Monday, 6 December 2010

Grade Inflation

The BBC reports that Ian Paisley Junior has called for Ballymena to become a city to mark the Queen's sixtieth anniversary on the throne in 2012. In 2002, readers will recall, five cities across the UK were granted city status to mark her Golden Jubilee, one each in England, Scotland and Wales, and two in Northern Ireland, one Protestant (Lisburn) and one Catholic (Newry).

The creation of two cities in Northern Ireland was particularly controversial because there were absolutely no obvious candidates. It should be patent to most folk that, in the common understanding of the term "city" (as in the German GroƟstadt) — i.e., cathedrals and universities notwithstanding — there is only one city in Northern Ireland: Belfast, and a middling one at that. It would have been far more sensible to remove the title of city from Derry/Londonderry, which is merely a large town; such a step would have had the useful side-effect of neutering the raucous disagreements about its name.

Historically, such hubris has not been limited to the granting of city status. When, in the 1920s, Westminster decided to gift the old Unionist-dominated Parliament of Northern Ireland a permanent home, the local Government enthusiastically took up the offer. The fact that the money ran out before the original plans could be realised is nowadays memorialised in the application of the plural term "Parliament Buildings" to a single edifice, albeit an incongruously grand one.

And, of course, in the field of linguistics there is "the Ulster-Scots language", although local activists are only partly to blame for that. Their Scottish counterparts rightly viewed treating Scots as a language as the first step in its becoming one (again). Unfortunately, the subtleties of language planning eluded that nation's civil servants, who saw the official recognition of Scots as a language as a cost-free alternative to having a policy on it. Eventually, their Northern Ireland counterparts followed suit, in the erroneous understanding that terming Ulster Scots a language was equally plausible, despite the fact of its being barely distinguishable from mainstream Scots in Scotland.

That fatal mistake has set the scene for the continuing failures in public policy on the dialect, to which one might compare attempting to build a spanking neo-classical building such as Stormont on top of foundations that, quite apart from urgently needing to be secured, are only a small fraction of the required size.

Far better if we all came clean on Ulster Scots and set to work researching, collecting, transcribing and recording what there is of it. At one estimate there are 70 volumes of weaver poetry, yet 11 years after the creation of the Ulster-Scots Agency they are still not available in Internet transcription. And the huffing and puffing about language status continues.

It is time that we paid less attention to altering perceptions — and more to altering objective reality.

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