Wednesday, 5 May 2010

Defining "Quality"

Back in 1974 an American writer named Robert M. Pirsig produced a ground-breaking book that became compulsory reading for many budding intellectuals, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. The tale's brilliant narrator goes mad when he finds he is unable to produce an objective definition of the word "quality".

Fast forward in time, and in 2010 Nelson McCausland, the Northern Ireland Minister for Culture, Arts and Leisure, is answering an Assembly Question on the promised Irish-language strategy, which has been much delayed and is itself a very poor second-best to the missing Irish language Act. Despite the explicit warning issued by the Committee of Experts that Gleichmacherei between Irish and Ulster Scots is bad for both, he makes the following comments.

"As, I am sure, the Member will agree, it is important that we move towards cultural equality in Northern Ireland. We are moving in that direction, and I am sure that the Member will want to commend us for our efforts in that regard."

He continues:

"We see consultation as a vital aspect of the strategy development process, and I will ensure that there is a full public consultation as part of that process. I am keen that the strategy is developed in a mature and reflective way, in which every voice is heard. However, I will be more impressed by the quality and detail of responses than by the generic quantity. It is quality that matters, not quantity."

In other words, the full public consultation will not have any effect on public policy if a majority or expert opinion fails to meet Mr. McCausland's subjective definition of "quality". Going out to the people may well delay the appearance of the strategy, but it is unlikely to make it any better.

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