New book – order details

Western European Languages – A Reference Guide is now available online in all markets.

My new book, Western European Languages – A Reference Guide, is now available in all major markets online, including in:

UK & Ireland

United States







However, if you are in the UK, do contact me directly and I can save you the postage costs.

Coronavirus: Northern Ireland updates/advice

I am going to leave this page up with advice on how best to manage through the COVID-19 crisis, aimed particularly at those caring for over-70s or people with underlying conditions in Northern Ireland.

It is best in case of doubt to refer to the official guidance on the current restrictions.

What I would ask, please, is that people leave comments on this page with any thoughts or information they feel may be helpful (I may not see Facebook responses and will definitely not see Twitter responses).

Please rest assured that the Northern Ireland Health Service was well prepared; it had been contingency planning for this for months, on the basis of strategies put in place ten years ago and revised regularly since.

Nevertheless, it has come under the greatest burden it has ever faced in the last few months and will eventually then face serious challenges as it returns to “normality”.

Government advice on a range of issues and services appears on NI Direct.

The NI Assembly has links to sources of advice here.

Members of the public must play their part in restricting this burden by adhering to the advice: stay safe, keep your distance, and wash your hands.

In Northern Ireland, you may volunteer here.

Vulnerable groups

COVID-19 is a relatively mild infection for most people who contract it, but there is an increased risk for older people and people with underlying conditions; for safety, this should also be assumed to include pregnant women.

People with rare conditions, particularly those which affect the immune or respiratory system, should assume they are also in this group, unless specifically told otherwise by a qualified medical professional.

D3E94432-ED28-495E-BED8-8A16F6B2E5E4Essentially, people in those vulnerable groups must try to avoid getting the virus and, if they do show symptoms, should immediately dial 111 and seek medical advice and attention immediately. In emergency dial 999 or 112.

People who have underlying conditions which clearly elevate the risk will have received a letter from their GP to tell them to ‘shield’ until 31 July. As restrictions are raised, these people who have a particular clinical vulnerability (whether they were instructed to shield or otherwise) may be advised differently – a little like proceeding along different lanes on a motorway.

All people in this category should now have received their first dose of the vaccine. They will be called forward from mid March for their second.

People who are not in those groups are tasked primarily with not spreading the virus; in other words, they should live their daily lives assuming they have it. They should self-isolate (as well as booking a test) in case of symptoms, but otherwise their task is to look after and look out for those in vulnerable groups as well as to avoid getting it themselves in the interests of their own health.

Unless they have good reason not to (allergy etc) people who were not “shielding” should get vaccinated as the most effective means of not spreading the virus and, particularly, of ensuring any spread there is does not generally lead to serious illness or death.

Updated health information for everyone in Northern Ireland through the crisis appears here.

Anything wrong here? Anything which should be expanded? Please leave a comment.


The coronavirus causing COVID-19 is spread in sneeze or cough droplets transferred primarily from a close distance (hence in crowded places or when in close contact within 1-2m/3-6ft) or via aerosols (thus typically indoors – indoors is nearly 20-times as high risk as outdoors, hence the recommendation/requirement to wear face coverings); more rarely, it can also be transferred via surfaces (most commonly metal).

Note that symptoms, if they occur at all, follow the virus – you are already infectious before you have symptoms.

With regard both to avoiding getting the virus and not spreading it, certain hygiene rules are fundamental:

  • wash hands for 20 seconds in soap and water (or sanitiser) being careful to clean the whole area, including between fingers, finger/thumb tips and wrists;
  • cover the mouth or nose with a tissue or sleeve when coughing or sneezing (and then wash hands);
  • put used tissues in the bin immediately;
  • do not touch any part of the face with unwashed hands;
  • wear face coverings in indoor public spaces; and
  • look after your mental health and, particularly, avoid too much social media.

Anything wrong here? Anything which should be expanded? Please leave a comment.

Social distancing

Given that close contact is a common way of spreading the virus, “social distancing” is required to stop its spread.

