilín reforms, has been granted the right to take the Executive to court for its failure to implement an Irish-language strategy.

Unionist commentator Newton Emerson has already stated that the organisation should win its case but that it will be an "empty victory", since the Executive can continue blithely to ignore the judgment — as it has done, for example, with regard to a much-heralded but equally absent anti-poverty strategy.

That is of course true, although, as the anti-poverty judgment was only a year ago, we cannot know what future action the courts might take. In particular, the theory of the sovereignty of parliaments applies only to Westminster, so the Executive does not enjoy an absolute right to change its mind or overrule anyone: it, and its individual Ministers, are required to comply.

At the end of the day, it may be Westminster that comes up with the strategy, and the related Act, and a court judgment would certainly make prompt action in that regard more likely were Direct Rule ever to come about again.

That may never happen, but with the latest polls showing that Leave is still in with a chance of winning the Brexit vote, it could be quite soon too, since Brexit will almost certainly lead to chaos and political collapse in Northern Ireland.

As an aside, while the Brexit vote is too close to call at a UK level, in Northern Ireland, the answer will most likely fall in favour of Remain. That is of significance both politically, for obvious reasons, and on a more intrinsic demographic and psephological level, since, as far as the Blether Region is aware, it will be the first time that (in this case, more united) Nationalists have outvoted (in this case, more divided) Unionists on anything. While the late Ian Paisley Senior used to claim that a majority of Unionists had voted against the Good Friday / Belfast Agreement, that was almost certainly bluster on his part, since it would have required an impossibly high percentage of Nationalists to have been in favour.

Even if Brexit does not result in blood on the streets (or border lanes) of Ulster, it is highly likely to give Nationalists a further reason for turning out at election time — and just when they are on the brink of a majority. As such, Brexit could be the shape of things to come.

Thursday, 26 May 2016

Dia ár Sábháil!

Irish-speakers, and the parents of children attending Irish-medium schools, will be feeling sorely let down at the fact that the two key Departments for language, Education and Communities, have been handed over to the quasi-racist DUP. One Nationalist party, the SDLP, has withdrawn from the Executive entirely, and looks set to slide into obscurity as a result, while the other, Sinn Féin, stayed in but showed no interest in opting for the relevant ministerial posts when it had the opportunity.

It may be the case that Sinn Féin is scared at the modest success in the recent Assembly elections of People Before Profit, a party widely regarded as drawing its support from disaffected Nationalists. Or perhaps the Shinners are taking a leaf out of the DUP's election game plan and trying to force their voters to turn out by talking up the dire consequences of staying at home. But the DUP's Jeremiads concerned the title of First Minister, which its candidate was never seriously likely to lose; even if it had, any difference vis-à-vis the post of Deputy First Minister is more symbolic than real. In any case, if anything, Sinn Féin's failures on this occasion are more likely to encourage folk to opt out of participating in electoral politics altogether.

Were the Blether Region a devotee of conspiracy theories, it might even be tempted to suggest that the party was attempting to underline the extreme dysfunctionality of the Stormont system lest Brexit render a return to violence desirable. However, that seems not to be the case. While Education went early in the d'Hondt process, the word from the grapevine is that Sinn Féin made a conscious decision not to take the Department of Communities because it did not want to be seen to be implementing welfare reform — the ultimate victory of style over substance.

None of this would be quite so bad were it not taking place in a context of shrinking budgets. Irish can now look forward to having its funding not merely frozen but actively reduced.

The loss of Education to the DUP's Peter Weir is particularly depressing, since the fact that the party wished to take it this time around was well trailed. One of its election promises involves ending the supposed "preferential treatment" shown to Irish-language schools.

Communities, on the other hand, has gone to the evangelical Christian Paul Givan. Ironically, in Scotland, no one would bat an eyelid if control of Scottish Gaelic policy were to be given to a (suitably qualified) evangelical, since so many native speakers of the language are just that. No, the problem with Mr. Givan is politics, not religion. Expect funding for Irish to be cut to the bone while funding for Ulster-Scots projects, most of which will not involve language to any meaningful degree, will be puffed up into an artificial parallel.

Or perhaps the creationist Mr. Givan will confine himself to promoting English. If so, the Blether Region suggests starting with this quote from Shakespeare's longest play Hamlet:
"There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,Than are dreamt of in your philosophy."

Wednesday, 11 May 2016

Respecting Irish-speakers

Not answering the question asked is of course one of the most reliable, if clunky, instruments in the tool-box of any politician worth his or her salt. Luckily for the voters, our broadcast media have among their kenspeckle faces a few focussed and above all tenacious individuals who simply refuse to be brushed off. Some of the instances where this has happened have become part of broadcasting legend. Who could forget, for example, the occasion, now almost 20 years ago, when Jeremy Paxman asked former Home Secretary Michael Howard the same question a dozen times?

