Wednesday, 18 November 2015

On Demonisation — and Displacement

























Yesterday's Belfast Telegraph has a prominent piece on Newry, Mourne and Down Council's Irish-language strategy, which will see up to £150,000 per annum go on Gaeilge. The DUP have branded it a "ludicrous indulgence" in the current financial climate. It's difficult to say whether the choice of the word "indulgence" was intended as a theological pun, but the Blether Region wouldn't put anything past them uns.

Unlike councils in Great Britain, those in Northern Ireland generally speaking raise their own funds, since many functions discharged at local level elsewhere — housing being a good example — are centralised here. Perhaps the DUP would have better grounds to complain were central government grants intended for quite different purposes being diverted to Irish, but there is no doubt in the current case that it is ratepayers' cash; and neither is there any doubt that, in an overwhelmingly Nationalist area, ratepayers will, by and large, support the move.

The DUP, of course, built its reputation in local government on low taxes in areas such as Castlereagh. Many people of a Conservative bent will instinctively support its view on the services that a council may properly provide. Closer consideration, however, reveals the truth: these services are being provided by some councils and not others because there is no Irish language Act in force to give central direction on the issue. The tight fiscal environment that, as the DUP would have it, should preclude such schemes, may also explain why it is councils rather than Stormont that are taking the initiative. Finally, although the new super-councils were always likely to result in a carve-up and a highlighting of communal rather than local identity, one should not forget the demographic march of time.

So what might the effect of the Bel-Tel's anti-Gaelic campaign be? Well, one of them will be to accelerate the trend that it seeks to decry. Unionists can do little to halt the language's progress in local government, but they will feel emboldened in their refusal to reject any language Bill put before the Assembly.

As for the newspaper itself, this may well be evidence of a change of direction under its new editor, Gail Walker, and a shift to a more avowedly Unionist stance. The newspaper market, like the market for Unionist politics, is a declining one, and Ms Walker's intention may be to gobble up the demographic that keeps the News Letter afloat. As such, it can be taken as a parallel to Unionism: despite long-term decline and a generally accepted need to reach out, consolidation based on taking a hard line is the quicker, and therefore the easier, option.

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