CEDE431B-B3BA-4413-B41A-13CA840B135CThe implications of this are that we must spend less time with other people, less time in public spaces, and particularly less time in indoor or enclosed public spaces. If, for those in non-vulnerable groups, this is genuinely unavoidable, remember our task is not to spread the virus; so as soon as we detect symptoms in ourselves or anyone close to us, we must withdraw immediately into self-isolation.

Vulnerable people do not need to withdraw completely, but must take extra care (and those known in the UK as “shielding” or in Ireland as “cocooning” must take particular care). They must:

  • avoid any contact with anyone with symptoms (most obviously fever or persistent cough);
  • avoid unnecessary journeys and any travel at all in rush hour or on public transport;
  • work from home;
  • absolutely avoid hospital or health centres/GP surgeries – phone or contact online.

A contingency plan for carers appears here (source: Carers NI).

Anything wrong here? Anything which should be expanded? Please leave a comment.


Remember, if you are in a non-vulnerable group your priority is not to spread the virus and essentially, therefore, to behave at all times as if you may have it. The need for extreme care is heightened if you come into contact with anyone (most obviously a member of the same household) who displays symptoms.

For vulnerable groups, it is important not to get the virus and to act immediately if there are any signs of it. Therefore, if you recognise the symptoms dial 111 immediately (or 112 or 999 in an emergency). The most obvious symptoms are a persistent (typically dry) cough, fever (high temperature), or loss of taste/smell. Other less common symptoms include a (typically dry) sore throat or shortness of breath.

Anything wrong here? Anything which should be expanded? Please leave a comment.


This is a contagious virus and there is no shame in having the disease resulting from it; furthermore, most people will experience only mild symptoms. However, it is important to protect others, particularly those in vulnerable groups.

Anyone displaying any of the three main symptoms above must practise self-isolation even within the home for 10 days from onset; those in vulnerable groups may find it prudent to do so even without symptoms. Everyone else in the household must stay home.

Those who have come into contact with someone who has tested positive or who has entered Northern Ireland from a neighbouring jurisdiction or listed territory should self-isolate for 10 days from the last date of contact (being within one metre for any length of time or within two metres for fifteen minutes or more); other members of the household need not, but should exercise extra caution.

Self-isolation means that the individual displaying symptoms should distance themselves even from the rest of the household. If possible, they should sleep in a separate room and be in the only person in that room; they should use the bathroom last and clean thoroughly afterwards; if they must use the kitchen, it should be alone (and again with thorough cleaning afterwards).

Through self-isolation, it is important if possible to get outside (the garden or yard are safe as long as no one is there) and to stay in touch as widely as possible. Consider talking to family and friends about the best way to do this (Skype, Facetime, Google Hangouts, or whatever) to maximise the potential for keeping in touch safely.

Households can still take deliveries if someone is in self-isolation, but ideally deliveries should not be handed over in person; typically, deliverers now know to offer this option and will offer to deliver to a particular location and phone from a distance to say where the delivery has been left.

See also notes on mental well-being and social security below.

Anything wrong here? Anything which should be expanded? Any other ideas? Please leave a  comment.


The Northern Ireland Executive has reversed many of the openings which had occurred since “lockdown” ended on 24 July 2020.

Broadly, as of 8 March 2021, we are not allowed to gather socially in a private home or in hospitality; however, we are able to gather in groups of up to ten in outdoors public places, otherwise six from up to two households in a private garden. Gatherings of any sort are not recommended and ideally should not go on beyond 8pm.

There was never a distinction in law for those who are “shielding”; as of 1 August they are treated as “clinically extremely vulnerable”.

Mental well-being

As above, it is essential you look after your mental health during the disruptive days and months ahead.

