Thursday, 2 December 2010

Questionable Practices

Yesterday the BBC reported the results of DUP MLA Trevor Clarke's probing into the translation costs of Northern Ireland's devolved Departments: a combined total of less than £200,000 over the last three years for Irish and Scots.

Given that Irish has had Part III status under the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages since 1999, one could be forgiven for asking why this figure isn't much higher. Part of the reason is that Caitríona Ruane (whom the BBC Scotticises as Catriona) took the sensible step of employing two in-house translators, mainly to cater for the growing Gaelscoil sector.

As far as Ulster Scots goes, translations of public documents might not be where academic language planners would start, and there are still considerable questions regarding quality, authenticity, demand and communicative value, but it would be difficult to argue that there is no case whatsoever to be made for the very modest level of official translation taking place.

Needless to say, that is not the attitude expressed by the DUP Assemblyman who tabled the question, although even he admits that the amount is "small, in terms of the total budget" (in fact, according to Northern Bank analysts, the Northern Ireland block grant is currently in the region of £9.3 billion).

Another comparison that one could make is with the cost of asking Assembly Questions about departmental translations. Each Assembly Question costs in the region of £500 to answer. Mr. Clarke's information about the Department of Education, for example, came from two questions, AQW 2079/11, which asked about costs only, and AQW 2082/11, which requested a list of documents translated. If he asked the same two questions of each of the 12 Northern Ireland Departments, the total bill could be as high as £12,000 (2 x 12 x £500), which would cover half a year's salary for one of Caitríona Ruane's Irish-language staff officers.

Nor is Mr. Clarke the only MLA tabling such questions. Indeed, it is perfectly conceivable that, for some Departments and some years, the cost of answering questions about translation will actually be higher than the cost of translating and publishing the documents that forms the questions' subject-matter.

Which brings us to an interesting conclusion. Since commentators are agreed that there are too many MLAs at Stormont, and since there is no real prospect of agreement on reducing their number, one way in which taxpayers' money might be saved is by the imposition of a limit on the number of questions that an MLA might ask. That limit would of course be set generously high, perhaps as a multiple of the average among Assembly Members. And there would be nothing to prevent MLAs pooling their ration; they already co-operate by sharing backroom services and pairing with opposite numbers for votes. Such a policy might actually work to the benefit of some of the less active Members.

The ultimate aim, however, would be to curtail vexatious enquiries of this kind.

As for Mr. Clarke's questions, the Blether Region hopes that they go on to form part of a dossier of evidence in support of a language Act. In the face of such prejudice, which thinks nothing of wasting scarce public resources in an attempt to damage Irish (and undo the UK's settled will in the form of its European Charter declaration), it is becoming ever clearer that the oldest autochthonous language of Northern Ireland needs legislative protection.

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