Wednesday, 28 August 2013

Potemkin Villages

Looking at a map of Belfast coloured according to its sectarian demography, one could be forgiven for thinking that the city was solidly, even overwhelmingly, Protestant. In fact, of course, matters are much more finely balanced. That's because, owing to the Troubles — with their legacy of peace lines and prejudice running hot (and cold) — in working-class areas at least, not that much has changed since the early 70s. One result has been that inner-city East Belfast looks much poorer than inner-city West Belfast, which has much higher levels of occupancy, fewer gap sites, and fewer boarded-up shops. In the east of the city, some of those empty shops were recently fitted with Potemkin facades to spruce up the area in readiness for President Obama's visit.

But what's all that to do with language?

Well, long-time stalwarts of the Blether Region will recall that, back in 2009, it speculated about whether an incoming Tory Government might wish to introduce a language Act over the head of the locally elected Stormont Assembly. During the negotiations that led up to the Saint Andrews Agreement, the previous Labour Government had, somewhat duplicitously, solemnly promised the carrot of such an Act to the Nationalist representatives while simultaneously using same as a stick to browbeat the DUP into acceptance of power-sharing — a set-up that, in its reformed Saint Andrews guise, would allow it to veto just about anything dreamt up by its mandatory Executive partners.

Well, one can only assume that the cold light of day got the better of any Conservative plans in that regard. After all, an arrangement whereby an Executive veto existed in theory but particularly controversial issues were exempt was never likely to attract the tolerance of people whose wonted electoral strategy has been to attempt to outdo each other in principled awkwardness.

The issue of a language Act has not disappeared off the radar completely, however. From time to time a rogue blip has made itself known, and just such a come-to-pass occurred recently in the shape of the hullabaloo over the UK's fourth periodical report presented in accordance with Article 15 of the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages. While data on Welsh and Scottish Gaelic were abundant, the information on Irish and Ulster Scots was more or less limited to broadcasting, for which Westminster retains responsibility. The Stormont Executive, which has for many years now failed to agree policies on language, in this case failed even to agree a line.

This is all very embarrassing for the British Government, with whom, under the charter, the buck stops. Essentially, it means that language policy, like Belfast geography, remains frozen in time, regardless of what happens in the wider world. It may not, of course, mean that London feels obligated to step in while the devolved Executive is, just about, ticking along. While the issue of a language Act is a burning one for the Blether Region, for most people it hardly comes close to the question of federal anti-slavery laws versus states' rights that precipitated the US Civil War.

The time when such calculations come into play, if that ever occurs, will be when power-sharing next breaks down. Although that could hardly be described as imminent, the past few months have shown undeniable tensions, starting with the flag protests and ending with the DUP's decision to backtrack on plans to redevelop the former site of the Maze prison. Were such a breakdown to occur for any length of time, there would be clear pressure on the UK Government to make good on its previous promise. In the end, that might even be good for Unionists. Contrary to common belief, there is no ratchet effect at work regarding Irish Nationalism. Irishness on the ground does not make a united Ireland any more likely — in fact, as NI21 alone seem have realised, the opposite may be true.

It is of course odd, given the widespread belief that the Troubles arose in large part because of the arbitrary rule of one side of the community in Northern Ireland, that Westminster seems to have deliberately engineered another signal injustice on that front. It seems odd too that guaranteeing minority rights should be viewed through the prism of a perceived need for unanimity.

However, that is just the scenario that we — and London — seem doomed to live with for some time to come.

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