Some ideas:

  • get exercise (even if it is just a few stretches or a bit of yoga);
  • read a book (and avoid too much social media fake news and fear-mongering);
  • learn a new skill (a language off YouTube, a course on Coursera, or whatever);
  • think! (stop panic-buying – no good decisions are made in fear or in a rush);
  • phone (don’t just text);
  • do go out and meet friends.

Be aware no one else has experienced this either. Just because everyone is doing it, doesn’t make it right!


Dogs and cats cannot contract nor transmit COVID-19.

Dogs may be walked; however, it is good practice for only one person to do the walking, and over a restricted route, maintaining two metres from everyone else at all times.

Additionally, dog walking must take place close to home; it is not recommended to drive somewhere first.


A useful overview of the “furloughing” options (to end October 2020) for self-employed and employed people across the UK is provided by Martin Lewis here.

A Community Fund is open here.

Updated advice for business here.

All non-essential retail stores (i.e. non-food, pharmacy, transport, dry cleaners) and hospitality must close.

The UK Government will cover 80% of salaries to try to limit lay-offs to August-October 2020, now largely extended to September 2021.

Grants now available (up to £10k for small businesses, up to £25k for businesses in retail/hospitality) – apply here.

Business loan scheme with six months interest free.

VAT was cancelled for three months to end May; the hospitality sector now has VAT temporarily at 5%.

For tax issues (restructuring, suspending debt collection etc), HMRC helpline is 08000 159 559.

Information for self-employed here.

Insurance depends on level of cover – contact your insurer.

Social Security

Full information on benefits/welfare here.

  • If laid off temporarily, apply for “new-style” Jobseeker’s Allowance on 0800 232 1271.
  • If self-employed and have to self-isolate, apply for Universal Credit here and note if on ESA support is available from day one (not day seven);
  • If employed and have to to self-isolate, apply for immediate sick pay here.

There will be no face-to-face appointments.

AdviceNI hotline: 0808 8020020.

NI Department for Communities Financial Crisis line: 0800 5872750.


There is a discretionary support fund available from NI Direct.


The best way to shop, and absolutely for vulnerable groups and those in self-isolation, is home delivery.

People “shielding” may have priority delivery slots for Tesco, Sainsbury, Asda or Iceland which may be arranged here.

If you must go into a shop, you must wear a face covering. Consider shopping local and absolutely avoid busy periods. Consider also buying a little extra to support a local foodbank. Some shops will have specific hours for older people. Many have added restrictions to the number of people allowed in at any one time.

Prescriptions may (and should) be ordered online.

If hospital visits are essential, you will be checked for temperature, you will need a face covering, and you may have to be tested for the virus. Before procedures, you may have to isolate for seven days.

Non-essential hospital appointments may be cancelled, although some (particularly in cancer and orthpaedics) are proceeding – you do not need to do anything.

Anything wrong here? Anything which should be expanded? Any other ideas? Any other information or updates? Please leave a comment.

Problem with European Super League is specific, not general

The notion of a “European Super League” is neither new nor unexpected. Arsene Wenger has been openly talking about it for years. It is, in fact, an inevitable next step from the Champions’ League (a competition which, remember, is neither for “champions” nor a “league”).

The issue with yesterday’s announcement is specific – that it is being done by clubs who are self-selecting as a breakaway, and thus separate from the “pyramid” which gives club football its foundation.

There is no fundamental issue with the idea of an international league at the top of a pyramid, into which clubs can aspire to be promoted and from which they wish to avoid being relegated. Indeed, the Champions’ League at inception was clearly being developed to be exactly this.

A parallel would be what happened within Irish hockey. For many years, each province had its own league and then each champion played off in an interprovincial playoff at the end of the season to determine the “all-Ireland champion”. This changed a decade ago with the development of a single all-Ireland league, with the champion determined simply as with any other league by who finishes top of it (although there is also an end of season “Super Cup”, known as the “Trophy”, which follows on from the old provincial playoffs). The difference from the “Super League” proposal, however, is that there is promotion to and relegation from this all-Ireland league via the still existing provincial leagues (albeit via a fiendishly complicated system of in-season playoffs reminiscent of the Champions’ League) and thus every club in Ireland can theoretically aspire to climb the ladder and be crowned all-Ireland champion.