It is therefore all the more disappointing to read this:
"Almost 40 Irish language speakers have taken part in a protest outside the BBC's Broadcasting House on Ormeau Avenue, Belfast.
A spokesperson said he had not been allowed to ask questions about Irish language issues during the BBC's election debates. 
A petition was handed to the reception. 
In response, the BBC said it produces multi-platform Irish language content."
Hm, see the similarity? The issue raised clearly referred to the attitude to the Irish language displayed by current-affairs staff rather than the fact that the BBC produces a few shows as Gaeilge (not a channel, of course, like the Scots get). The original question referred to the DUP's manifesto plans to stop "squandering money" on Irish-language schools. As such, it was a clear and pressing concern for the Irish-language community — a "current affair" if ever there was one (and hardly the sort of thing deserving of being dismissed with a dose of non sequitur bluster).

One explanation is that the BBC was trying to avoid contentious themes in what was widely seen as a rather dull election (as well as one in which a whole swathe of bored Nationalist voters once again failed to turn up). If true, that would be shameful.

The alternative, just as likely, explanation is that the BBC was taking a rather ill-informed decision about what is relevant or interesting to voters, one very likely based on an ignorant conception of how many pupils attend Irish-language schools. As Comhairle na Gaelscolaíochta puts it:
"There are over 700 children expected to enter Primary 1 in September 2016 – the highest number ever within the IME sector. Last year, 647 children began their primary education through Irish and the trend continues with Primary 1 enrolments up from 447 children in 2011 – a growth of 57% in the IME primary schools alone!"
"The growth in the Irish-medium Education sector is clear for all to see with a 45% increase in enrolments over a five-year period. September 2016 will see over 5800 children be educated daily through the medium of Irish and those numbers will continue to rise with nearly 90 IME providers across Nursery, Primary and Secondary levels."
Irish is, owing to its exclusion from public life through laws affecting sectors as various as the courts and road signage, for many people an invisible language. Far from being the Catholic equivalent of ragged flags on lamp-posts, a neutral observer would have to conclude that it is the very opposite: omnipresent yet assiduously brushed under the carpet. Small wonder, then, that one part of the BBC can assume that it has no relevance to political debate.

Given the growing numbers of fluent speakers being produced by Gaelscoileanna and elsewhere, that state of affairs can hardly continue for much longer.

Friday, 22 April 2016

Let's Abolish Football

Bella Caledonia is featuring screenshots of the kind of embarrassing ignorance displayed by Scottish people with keyboards when linguistic diversity takes them outside their wonted comfort zone. The occasion was Gaelic Twitter Day, or rather, the contribution to Gaelic Twitter Day made by the Scottish Football Association (SFA).

The complaints seemed to focus on three particular, and baseless, accusations: 1) that the use of Gaelic on Twitter cost money (if it did, it would have been something less than the price of a packet of Quavers); 2) that the initiative was a sop to Nationalist politics (speakers of Gaelic in Scotland are still generally of the traditional kind, and their politics comes in all forms); and 3) most bizarrely of all, that it was a deliberate slight to the Queen, who celebrated her 90th birthday on the same day (in fact, Gaelic Twitter Day is aligned to Frisian Twitter Day in the Netherlands, while the Queen counts many Gaelic-speaking Kings of Scots among her ancestors and during a recent visit to Ireland was herself heard to use a few words of its Irish sister-language; indeed, her son Prince Charles even read out a Gaelic translation of his children's book on television).

Clearly we have a long way to go in encouraging respect for Gaelic and Scots. Regarding those who made the comments, perhaps the Blether Region might be permitted the following observations:

1) The fact that Scotland has never been monolingual, and that the farther back in time one goes, the more multilingual it becomes, means that cultural nationalism is not what it is in Wales or even Ireland. Having more than one national language is a good thing, but we have to take the rough with the smooth.

2) Some of those commenting — certain of the Rangers fans — may have been doing so from a perspective of Northern Irish rather than Scottish politics (one was called "Thiepval Wood"). Indeed, they may even have been labouring under the impression that contemporary Scottish Gaelic is a "Catholic" language (it is overwhelmingly Protestant), or that the tongue being used was Irish. You see, there's really no beginning to their sophistication.

3) Although, in party-political terms, Scotland has a much better class of Unionist than Northern Ireland and is socially stable as a result, in recent months some of them, perhaps in desperation, have been furiously trying to link Gaelic with Nationalism. They should stop making plonkers of themselves.

