Friday, 29 November 2013

The Devolution of Broadcasting

A Sinn Féin Private Member's motion at Stormont has called for the devolution of broadcasting powers — and attracted the support of the current Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure, Carál Ní Chuilín, who specifically related it to the Irish Language and Ulster-Scots Broadcast Funds in her speech.

One of the more ironic aspects of devolution since the DUP entered Government in 2007 has been that, in many important ways, Irish has fared less well that it might otherwise have, mainly because of its increased exposure to that party's prejudices. Ulster Scots is a similar story, but for different reasons. Although the DUP has been quite willing to commit resources to the "fardel-leid", that willingness has not been equalled by a determination to ensure that any money be spent solely on sensible and non-sectarian language initiatives, in ways likely to prolong rather than curtail the existence of a distinctive Scots dialect in Northern Ireland.

Perhaps people should be careful what they wish for.

Nevertheless, it is true that devolving broadcasting could bring great financial and cultural benefits to Northern Ireland, which, like Scotland and Wales, has suffered the ignominy of watching licence-payers' money head south while being force-fed a whole slew of irrelevant news reports about education and health in England. Getting the best deal for Northern Ireland would depend on the DUP being amenable to doing a deal, including recognising in a new BBC Northern Ireland — or NIBC — charter the rightfulness of spending a certain percentage of licence-fee income on Irish. On the Sinn Féin side there would need to be an acceptance that the process is not simply about integration with RTE, grandstanding that would have no chance of success.

Another big winner of any plans to devolve broadcasting is likely to be Scotland. Devolution is an unequal process, but thus far the direction of travel has been overwhelmingly in one direction. Late developers in Cardiff Bay have been able to benefit retrospectively from powers won by the Scots, while the mooted devolution of corporation tax to Northern Ireland has also provoked a few envious glances from Holyrood. Unionist observers sometimes forget the extent to which Scots identity, like that of Northern Ireland Protestants, rests on politics and institutions — and the extent to which being more devolved than anyone else has become part of the Scots self-image. It would be quite impossible to devolve broadcasting to Northern Ireland without doing the same in Scotland. Indeed, if the "yes" camp failed to achieve a majority but got more than 40% of the vote in next September's referendum, broadcasting would have to be discussed anyway.

Perhaps a "yes" vote or a near miss is the way forward for the Scots: judging by the Petition of Concern raised by Unionists, any consensus on devolving broadcasting to Stormont may be some way off.

As an aside, the Blether Region couldn't help noticing in the transcript of the debate that both Karen McKevitt of the SDLP and Anna Lo of the Alliance Party referred to "the Ulster-Scots dialect". Long may such realism continue.

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