Ultimately, if this were about sport, a compromise would be obvious. The “Champions’ League” should indeed become a league, with qualification based in part on performance in domestic leagues and in part on performance in the Champions’ League itself – it was already moving this way anyway, of course.

That is why the problem with this “Super League” is specific. It is not about sport. It is not unique in that it is primarily about money (so was the Premier League; so was the Champions’ League; so, ultimately, was the Football League in the 19th century), but it is unique in that it is not pretending to be about sport at all. It is a deliberate attempt to kick the ladder away, to break the link with the foundations of the game, and to end the romance of a Coventry Cup win or a Leicester League title.

Ultimately it will come down to us the fans. Do we care about the game? If we do, we must boycott any club planning a “Super League” which is not part of a clear pyramid based on performance. We must also be clear, however, about what the specific problem is – the general course towards a European Super League was already set thirty years ago.

NI’s roads mysteries

My recent piece on the silent revolution on the Northern Ireland expressway network (with the latest section of A6 expressway between Toome and Castledawson due to open fully next weekend) received some comments entirely sensibly mocking Northern Ireland’s road numbering.

However, as someone who finds it easier to understand things by understanding their origins, in fact the numbering gives some hints as to priorities in decades gone by.

Original system

Northern Ireland’s roads were initially numbered only A1-A8/A20-A39 and B1-B86.

The low A-numbers are a little strange, although I suspect influence from the early postal routes. Certainly the first postal route in Ireland/Ulster was Dublin to Belfast, and the second went around the coast from Belfast to Derry (thus A2; the original A2 did then go on to Bangor in Co Down, but did not proceed down the Ards Peninsula). It would even make sense for a third to have been from Lisburn in the northeast Linen Triangle into the heart of it towards Portadown/Armagh (A3), and for a fourth to have been from there to Dungannon in the northwest (A4), and even a fifth from there to Derry (A5) and then back directly over the Sperrins to Belfast (A6). The A7 to Downpatrick, however, is inexplicable, not even starting in Belfast (although early maps suggest it should have done); the A8 to Larne appears to be a late branch off the A6.

The double digits were generally grouped by general area. A20-24 were in mid and East Down; 25-29 in South Down (with 26 and 29 heading all the way to the north coast); 32-35 were in Fermanagh (as was 39; 38 was in Tyrone). The original oddities were 30 (seemingly randomly in Lisburn), 36 (Ballymena to Larne) and two 37s (most obviously Limavady to Coleraine, perhaps a late addition). Even as numbers were added to the system pre-War, they often made some sense – 42-44 originated in Ballymena, 46 and 47 provided routes in Fermanagh either side of Lough Erne and 49-51 were close to or across the Down/Armagh boundary. The B-numbers were similarly grouped: for example a lot in the low 60s were replaced by the A42-44 series; a little confusingly, the low 20s tended to be in North Down and thus often clashed with the As (even now the B21 and A21 both start in Bangor).

Early clues

Some of the added A-numbers provide clues to some pre-War considerations or developments. The A47 seems to have been a new-build in Fermanagh north of Lough Erne to link towards Pettigo without weaving in and out of the border; the A48 took over from what was originally the B22 from Donaghadee to Newtownards (compare B21 Donaghadee to Bangor) to emphasise this was the main road from Donaghadee to Belfast; the A54 was the penultimate number added to the network “new” as an alternative north coast link from Mid Ulster.

A series of A500s and B500s were used early in both Belfast and Derry (latterly also notably in Lisburn) for inner-urban link roads. This does not explain, however, the mystery of the “A505” number which appeared only comparatively recently as the main road from Omagh to Cookstown (historically several B-roads had competed as the main link from west to east Tyrone; the A505 was re-aligned for the purpose).

