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How did BBC NI mark the 500th anniversary of Reformation? With a film in the Irish language

Broadcaster failed to meet its obligations on fairness, equity and diversity, writes Nelson McCausland


BBC NI’s programme on Martin Luther came with English subtitles

BBC NI’s programme on Martin Luther came with English subtitles

BBC NI’s programme on Martin Luther came with English subtitles

The Protestant Reformation was one of the most important events in the history of Europe and, indeed, the world, and this year there have been many commemorations of it.

Five hundred years ago, on October 31, 1517, Martin Luther fixed his 95 theses to the door of the cathedral church in Wittenberg, Germany.

This was a seminal event. So how did BBC Northern Ireland mark this 500th anniversary? What television programmes did it commission?

As far as I can see, the only television programme produced locally in Northern Ireland was Luther agus An Domhan Gaelach. This translates as ‘Luther and the Gaelic World’ and was described as a “documentary in which Dr Art Hughes (Reader in Irish at Ulster University) examines the impact of Martin Luther and his ideas on the Gaelic-speaking peoples of Scotland and Ireland.”

Yes, the only television programme produced locally was an Irish-language programme that looked at the Reformation through the prism of “the Gaelic world”.

That is an indictment of BBC Northern Ireland, which has failed to meet its obligations on fairness, equity, diversity and inclusion.

What about the impact of Luther on those Lowland Scots who were not Gaels and who were the forefathers of the Ulster-Scots?

Moreover, since this programme was co-commissioned by BBC Gaeilge, which is part of BBC Northern Ireland, together with BBC Alba and RTE, and since it was supported by the Irish Language Broadcast Fund, which funds up to 75% of the production costs, the amount of money spent by BBC Northern Ireland on the 500th anniversary of the Reformation was minimal.

I doubt if any other major religious event would be treated by BBC Northern Ireland in such a dismissive and thoughtless way.

As regards the programme, which was broadcast with English subtitles, the first part, dealing with Martin Luther, was superficial. From there, as it moved on to Scotland, Ireland and Ulster, it was downhill all the way.

The narrative and the historical content was deeply flawed. The message of Martin Luther reached Scotland through Patrick Hamilton, a Scottish convert who had visited Wittenberg and was later burned at the stake in St Andrews in 1528 for preaching the gospel.

Yet Hamilton, generally regarded as the first Protestant martyr in Scotland, wasn’t even mentioned.

It was also disappointing to find one of the contributors stating that Lowland Scotland was “English-speaking”, when, in fact, the language of Lowland Scotland was Scots.

By the early 16th century, Scots was the language of the people and the language of government in Scotland.

Indeed, one of Hamilton’s fellow converts, Alexander Allan, fled to Wittenberg and translated the Bible into Scots.

Moving on to Ireland and Ulster, this part of the story was as flawed as the Scottish part. Dr Eamonn O Ciardha, an Irish-speaking academic from Ulster University, spoke about “the strong link that existed between the Protestant religion and conquest” and told viewers that “the sword and the Bible came hand-in-hand”.

Then, just in case you missed it, the presenter linked “the Bible and sword” with “oppressive colonialism”.

The final contributor was Dr Niall Comer, a lecturer in Irish language at Ulster University and current president of Conradh na Gaeilge. As such, he is better known as one of the promoters of an Irish Language Act, but here he provided viewers with an Irish nationalist view of the plantation.

Meanwhile, Dr Hughes stated that “in the 17th century, Protestants were firmly identified with British tyranny and land-grabs”.

This was political polemic that ignored the complexities and nuances of history and fell far below the standard we should expect from a public service broadcaster.

Protestantism has been part of the Ulster story for centuries, and it would have been possible for the BBC hierarchy in Belfast to commission a balanced documentary programme about Martin Luther, the message of the Reformation, the influence of the Reformation and its impact in Ulster. But that was not to be.

And that tells me there is something very wrong at the heart of the BBC.

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