Belfast Telegraph

Nelson McCausland: Why Northern Ireland needs a comprehensive cultural audit to see what each tradition spends

 

Stormont (stock photo)
Stormont (stock photo)
Nelson McCausland

By Nelson McCausland

It’s such a sensible idea it’s a wonder we haven’t had one already. It’s high time for transparency.

Inter-party talks are due to resume today and we are told that devolution cannot be restored until there is political agreement.

We still do not know the extent of the various disagreements, but it seems that one of the issues is still the Sinn Fein demand for an Irish Language Act. Unionists say “no Irish Language Act” and Sinn Fein say “no devolution without an Irish Language Act”.

It is a sad reflection on our society that, after three years, this is as far as it has got. There is very little evidence of a genuine political debate, or even more importantly, a public debate on a vision for cultural traditions in the context of a shared and better future.

So, perhaps I can respectfully suggest some thoughts on how the issue might be better approached if we are to end the stalemate.

The Irish language is more than a language; it is an expression of an Irish cultural identity, even for many who are not fluent speakers

When Gerry Adams wrote The Politics Of Irish Freedom he was setting out a Sinn Fein manifesto and he included a chapter on “culture”. In it he wrote: “The Irish language is a badge of our identity and part of what we are.”

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He set the Irish language in the context of “decolonising” Northern Ireland and, ultimately, this is a politico-cultural issue, rather than a linguistic one. It is about affirming and asserting an Irish Gaelic identity.

There are a number of indigenous cultural traditions and cultural identities in Northern Ireland

There is an Ulster-Scots tradition, which, like Irish, is both linguistic and cultural and, indeed, modern Ulster can be seen as a cultural confluence where English, Irish and Scottish traditions meet.

It can be illustrated by reference to the situation at the bottom of the hill in Downpatrick where English Street, Irish Street and Scotch Street all meet at one point.

In a divided society, where politics and cultures interact, cultural identity issues should be considered in a holistic way.

A quarter of a century ago academics in the-then University of Ulster were making that point and it is still true today.

For Sinn Fein, everything is Irish and Irish is everything, with scant regard for those from other traditions.

However, unionists and others should not allow that to determine the shape of any debate. That was one of the fundamental flaws in the Belfast Agreement, which supported Irish-medium schools and Irish language broadcasting, but did nothing for anyone else.

A shared and better future for Northern Ireland must be based on the good relations approach of equity, diversity and interdependence

Those are well-established and sound principles, which have been around for many years, and every political party should be able to accept them.

Our diverse cultural traditions should be treated equitably and fairly, while, at the same time, seeking to build a more cohesive Northern Ireland.

Inter-party agreement on those basic principles would provide a basis for a meaningful political and public conversation on culture. But that conversation needs to be an informed conversation.

We hear a lot today about an “evidence-based approach” to all sorts of issues and there is much to be said for it.

So, what is the current cultural landscape, across all of our indigenous cultural traditions? Alongside and feeding into any negotiation on cultural issues should be a comprehensive cultural audit.

What is the level of public investment in and commitment to those traditions?

For example, a Labour Government at Westminster gave Sinn Fein £8m to set up a trust fund to build or refurbish around 20 Irish language centres across Northern Ireland.

However, that levered in at least another £16m in matching public money, so there was a total of £24m of capital money for buildings and most of those centres now receive annual revenue funding from various public sources.

The audit should be comprehensive. So, how much, for example, does BBC Northern Ireland commit to the Irish, Ulster-Scots and Orange traditions? And what about our universities?

It’s time for transparency.

Two decades after the Belfast Agreement Northern Ireland needs that cultural conversation and we certainly need that comprehensive cultural audit.

Isn’t it remarkable that we’ve never had one?

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