Thursday, 29 October 2009

Overplaying Both Hands

EBLUL reports this week on the European aspect of the continuing campaign for an Irish Language Act, with a letter sent by Bairbre de Brún and MEPs from six countries to the First and Deputy First Ministers. Given the subject matter, the roll-call of territories represented is unsurprising: Belgium, Catalonia, Corsica, Ireland, Latvia and Wales.

What, to outsiders, might seem more remarkable is the fact that there is no mention of the letter having been copied to the Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure, the individual who would actually be responsible for introducing any Bill at Stormont. The missive’s authors, it would seem, do not believe the Minister in question amenable to persuasion.

If Sinn Féin arguably overplayed its hand in lending its support so vocally to a campaign summarily rejected by successive DUP Ministers, could it be that the DUP — specifically the current Culture Minister, Nelson McCausland — has done something similar? DCAL currently envisages greatly reduced spending on Irish. On several counts, the logic and rationale of its plans are problematic.

First, the budget for Irish has ostensibly been cut so that funding can be diverted towards an Ulster-Scots Academy, but given the very small sums involved, the question must be asked why DCAL did not simply make the argument to DFP for a larger budget.

Secondly, there is the issue of demand. There is simply much greater public expectation of spending on Irish than there is of spending on Ulster Scots, because there is so much more interest in the community at large.

Thirdly, there is the question of the extent to which concern for confessional parity of esteem has translated into literal equality becoming a shibboleth of language policy, whereby linguistic differences are overlooked and Irish and Ulster Scots are viewed as being the exclusive or overwhelming province of faith communities. As I once heard a weel-kent Irish-language activist say, a language is a series of grunts, and there is nothing “Protestant” or “Catholic” about any language. If Irish-speakers today are largely Catholic, it is because most speakers are elective learners. It is not true in the Republic of Ireland, where everyone, including Protestants, learns Irish; nor is it true of Scottish Gaelic in Scotland. The 1999 Northern Ireland Life and Times survey found that at least a quarter of those who speak Ulster Scots are Catholic.

Most importantly of all, there is the small matter of language status. While one can make an arguable case for Scots as a whole, which is currently a dialect largely because of its deliberate exclusion from public life, the same is hardly true of its Ulster offshoot, which is inextricably part of Scots for inalterable structural reasons. You will have seen Nelson McCausland’s justification for according language status to Ulster Scots in a recent posting. Much as I appreciate a theologian’s ability to argue about the number of angels that can fit on a pinhead, such verbal dexterity does not prove the existence of angels.

Going on the only official figures available — the 1996 GRO Scotland study and the 1999 Northern Ireland Life and Times survey, respectively — some 98% of UK Scots-speakers live in Scotland. DCAL can spend what it likes on promoting Scots in Ulster (the remit of the Ulster-Scots Agency, which according to my sources could not handle a massively increased budget). When it comes to standardisation and codification, however, it would seem reasonable to expect 98% of funding to come from the Scottish Government.

To many people, therefore, DCAL policy, as well as being anomalous at a UK level, seems unreasonable, arbitrary and chauvinistic. A cannier Unionist politician who wished to thwart the Irish language might simply have frozen spending on it. As matters stand, Mr. McCausland’s extreme budget reductions may have bolstered the case for rights-based legislation to protect the language, remove it from the political sphere, and limit drastically the discretionary element in its funding.

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