Monday, 31 January 2011

Those Helplines — an Alternative View

While the Blether Region's take on Nelson McCausland's recent bizarre radio comments had the rather obvious focus of Irish, Ian James Parsley's more nuanced blog referred to a "U-turn" when it came to the Minister's views on Scots. It is of course beyond dispute that Parsley's linguistic utilitarianism — here seemingly echoed by the MLA most associated with Ulster-Scots activism — is a far better approximation of thinking among ordinary Unionists than the academy-touting McCausland we are used to. So was there a U-turn, or did a mask slip?

Perhaps the Minister is simply yet to internalise the linguistic diversity discourse, as one might infer, given the fact that he seemingly applies it only to one half of the equation — and that in a manner as likely to kill the dialect as save it. What is of course absolutely true is that the Irish-language helpline is not currently doing much for Irish. One surmises that it is there because, among the menu of measures that forms the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages, a certain number of which the UK Government is obliged to implement, setting it up stood out as an easy and inexpensive option. Were another Minister to take on the Culture portfolio, one might imagine that alternative, more meaningful measures might be considered for the language. If, at that stage, the telephone helpline were not done away with, it would illustrate the limits of Nationalist thinking, just as Mr. McCausland, some would argue, so arrestingly illustrates those on the Unionist side.

That does not answer the question of why the Ulster-Scots helpline is there. By all accounts it is used even less than that for Irish. Perhaps it too exists in order to tick a box for the Charter. Or perhaps it is there simply because Irish has a helpline. One of the greatest problems facing Ulster-Scots language-planners is their seeming lack of autonomy. In blunt terms, if Irish has something, it seems that Ulster Scots must have it too — a cross-border agency, a helpline, even language status.

As for Mr. McCausland, speculating that his comments on the Charter were his "real" views is an idle pastime, although that might become less so were he to stay on as Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure after May and fail to implement his promised academy. Even if the real culprit were Sammy Wilson's fiscal rectitude, McCausland could hardly remain in office with honour.

It does seem odd, however, that when asked about helplines for users of both speech varieties, he chose to vent his ire on the only one with even moderate numbers of callers. On second thoughts, perhaps it wasn't so odd after all. Sometimes Nelson does do what people expect of him.

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