Monday, 14 June 2010

All the Blue Bonnets Are Over the Border

On 9 June 2010 civil servants in the Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister wrote to Executive colleagues asking for suggestions for a new cross-border body. Politics buffs will recall that the Good Friday / Belfast Agreement allowed for up to 12 such bodies but that in the course of subsequent negotiations their number was limited to six, the very minimum envisaged.

The call for new proposals is a result of the St. Andrews Agreement, which bound its signatories to conduct an impartial review of: the efficiency and value for money offered by existing bodies; the case for additional bodies; and a possible replacement for the proposed Lights Agency of the Foyle, Carlingford and Irish Lights Commission, which fell victim to the legal difficulties of transferring functions.

Since the establishment of the Ulster-Scots Agency it has become clear that the organisation is incapable of promoting the Scots language in a manner free of confessional associations, despite the fact that up to one third of Ulster speakers are Catholics or Nationalists. This is in large part due to its additional "cultural" function, which defines "Ulster-Scots culture" in ethnic terms as whatever the descendants of Scottish Planters do — rather than, for example, as artistic endeavour involving Ulster-Scots dialect, which anyone can undertake. Regardless of the intention, promotion of Ulster-Scots "culture" by an agency also promoting Scots works to the detriment of the language, since for the Catholic half of Northern Ireland's population it ensures that the tongue is associated with chauvinism.

Whatever people say about language, it is clear that the "cultural" element in the work of the Ulster-Scots Agency is a sop to Unionists, a sweetie fortuitously produced by political prestidigitation in the late 1990s and little better than the "single-identity" work that community relations groups still reluctantly perform as a prelude to demanding real engagement with the other side. It is true that the agency's cultural remit may help the Orange Order etc. to "modernise", i.e. transform themselves from sources of civil strife and traffic hold-ups into genuine cultural organisations, but this could surely be done in a way not detrimental to a minoritised language.

Another reason why the agency's cultural function has been bad is that it has allowed individuals to sit on its board without any knowledge of, or even interest in, Scots language. And once on the board, they have been keen to spend money on things that they understand, a development that has only exacerbated the problem of cultural stereotyping.

And there has been a glut of Unionists — although one might equally call it a dearth of Nationalists. In fact, there has never been a Northern Nationalist member of the Ulster-Scots Agency board, since the agency is not a free-standing cross-border body but one half of Foras na Gaeilge, and if one side, Unionist or Nationalist, nominates to its linguistic "other", it is risking its position in its own community.

That is a truly shocking state of affairs, and one that any review should strive to rectify.

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