4) Football is an embarrassment to Scotland. As well as being the last bastion of sectarianism (which in this case seems to have intersected with anti-Gaelic prejudice), it plays a major role in keeping our news services pish and succeeds in attracting far too many folk who are a bit thick. Let's ban it. Offended? Well, it's a good deal less offensive than trying to ban Gaelic.

Monday, 18 April 2016

Post-apocalyptic IME

Regardless of whether the DUP's hints that it might take the education portfolio next time d'Hondt is triggered are bluff intended to scare Sinn Féin off taking DFP, most folk will surely agree that such bluff can only be guaranteed to work out as planned with two parties involved, i.e. if more than one Unionist party wishes to make education a priority, with all the attendant competition the chances of the Department going to Nationalists are vastly reduced.

It is somewhat worrisome, therefore, that the UUP too is now making noises about taking education. Of course, it is something of a moot point whether the party will be in the Executive at all or assume the mantle of a formal opposition (in practical terms, to the DUP). However, it is clear that if Sinn Féin wishes to retain control of the Department, it must take it first, regardless of whether it is the largest party (the Blether Region expects that it will in any case take another five years at least for that to happen).

For an idea of what a Department of Education run by Unionist ultras might look like, see Slugger O'Toole today.

Saturday, 9 April 2016

Persuasion, or the North's Anger Abbey

Newton Emerson, writing in the Irish News, allows us an insight into the thinking of a "liberal Unionst". The Blether Region places the words in inverted commas, since, as long-time readers will have noted, not even the Northern Ireland Alliance Party is liberal in a way that someone from a mature bilingual polity such as Wales (or even Scotland) might recognise.

The topic of his article is the judicial review sought by Conradh na Gaeilge owing to the refusal on the part of the Alliance and the two Unionist parties in the Executive to countenance an Irish-language strategy. Mr. Emerson compares it with the successful case brought by the Committee for the Administration of Justice over the non-appearance of an anti-poverty strategy.
"Yet one year on, there is no sign or even mention of an anti-poverty strategy, nor presumably will there be until long after next month’s assembly election. Conradh na Gaeilge faces an even emptier victory, as at least everyone at Stormont agrees poverty is bad."
Legally speaking, the Blether Region might have thought that the different mood music was actually good news for Conradh na Gaeilge, since those opposing an Irish-language strategy have done so point-blank because they view it as a bad thing. They cannot argue, as they might have in the case of the anti-poverty strategy, that they simply hadn't got around to it — and they may well be leaving themselves open to contempt-of-court proceedings in due course.

Bluntly, it is not within the competence of the Assembly or its power-sharing Executive simply to decide not to produce a strategy. It is a condition of devolution and of accepting a ministerial salary.

Mr. Emerson also treats us to his view on how to promote Irish.
"Unlocking a political deadlock in Northern Ireland requires changing the other side’s mind.
Consider how much progress, publicity and re-evaluation within unionism has been achieved through a few Irish language classes on the Newtownards Road. If there is campaign funding to spare, spend it like that."
It is especially gratifying for activists when Unionists learn Irish; they sacrifice nothing of their identity as a result. But Mr. Emerson's words make sense only if a long-term strategy to recruit Unionist learners were the most important thing for Irish, when the key goal is actually to enable existing Irish-speakers to live as much of their lives as possible through the medium of the language — and that requires legislative change now.

Of course, there were those who set their hearts on persuasion on such issues as fair employment during the 50 years of one-party Stormont rule before 1972. One can argue about whether it was the IRA that eventually brought about reform in that area (very likely yes, albeit as an unintended side-effect of a campaign for Irish unity that was a bloody failure).

What one cannot argue about, however, is that it was Westminster that eventually came up with the goods. That may well have to be the case this time around too.

Monday, 4 April 2016

Ready for a Coort

The BBC reports that Conradh na Gaeilge is to take the Northern Ireland Executive to court over its refusal to countenance not only an Irish language Act but an Irish language strategy.

The move is potentially significant because it comes not from a Northern group such as Pobal but from the Gaelic League itself, which has traditionally enjoyed a close relationship with the powers that be in Dublin and under recent reforms instituted by DCAL Minister Carál Ní Chuilín now has a quasi-statutory role in the North.

While the organisation laments the absence of a strategy, some of the measures listed — in particular bilingual courts — would clearly necessitate the amendment or repeal of primary legislation, and thus involve an Irish language Act.

