Tuesday, 16 February 2010

Ulster-Scots Broadcasting Fund

Amid the furore surrounding revelations that £20 million has been secured for the Irish language — as the two main parties, having perhaps reached agreement, vie to convince their supporters that they have dished the other side — facts are now also starting to emerge about "side deals" done regarding Ulster Scots. The BBC is reporting that the UK Government is providing £5 million for Ulster-Scots broadcasting, with one quote standing out:

"Mr McCausland said £5m would initially be given to the Ulster Scots Broadcasting Fund, but said he would be making further announcements in the coming weeks about the fund."

One possible interpretation of the Minister's statement is that he intends to provide some form of top-up or match funding from the devolved DCAL budget.

Unlike his predecessors in the post, Mr. McCausland has shown real enthusiasm regarding the possibility of an Ulster-Scots Academy. Cynics have seen in his plans to increase investment in the dialect a wish to divert funds away from Irish, with the proposed academy merely a suitably expensive mechanism to do so. With not much interest on the ground, and limited expertise on its board, the Ulster-Scots Agency has had great difficulty in increasing its outgoings, even when offered more siller, and many of its spending decisions have in any case attracted criticism for wastefulness — large-scale intercontinental travel by board members, taxis taken to Dublin, branded Santa hats handed out at rugby matches, etc.

It has gradually become apparent that the proposed academy would be no better; its implementation group managed to raise Civil Service hackles about both financial common sense and the very possibility of securing agreement on matters linguistic. Mr. McCausland was heavily criticised when he returned unspent academy funds to the centre rather than channel them to other cultural priorities such as Irish. Moreover, it is now clear that a majority of Unionists do not regard the establishment an Ulster-Scots Academy as a desirable policy goal, and the fiscal climate is now very different from when an academy was first mooted.

Which leaves broadcasting. As James Cameron has shown, depending on production values there is virtually no limit to what can be spent on visual entertainment. And the academy £12 million was originally the Ulster-Scots equivalent of the Irish-language broadcasting fund. If an academy is not a deliverable goal, why not fund radio and TV programmes? After all, they substantially circumvent arguments about orthography, and they could go some way towards generating public interest, one rock on which the Ulster-Scots project has foundered hitherto.

The wider picture is that, with the Department of Education the main funder of Irish-language projects, Foras na Gaeilge and the Irish-language broadcast fund on the scene, and now a UK Government capital pot, it is astonishing how little involvement or influence DCAL now has regarding policy on Irish. True, there is the Gaeltacht Quarter project, and DCAL also part-funds Foras na Gaeilge, but only to the tune of 25%, and the cross-border body has an independent board to which the DUP has chosen not to nominate. If Edwin Poots had mainstreamed the broadcast fund, he could have cut it back later and done something crafty like amalgamating it with the Arts Council, but his point-blank refusal to contemplate funding simply meant that Westminster carried on footing the bill. In Scotland, on the other hand, MG Alba is funded by the devolved Government.

The Blether Region makes the following predictions:

Irish-language policy, which is now only part-devolved, will remain so unless and until there is a language Act, a Nationalist DCAL Minister, or both.

Unless and until there is a language Act, a Nationalist DCAL Minister, or both, the UK Government will continue spending money on Irish, and now Ulster Scots, over and above the Northern Ireland block grant (listen up, you Tories).

The Ulster-Scots broadcasting fund will result in many programmes with high production values, but these will continue to suffer from poor availability of linguistic talent and limited community interest, and to some extent will reinforce Protestant, rural and elderly stereotypes, probably including many English-language programmes about Ulster Scots or "Ulster-Scots history". The best part of its output will be its children's programming, but much of that will be bought in and overdubbed.

The increased presence of English-language programming from an "Ulster-Scots" perspective may rile Catholics and Nationalists, who will view it as exhibiting a sectarian bias while serving no linguistic purpose.

The increased presence of Ulster-Scots dialect in broadcasting may provoke a further Unionist backlash.

Although the structures surrounding TG4 may not change, to some extent it will begin to resemble a cross-border project after it goes on Freeview in 2012. There may even be a move to consolidate Irish services on one channel, with the BBC producing some programming for TG4 alongside RTÉ. This will provoke a further Unionist backlash.

The Ulster-Scots Academy will be put on the long finger but, for political reasons, expect warm words, obfuscation and further consultations and feasibility studies in the short term.

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