Monday, 16 May 2011

Ministering to the Unconverted

It's official: there will be Sinn Féin Ministers at both the Department of Education and the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure, good news for the Irish language over the next five years.

While insiders had tipped the party's first choice to be Enterprise, Trade and Investment, that is now shown to have been disinformation. It may be the case that allowing the spread of false rumours enabled the party to take the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure, which has hitherto always gone to one of the Unionist parties to act as a counterbalance to Sinn Féin's control of Education. However, Culture was the eighth available Department, and the fact that it went to Sinn Féin may simply reflect the fact that no party wanted Health — and the DUP may have been keen to get rid of Culture and its maverick British-Israelite Minister's unpopular plans to close libraries while pressing ahead with a white-elephant Ulster-Scots Academy.

Be that as it may, the Irish language will at least be able to look forward to a reasonably secure period. However, that security will be short lived if an unduly combative approach is adopted. That Sinn Féin was able to retain Education is down to a quirk of the d'Hondt system; the party was entitled to nominate second, and it is a commonplace of the d'Hondt procedure that the largest party takes Finance and Personnel in order to gain control of the public purse-strings. The aim for a Sinn Féin Minister now, while protecting Irish in the short term, must be to persuade Unionists to agree to a language Act, putting the protection of the language and the rights of its speakers on a statutory basis while removing the language, as far as possible, from the political arena. Regardless of the rights and wrongs of Caitríona Ruane's public pillorying, putting such a hate figure in charge of the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure would have been the wrong move for Irish, since it would both decrease the chances of a language Act and increase the chances of a reactive return to Unionist control after the next Assembly election. Yet choosing the former prisoner Carál Ní Chuilín — who, according to Nuacht 24, despite her Irish name speaks only "beagán Gaeilge" — could well have the same effect before the new Minister has uttered a word or signed a document. One cannot help thinking that Barry McElduff, a committed Gaeilgeoir who chaired the DCAL committee in the last Assembly, would have made a better choice.

With regard to Scots, the Blether Region has come to believe in recent months that a Nationalist Minister would be more likely to introduce an Ulster-Scots Academy. Unionists would still get the blame, and a Nationalist going along with the former's pet project would hope to establish cross-community goodwill and, eventually, garner support for a language Act (both initiatives form part of the St. Andrews Agreement).

Of course, the current academy plans are flawed at their most fundamental level, since they would:
  • split the Scots language by pre-empting joint standardisation with Scotland;
  • split the Ulster-Scots dialect community by making no provision for any representation (or any legal vires) with regard to Scots in Donegal;
  • further alienate vital Catholic and Nationalist speakers by including "history" and "culture" in the academy's remit;
  • waste yet more money on the abovementioned "history" and "culture" that could be spent on language;
  • duplicate and undermine the work of the existing cross-border Ulster-Scots Agency; and
  • allow activists who are not good theoretical or practical linguists to enforce their writ riding on the coat-tails of genuine academics — possibly reducing those coat-tails to rags in the process.
Though one might expect some of these issues to be dealt with by a Nationalist Minister, the first and most basic issue of splitting Scots for frivolous political reasons remains.

For that reason, perhaps a combative Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure willing to scrap plans for an academy and redirect money towards Irish for short-term gain would be better after all. There is no guarantee that Unionists could ever be persuaded of the merits of a language Act, while the creation of an academy might well do permanent or even fatal damage to the local variety of Scots.

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