A similarly meaty reform would be to enshrine in law the right to Irish-medium education, a change now being made for Gaelic in Scotland. As one way in which Unionists could attack Irish would be to change the criteria for recognising schools following the forthcoming Assembly elections, the reform could provide a defence against such steps. As an aside, the fact that one of the DUP's five key goals for the next Assembly mandate concerns education strongly suggests that it wishes to take the education portfolio.

Of course, the mere winning of a court case against a Minister may not immediatelyor at all — result in change, but it increases the pressure to bring Northern Ireland into line with everywhere else.

Although full-blown Unionists will continue to bluster, one side-effect of a judgment might be to push the Alliance Party into supporting an Act. After all, it is the rankest hypocrisy to rail against the Executive for not producing a racism or anti-sectarian strategy while blocking an Irish language Act inspired by the same concerns for equality and inclusion and already agreed to by the UK Government.

Friday, 25 March 2016

A Cold House for Sensitive Bigots

Over the past few days residents of Northern Ireland have been both horrified and amused by a "report" issued by the Orange Order detailing the chilling effects of Catholic crack on its shrinking violet civil servant members, including such shocking subjects of conversation as the weekend GAA match, church attendance and children's confirmations — all against a freakish backdrop of mass cards and ash crosses.

The Order's "Grand Secretary" (we're sure he's good), Drew Nelson,
"also claimed the circulation of an Irish language magazine in the civil service was 'a major breach' of the civil service's own dignity at work policy.
'That is material that should not be circulated and our members do not want it,' he said."
But "resolute action to promote the language" has been an accepted part of UK Government policy since the signing of the Good Friday Agreement. Moreover, in an era of devolution, it clearly falls upon the individual Northern Ireland Departments to fulfil it.

Nor is there any contradiction with "dignity at work", since there is nothing inherently offensive about Irish. A very similar language is spoken in Scotland, after all. Or are we to believe that Irish annoys Orangemen because it differentiates between the habitual and the future?

Of course not, it annoys them because they cannot differentiate between the present and the past.

Monday, 14 March 2016

"Out of Perspective"

It seems that the Blether Region may have spoken too soon when it contended that removing the Irish word uisce from two Ballymena water-mains covers would necessitate melting them down. After the blaze of publicity surrounding TUV councillor Timothy Gaston's demand that the covers be replaced with monolingual ones, some enterprising individual has gone ahead and scraped the Irish from one of them, apparently with an angle-grinder.

It has not been reported whether the action was carried out by the contractor or illegally by another party.

However, it does appear that Mr. Gaston — the Deputy Mayor of the borough, no less — may be rowing back somewhat on his call to arms, stating on his Facebook page that the issue had been "blown out of perspective" and reminding constituents, or perhaps himself, that "There are many pressing issues relating to North Antrim and particularly the town of Ballymena which has suffered appalling job losses in recent months."

Some years ago Mr. Gaston's father Sam successfully campaigned to have Irish give-way signs bearing the word "Yield" replaced with their British equivalents at a McDonald's in the town. But that was absolutely justified, since confusion might have led to an accident, whereas the current brouhaha revolves around infantile prejudice.

Mr. Gaston is of course neither the first nor the last son of a DUP politician to be the equal of his father in his bad points but not in his good.

Meanwhile, journalists at the Belfast Telegraph may be congratulating themselves on showing up a bigot. I say "may" because, taken against the backdrop of several recent scare stories that it has published about Irish, it might just as well be the case that they have themselves contributed to whipping up the febrile atmosphere that encourages the kind of vigilante public works seen in the city of the seven towers.

Do we really want to go there, Bel-Tel?

Tuesday, 8 March 2016

They Prefer This One

Many moons ago when the Blether Region was but a baby Gaeilgeoir, a group of language activists in Belfast took the law into their own hands and affixed the Irish word "bruscar" to some of the public rubbish bins in the city. Some residents were pleased, while others assumed that the smart new badge merely bore the name of the company that made the bins. Unionist councillors, however, demanded that the council pay for someone to go around removing the addition. Well, I suppose it was during the Troubles.

Now, almost a generation later, however, a councillor in Ballymena has made a similar complaint about — wait for it — bilingual manhole covers, and insisted that they be replaced (presumably they are bilingual because their supplier is based in the South and bid for the work). The Blether Region thinks this is silly, since a) they are manhole covers and, in the absence of merde de chien, commonly walked over and ignored, b) it would be difficult to remove the offending word without melting down and replacing the cover, and c) only a loopy colonial racist could possibly be offended at the presence of an additional language in an area to which it is native.

While a supposed concern for cost has been an integral part of the anti-Gaelic narrative purveyed by some politicians, the present case should surely dispel any doubt in that regard: whatever this nonsense is about, it is not about saving money.

