Ben Lowry: Ulster Scots history is at the heart of NI but £140m funding for it is absurd

Andrew Jackson, who was of Scots Irish ancestry, as have been more than a dozen of the 45 presidents of the United States
Andrew Jackson, who was of Scots Irish ancestry, as have been more than a dozen of the 45 presidents of the United States

This week the News Letter revealed that a document had been submitted to the talks proposing an additional £140 million of taxpayers’ money to Ulster-Scots over 10 years.

Sam McBride’s report on the development noted that the proposal to massively increase public funding for Ulster Scots cultural and linguistic measures came as the DUP was arguing for the incorporation of the Irish language into a cultural act rather than a standalone Irish language act.

While many of the things that are mentioned in the document are worthy initiatives, such as highland dance and art and bands, the paper ought in fact to have the opposite effect that is intended.

The intention, presumably, was to ensure that if the Irish language is so lavishly funded by the state, then so must be Ulster Scots.

But in fact the paper merely reminds us how generously the British state funds the Irish language, as the Treasury always does with Northern Ireland – pumping vast amounts of money at the Province to keep as many people happy as possible.

This challenges the claim of anti Irish discrimination, that republicans have pushed so successfully.

Perhaps the Ulster Scots paper was also an attempt to neutralise any effort to use an Irish language act to radically change the nature and the feel of Northern Ireland, as is the intention of some of its proponents.

Yet republicans have successfully pushed the notion that it is nothing to do with triumphalism and it is not an attempt to make one community feel uncomfortable (as has been the unionist experience in south Down).

By making an Irish language act a red line in the talks, rather than re-establishing Stormont and pushing for it within that context, Sinn Fein has actually ensured that the whole idea of an act has had time to seep into the general consciousness of the Northern Ireland population.

Attitudes against a standalone act have been hardening even among moderate unionists.

When I and other commentators have pointed out how outrageous it was to talk of a 10% quota for public sector jobs, many nationalists on social media responded to say that that was a negotiating position from which there would be compromise.

But if unionists were to suggest an extreme negotiating position on any issue – a proposal that is entirely unacceptable to nationalists, backed by employment quotas that benefit an overwhelmingly unionist group – it would cause such uproar that it would be off the table forever. It would be proof of how you cannot do business with unionists.

This will not happen in reverse. People in the political centre ground and in London will work hard to revive the notion of a standalone act minus such clauses, and will continue to depict opponents of an act as unreasonable, rather than turning their ire on the extremists who have shown us all their hand.

But the mere talk of quotas means that any unionists who wanted to sell an Irish language act in order to revive Stormont will probably now fail. It is not as if moderate nationalists or apolitical Irish language activists were rushing to reassure non nationalists, and people of another tradition but who feel goodwill towards Irish, to dismiss any talk of quotas.

Sinn Fein’s tactics have also given people time to think about any plans to replace all road signs so that they have Irish (there are varying reports on whether or not that is the intention, or whether it is just the main signs).

Even if the cost of such a change was negligible (it would of course be huge), changing road signs too is a prospect that moderate unionists have now months to think about and against which views are also hardening.

If the £140 million Ulster Scots proposal was a bid to counter such cultural dominance of Irish, it would fail in that aim even if it was agreed.

So long as republicans can get public signage changed, some quota in employment (even if perhaps 1% of public posts) and if they can achieve a situation in which even non Catholic schools are forced to at least provide Irish (despite an almost total lack of demand for it), they will have achieved perhaps their biggest cultural breakthrough since the creation of Northern Ireland.

But not only would the £140 Ulster Scots million plan fail in a key aim, it would in any event be an indefensible use of public money at a time of major financial constraints.

Unionists can fairly point out that Irish has failed to gain significant traction within the nationalist community (only 9% of the population, less than a quarter of the percentage of people who vote for nationalist parties, speak it at all, and a small fraction of that 9% speak it to a high standard, according to the Department of the Communities).

But what unionists cannot plausibly do is pretend that there is a serious demand for Ulster Scots as a language or dialect within the unionist community.

There is far less demand or interest in it within the unionist community than there is even for Irish within nationalism.

None of this is to deny the immense importance of Ulster Scots as a culture. This newspaper has reported on that heritage since 1737, a century and a bit after the Plantation.

There are only nine months of the earliest News Letters surviving from 1738 and 39. Most of the rest of the early editions have been lost until the 1750s.

But that earliest batch of papers includes regular news from Scotland, and much news from the Americas, including two adverts for boats to the colonies.

By the 1750s, the number of boats heading west had greatly increased in number, to about one a month. By the 1770s, on the verge of independence, there was an almost weekly transatlantic boat voyage.

Most of my eight great grandparents had recognisably Scottish names and I was fortunate to attend good schools in north Down and east Belfast yet despite all this I was taught almost nothing about the Scots Irish.

I was taught about British kings and queens and Irish history such as Charles Stewart Parnell and the Easter Rising but almost nothing about the Scots Irish men who played such a key role in the early United States.

More than a dozen of the 45 presidents have such roots. The story of such people should be at the heart of history teaching in Northern Ireland.

But while the history of Ulster Scots /Scots Irish /Northern Irish is rich and fascinating, it would be absurd to spend £140m on it at a time of long hospital waiting lists.

It is much cheaper to challenge the latest republican myth – that of discrimination over the Irish language.

• Ben Lowry (@BenLowry2) is News Letter deputy editor