Friday, 26 February 2016

Academies Galore

Agitation for an Ulster-Scots Academy has some history in Northern Ireland. Its key proponents have traditionally been the British-Israelite clique that forms the core of the Ulster-Scots Language Society. Their motive is very simple: they want a form of public backing to standardise Ulster-Scots as something different from Scots in Scotland.

Having an academy allows them to do that, either by browbeating genuine academic linguists into going along with them and allowing them to take the flak for their excesses, or by using the institution as intellectual camouflage to convince the public that they are themselves academics. As USLS members have been heard to suggest that they want the academy to be a "people's college", one assumes that the latter is Plan A. No doubt the extremists would also profit personally, perhaps gaining a few well-paid posts of the kind that have been cheekily snapped up by politicians and Orangemen in other parts of the Ulster-Scots sectarian-linguistc complex.

Now the Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure has agreed to the proposal for an academy, and there is no mystery why: like successive Sinn Féin politicians before her, she hopes to get something out of it for Irish. History suggests that she will be disappointed in that regard, since the next DUP Culture Minister will surely once again institute a policy of levelling down provision.

One could argue that an Ulster-Scots Academy, funded through the Agency, might prove a good way of hypothecating funds for genuine research rather than the odd mixture of tourism and sectarianism that has marked out the latter. But I wouldn't hold my breath on that front.

In a new twist, the Minister has announced that Irish is to have an academy too. While the case for an Ulster-Scots Academy is non-existent, that for Irish is problematic to say the least, since Irish-speakers in Northern Ireland adhere to a written standard to a great extent created and nurtured outside the polity. Now, as everyone knows, that standard is polycentric, i.e. not as hard-and-fast as the standard of, say, French or German. Even so, it would seem that an obvious field of activity must remain beyond the future academicians.

So what will it do? Most of the other possibilities seem to be covered elsewhere already: the universities carry out university research and teaching; St. Mary's provides teacher training; and the various community groups cater for adult learners, social activities and entertainment.

Of course, one could argue that the Ulster dialect has not been well served historically because the learner community is cut off from the Donegal Gaeltacht by the border, but learning materials too could be (and, indeed, are) produced at St. Mary's.

The Minister tells us that "Irish and Ulster-Scots are unique and separate entities." That is, of course, absolutely true, and seems aimed at heading off the prospect of Campbell-style levellers, who may shortly return after the May Assembly election. Setting up an academy for Irish simply because one has (wrong-headedly) been granted to Ulster Scots seems a strange way of going about that.

The "curry my yoghurt" tendency of course typifies what is the actual key difference between the north and south of Ireland: politics. Anyone wishing to promote Irish in Northern Ireland has to deal with a different legal framework (or lack of one) and different attitudes, which may have to be assuaged or circumvented. Here, too, however, the Minister failed, since she decimated the existing self-starting, community-led expertise in favour of a pan-Irish feet-up salariat, either because the notion of something being all-Irish reflexively appealed to her or because she was sick of being criticised for Sinn Féin's failure to secure an Irish language Act.

Either way, it doesn't look good.

Even if the DUP do not take DCAL following the Assembly elections, there is a fair old chance that Sinn Féin will choose to rotate its Ministers again, which will mean a new face in the Department. Although the current Minister wasn't all bad and in particular can be proud of what she did with Líofa, overall many people's judgment will be a simple one: she could have done so much better.

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