Wednesday, 2 March 2016

More, Not Less

David Leask has a refreshing and long overdue article over at the Herald drawing attention to the constitutionally inspired bile now being directed at Scotland's autochthonous languages, self-hating invective of a kind that would have made the (Galician) Franco proud. Closer to home, it's curiously reminiscent of the rhetoric of Ulster Unionists (and, on occasion, the Alliance Party), who do their best to keep Northern Ireland looking like England lest a bilingual sign somehow offend a bigoted monoglot (although one English county, Cornwall, seems to be beating Northern Ireland too).

While these — obviously co-ordinated — attempts by Unionists with privileged media access to create a virtual Partido Popular in Scotland are most likely on a hiding to nothing, it is important that friends of linguistic diversity not be locked into defensive mode when discussing vital spending.

The obvious danger, were that to happen, is that existing provision for Scots and Gaelic, which is not yet sufficient to save either, will cease to grow.

For that reason, let's be up-front about the need for money, and the work necessary at Government level: Scotland's languages need more, not less.

Friday, 26 February 2016

The Dug Has Barked

Just a line to say that Wee Ginger Dug has a very erudite article about Scots on his blog that puts the nay-sayers — or, in this case, "No, thanks"-sayers — to shame.

More power to your elbow, Paul.

Academies Galore

Agitation for an Ulster-Scots Academy has some history in Northern Ireland. Its key proponents have traditionally been the British-Israelite clique that forms the core of the Ulster-Scots Language Society. Their motive is very simple: they want a form of public backing to standardise Ulster-Scots as something different from Scots in Scotland.

Having an academy allows them to do that, either by browbeating genuine academic linguists into going along with them and allowing them to take the flak for their excesses, or by using the institution as intellectual camouflage to convince the public that they are themselves academics. As USLS members have been heard to suggest that they want the academy to be a "people's college", one assumes that the latter is Plan A. No doubt the extremists would also profit personally, perhaps gaining a few well-paid posts of the kind that have been cheekily snapped up by politicians and Orangemen in other parts of the Ulster-Scots sectarian-linguistc complex.

Now the Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure has agreed to the proposal for an academy, and there is no mystery why: like successive Sinn Féin politicians before her, she hopes to get something out of it for Irish. History suggests that she will be disappointed in that regard, since the next DUP Culture Minister will surely once again institute a policy of levelling down provision.

One could argue that an Ulster-Scots Academy, funded through the Agency, might prove a good way of hypothecating funds for genuine research rather than the odd mixture of tourism and sectarianism that has marked out the latter. But I wouldn't hold my breath on that front.

In a new twist, the Minister has announced that Irish is to have an academy too. While the case for an Ulster-Scots Academy is non-existent, that for Irish is problematic to say the least, since Irish-speakers in Northern Ireland adhere to a written standard to a great extent created and nurtured outside the polity. Now, as everyone knows, that standard is polycentric, i.e. not as hard-and-fast as the standard of, say, French or German. Even so, it would seem that an obvious field of activity must remain beyond the future academicians.

So what will it do? Most of the other possibilities seem to be covered elsewhere already: the universities carry out university research and teaching; St. Mary's provides teacher training; and the various community groups cater for adult learners, social activities and entertainment.

Of course, one could argue that the Ulster dialect has not been well served historically because the learner community is cut off from the Donegal Gaeltacht by the border, but learning materials too could be (and, indeed, are) produced at St. Mary's.

The Minister tells us that "Irish and Ulster-Scots are unique and separate entities." That is, of course, absolutely true, and seems aimed at heading off the prospect of Campbell-style levellers, who may shortly return after the May Assembly election. Setting up an academy for Irish simply because one has (wrong-headedly) been granted to Ulster Scots seems a strange way of going about that.

The "curry my yoghurt" tendency of course typifies what is the actual key difference between the north and south of Ireland: politics. Anyone wishing to promote Irish in Northern Ireland has to deal with a different legal framework (or lack of one) and different attitudes, which may have to be assuaged or circumvented. Here, too, however, the Minister failed, since she decimated the existing self-starting, community-led expertise in favour of a pan-Irish feet-up salariat, either because the notion of something being all-Irish reflexively appealed to her or because she was sick of being criticised for Sinn Féin's failure to secure an Irish language Act.

Either way, it doesn't look good.

Even if the DUP do not take DCAL following the Assembly elections, there is a fair old chance that Sinn Féin will choose to rotate its Ministers again, which will mean a new face in the Department. Although the current Minister wasn't all bad and in particular can be proud of what she did with Líofa, overall many people's judgment will be a simple one: she could have done so much better.