A couple of weeks ago, Dr Damien Smyth, Head of Literature at the Arts Council of Northern Ireland, wrote an article recounting an interview he had with the famous Belfast poet John Hewitt back in 1984.
Hewitt talked at length about the Weaver Poets: writers from the Ulster-Scots community who wrote using Ulster-Scots language.
Dr Smyth observed: “That’s when I first knew how deeply embedded Ulster-Scots is in our shared culture.”
Sadly, anyone reading the papers in the last week (see links below) could be forgiven for getting a very different impression about Ulster-Scots.
It was placed in the headlines alongside words like absurd, mad and daft; but look beyond the headlines and you discover that they are based largely on red herrings.
People attacked the linguistic standing of Ulster-Scots, but that flies in the face of reality.
Ulster-Scots is a variety of the Scots language – the language of Burns, the Weaver Poets, Seamus Heaney and so many others. Its status is internationally accepted and agreed.
It is true that language does not have the same prominence within Ulster-Scots cultural identity as it does within Irish, but that doesn’t mean our language deserves to be sneered at in the way that it has been.
In any event, the debate isn’t about language (that’s another red herring), it is about cultural identity.
There are two indigenous minority cultures in Northern Ireland, Ulster-Scots and Irish. They both have a unique heritage, a vibrant culture and a rich language.
They are both loved by many people here. They both struggle to thrive in the shadow of English, which is not only the dominant culture of the British Isles, but also a dominant global culture. As minority cultures, they are both entitled to respect and equality with one another.
The Ulster-Scots Agency was asked to submit a discussion document for consideration as part of the talks process.
We took the opportunity to make the case for increased resources for many aspects of Ulster-Scots. That’s our job. Any other agency would have done the same and probably did.
No-one assumes that there is a magic money tree and no-one wants to see money taken away from the health service (another red herring).
As a society we allocate considerable resources to culture, but it is not distributed on a basis of equality or anything like it and that should be discussed.
We proposed a series of measured interventions which would promote and develop Ulster-Scots in a strategic way, building the capacity of Ulster-Scots communities, telling our stories and creating spaces where our culture can thrive.
That wouldn’t just be good for Ulster-Scots, it would be good for Northern Ireland as a whole.
Ulster-Scots can inspire us with the achievements of our people; improve community relations by helping us understand our diversity; help kids to do better at school by enriching the curriculum; attract tourists by developing our heritage (especially our links to the USA); and attract investment by reaching out to our global diaspora.
There’s nothing absurd about that.
• Ian Crozier is chief executive of the Ulster-Scots Agency