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The rich heritage of Ulster Scots culture

(Editorial, Irish News)

On Good Friday 1998 our politicians reached an epoch-making political agreement. On May 22 the people of Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland overwhelmingly endorsed that agreement. At the heart of the agreement was the creation of inclusive political institutions and the commitment to create a genuinely pluralistic society in both Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland which would acknowledge and celebrate our cultural and linguistic diversity. That some people have not lived up to their obligations is widely understood and well documented. What is not fully appreciated is that others have comprehensively failed to respect the spirit of the agreement and to honour the commitment to create a genuinely pluralistic society.

The hostility experienced by the Ulster-Scots linguistic and cultural community and the ongoing disparagement of the Ulster-Scots language are clearly breaches of both the letter and the spirit of the Belfast agreement. The section of the Belfast agreement entitled 'Rights, Safeguards and Equality of Opportunity' makes extensive mention of Ulster Scots. The Ulster- Scots community is determined to enjoy the rights and safeguards it is afforded under the terms of the agreement and to enjoy the equality of opportunity the agreement promises. The Ulster-Scots Agency is part of the north-south language body set up under the terms of the Belfast agreement. It was established to promote the study, conservation and development of Ulster Scots as a living language; to encourage and develop the full range of its attendant culture and to promote an understanding of the history of the Ulster Scots.

The Ulster-Scots linguistic and cultural community is a community with a clear sense of its own identity, a language, a history and culture of its own. Possession of a sense of identity, a language, a history and culture are the very essence of an ethnic community.

No-one would be allowed to subject the local Chinese or Indian communities to the level of abuse and vituperation to which the Ulster- Scots community is exposed. There is no reason why Ulster Scots should be expected to put up with abuse which other ethnic communities are not expected to tolerate and they will not. Some people are foolish enough to deny the existence of an Ulster Scots community. The reality is, whether some people like it or not, that a quarter of the population of Northern Ireland regards itself as being Ulster Scots.

In the past the language's detractors ridiculed Ulster Scots as 'a DIY language for Orangemen' and dismissed it as a dialect. They have decisively lost that argument. All that remains for them to do is to accept the fact. Ulster Scots is recognised as a language by both the Belfast agreement and the European Charter. Under the terms of both the agreement and charter governments have obligations to the language and the linguistic community. The language is spoken – in the absence of census data – by an estimated 100,000 people in the Ards peninsula, north Down, Co Antrim and parts of Co Derry and in east Donegal. Ulster Scots is a language with a grammar, a vocabulary and a literature. In due course, courtesy of the Ulster Scots Agency, it will possess a dictionary.

In addition to the language, Ulster- Scots cultural activity embraces a rich heritage which includes the music of the bagpipes, the poetry of Burns and the Weaver Poets, Scottish Country Dancing, a rich repertoire of fiddle music and, of course, a history of its own. Some people have failed to notice how vibrant and dynamic Ulster-Scots culture is.

The Ulster-Scots community has its own distinctive history. Whether it be the Plantation of Ulster in the 17th century, emigration to the American colonies and the formulation of radical ideas in the 18th century or the industrial revolution in the 19th and 20th centuries, Ulster Scots has left its mark on the history of Ulster and the wider world. Ulster Scots has had an impact on the world disproportionate to their numbers. Francis Hutcheson, Lord Castlereagh, Lord Kelvin and John Boyd Dunlop spring immediately to mind. Neil Armstrong, the first man on the moon, is an Ulster Scot, a descendant of the Border Reivers who settled in Fermanagh. Successive political crises have brought into sharp relief an Ulster- Scots mentality and identity forged over a quarter of a millennium of turbulent history which subsequent events have done nothing to undermine. Neither the British State or Irish nationalism has been able to coerce the Ulster Scots. The historian GM Trevelyan referred to the relationship between Ulster and Scotland as 'the constant factor'. A confident, dynamic and vibrant Ulster-Scots community is determined to be a constant factor on this island.

November 16, 2002

This article appeared first in the November 15, 2002 edition of the Irish News.

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