Friday, 8 January 2010

Only a Matter of Time

Amid the current hullaballoo surrounding the First Minister and his wife, and the general pessimism about the Assembly’s future, two macro-political changes likely to impact on language policy run the danger of going unnoticed.

The first is the parlous state of the public finances. The simple and unpleasant truth is that whoever is responsible for the Northern Ireland block grant or any part thereof will find his room for manoeuvre heavily circumscribed.

The second, particularly relevant at a time when the Assembly is teetering on the brink, is that the English Conservatives have a good chance of winning the general election across the water. Their party is not known for its love of Government largesse. Furthermore, the only local activist with a discernable interest in Ulster Scots, Ian Parsley, has strong views on the issue that signally diverge from those held by the Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure.

Against this backdrop, it must surely be highly unlikely that the mooted Ulster-Scots Academy can go ahead in its planned form — a form that would involve more money being spent on the local dialect of Scots than on the Irish language and considerably more than would be necessary to satisfy very modest public demand. As readers will know from their everyday lives, most Unionists are as sceptical as anyone else about Ulster Scots, and the Minister would be in for a difficult time if he were seen to be wasting money while coalface Departments faced cutbacks.

One need hardly be an expert linguist to see that standardising Ulster Scots separately from the rest of the language is likely to have a detrimental effect. And although there is no reason why the administration of an academy should not be a beacon of excellence, the fact remains that doubts have been raised about the governance of both the Ulster-Scots Agency and the Ulster-Scots Academy Implementation Group.

Nelson McCausland is a clever man and no doubt knows all this. He also knows that there is no reason for him to take the flak for scrapping the academy himself — or entering into a damaging turf war to defend it — when, except as a virtual bargaining-chip, the plans are unlikely to survive the suspension of the Assembly. And that looks imminent.

It is only a matter of time.

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