Monday, 4 July 2011

Those Unemployable Classicists

Last Tuesday saw an illuminating encounter between incoming Sinn Féin Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure, Carál Ní Chuilín, and the TUV's Jim Allister during ministerial Questions.

The occasion arose when the UUP's Sandra Overend asked the Minister whether she would continue with Nelson McCausland's tactic of pursuing a joint regional languages strategy for Irish and Ulster Scots. Regular readers will know that the result of Mr. McCausland's attempt to introduce real existierende parity between the two speech varieties has been a three-legged race in which progress has (at most) been only as fast as the slower of the two partners. No strategy is yet in place for either.

Ms Overend posed an interesting follow-up question:

"I thank the Minister for her answer. Does she agree that the St Andrews Agreement called for a regional minority language strategy and not solely an Irish language strategy?"

The ministerial response elicited was equally interesting:

"I am clear as to what the St Andrews Agreement means. It is also provided for in the agreement that I can take the strategies separately, and that is what I intend to do."

In fact the text of the agreement reads as follows:

"The Government will introduce an Irish Language Act reflecting on the experience of Wales and Ireland and work with the incoming Executive to enhance and protect the development of the Irish language.

The Government firmly believes in the need to enhance and develop the Ulster Scots language, heritage and culture and will support the incoming Executive in taking this forward."

From that one can deduce that it is Westminster rather than Stormont that has promised to introduce an Irish language Act. Indeed, the mention of Wales and Ireland rather than Scotland suggests some fairly strong, rights-based legal protections — probably more than might be expected to get past the Executive veto and cross-community voting of the Northern Ireland Assembly. The situation regarding the language strategies is not quite so clear, since interpretation depends on inference, but it seems reasonable to suggest that a package of measures amounting to a strategy is mandated in each case. Since the Irish language strategy appears intended to dovetail with Westminster legislation, and since the case of Ulster Scots covers not only language but "heritage and culture", it would also seem far more sensible in administrative terms to tackle them separately.

At this point Mr. Allister asked a question:

"No later than this morning, during the corporation tax debate, the Minister's colleague Mr Flanagan regaled the House with the benefits of the English language as an attraction for inward investment. Why, therefore, does the Minister want to waste valuable resources on promoting a language that will disadvantage young people in seeking employment in these hard economic times, instead of better equipping them to be more proficient in English?"

Obviously the TUV Member for North Antrim has some reading to do about the benefits of bilingualism. What is perhaps more telling is that, although he does not name the "language that will disadvantage young people in seeking employment", the Minister automatically, and rightly, assumes that he is referring to Irish rather than Ulster Scots. Since successfully learning a language is a sign of a trained mind, it is difficult to think of a single example — Latin, Hebrew, Swahili, even Volapük — that might make it more difficult for someone to find a job. Unless, that is, one assumes that such people will be discriminated against because of non-linguistic factors and, rather than tackling such discrimination, accepts it as "just the way it is".

Small wonder that the Minister answered:

"I suspect that economic development and well-being are not really what the Member is hinting at. I hope that that has answered whatever sort of question he had."

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