Monday, 30 November 2009

Ó Cuív Close to Default on GFA

POBAL, the umbrella organisation for the North's Irish-language community, has expressed its unease at the possible implications of the Southern Government's new 20-year plan for the language.

While the document reiterates treaty commitments to Foras na Gaeilge, part of the all-island structures of the Good Friday Agreement, concerns in the North centre around how safe its budget is in the light of plans for a new, Southern-only body, to be known as "Údarás na Gaeilge".

The six cross-border bodies draw members from the North and South on an equal basis, a considerable enhancement of Northern representation over what might be expected per capita. In the language body, some 75% of the budget for Irish comes from the South and 25% from the North; the position is directly reversed with regard to Ulster Scots.

Northern over-representation is particularly apparent with regard to existing Irish-speakers. While direct comparisons are difficult, according to commonly quoted official figures, 1.6 million people in the South claim some knowledge of the language, almost ten times the Northern total. Although there are no clear-cut statistics for Scots, it is likely that, using this criterion, the Ulster-Scots Agency has Southern over-representation. However, Agency board members from the Republic were instructed not to "rock the boat" at the time of their nomination.

The importance that POBAL and others attach to Foras na Gaeilge rests on the fact that its all-island remit and pro rata funding represent an untouchable pot of funds for the language in the North at a time when Nelson McCausland's Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure has drastically reduced the level of discretionary spending.

Speaking during Oral Questions on 24 November, Mr. McCausland stated:

"I am determined to ensure that the Ulster-Scots Agency is fit for purpose and provides value for money. That is good for the community that the agency serves, and that view is shared by Minister Ó Cuív in relation to both the Ulster-Scots Agency and Foras na Gaeilge."

While the Agency has had mixed fortunes administratively, cynics will see in Mr. McCausland's comments a mixture of Unionist distaste at the notion of cross-border bodies and pragmatic acceptance that the South has no appetite for the considerable pro rata increases in funding that would follow if the Ulster-Scots Academy that he champions were administered through the Agency as some civil servants originally envisaged.

What is of more interest is the attitude of the Southern Minister for Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs, Éamon Ó Cuív.

It is true that pork-barrelling has for many years been an unfortunate feature of Southern politics, but there is no evidence to suggest that the Minister's decision to weaken the structures of the Good Friday Agreement is intended to facilitate any untoward electoral manoeuvres on his part. It might simply be the case that Mr. Ó Cuív, whose commitment to the Irish language in the Republic is clear, would like to exercise more personal control over its development. Whatever the truth, it would be surprising if the budget for Údarás na Gaeilge were entirely new money at a time when the very existence of the Department of Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs has been thrown into doubt by the economic crisis and the recommendations of the McCarthy report.

Although the Minister has reputedly been unhappy with Foras na Gaeilge for some time, it is possible that it is this last threat that has spurred him to action now. Repatriating some of Foras na Gaeilge's decision-making potential is an easy and cost-neutral way of ensuring the relevance of his own position, even if it does "lever out" funding from the North. It is unfortunate that, depending on the detail of next month's budget, Mr. Ó Cuív may secure his future through a departure, if not from the letter of the Good Friday Agreement, then at least from its spirit. For an important section of Northern Nationalism, it will also make new elections or a temporary return to direct rule even more attractive — though they can guarantee neither the Culture portfolio nor a language Act and may have unpredictable long-term repercussions for the political process as a whole.

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