B-numbers from 90 upwards, ultimately into the 200s, were added to the system pre-War. C-numbers were added immediately after the War in quite a sensible series (C1-149 in Co Antrim, 150-249 Armagh, 250-399 Down, 400s Fermanagh, 500s Londonderry, 600s Tyrone), but rarely appear on signage. One exception to this at one time was the C1, which is no longer allocated but was once Stockman’s Lane and thus constituted an exit of the M1 (therefore appearing on early motorway signage).

North-South Alignments

The A29 and A26 have been north-south routes for nearly a century now but their alignments have shifted away from Lough Neagh in each case. The A29 from Moy to Dungannon once shifted east to Coalisland and then up via Stewartstown to Cookstown; a new-build replaced this further west, although even it was not properly aligned until into this century (it was noted for a 5mph bend at Carland, just north of Dungannon). The A26 likewise used to hug Lough Neagh but has been re-aligned further inland, partly due to the switch in the main airport from Nutts Corner to Aldergrove. This switch was also responsible for the A57 number, which is not strictly part of the system but rather merely an upgrade of the former B57.

Another road which moved was the A49. This explains the peculiarity of a sudden right turn from Ballynahinch to Lisburn while the more minor road continues straight to Hillsborough; originally the A49 continued towards Hillsborough at this point and turned right later (i.e. the whole A49 was just further west). This shift was made at the time of the construction of the M1 from Belfast to Lisburn (the oldest motorway in the UK & Ireland outside England).


The A55 was the last number added to the system for A-roads other than the peculiar A500s series (rather than a spur number or an upgrade of a B-road) and we can see hints of plans for a much more epic “ringway” particularly to the south and east. The section from Knock to what is now “Forestside” was the second major dual carriageway on the island of Ireland (after the Sydenham Bypass) and the various dips and width of the road over that stretch and further south hints that it was once designed for much greater things. Now it is, like the Bangor “Ring Road”, more of an urban throughpass with homes and shopping centres dotted along it. On the other side, the “Monagh Bypass” is another example of the beginning of something which was never completed.


Many other sites discuss the motorway plans, but what was most notable about their numbering was that Northern Ireland decided to follow England and have distinct motorway numbers (Scotland and the Republic of Ireland do not do this). Initially these were simply “M1” for the south (i.e. south west) approach to the proposed new town of Craigavon, “M2” for the north approach to Glengormley, and “M3” for the east approach to Holywood.

The latter was built first before motorway standards were fully adopted, so was never deemed a motorway. The M1 was moved further north and then extended beyond the original plans because until the early ’60s the main road from Craigavon to Dungannon at the time was a narrow rickety rollercoaster through peat bogs with a speed limit of 25mph so it was decided simply to replace it with the motorway. The M2 Foreshore Motorway was at time of construction the widest motorway in the UK and was then constructed to Mallusk (the “Hill Section”, still the steepest incline of continuous motorway in the UK) and then to Glengormley with the original plan to build it straight from there via Doagh to Ballymena; after it had weaved its way to Glengormley (at Corr’s Corner) this route was abandoned in favour of the inclusion of the growing town of Antrim – the road was thus re-aligned from Mallusk more directly west (hence the remaining oddity of the “A8(M)”), which meant for a period the M2 consisted of three sections (Belfast-Glengormley, the Antrim Bypass and the Ballymena Bypass), and of course only the first two of these were even linked.

There were of course some more adventurous plans in the ’60s – the M2 was due to head well to the west of Ballymoney and then provide spurs to Coleraine and Derry; the M1 was at one stage proposed to go all the way to Enniskillen; an M6 was to branch off the M5 and head to Larne; an M4 was planned for Newtownbreda towards Newcastle; and various other links (one ploughing through the city centre and another across the Lagan Valley) were planned. However, motorway construction largely stopped for obvious reasons in the early 1970s with the exception of the M5 link towards Whiteabbey in 1980 and the Lagan Bridge (taking the available M3 number) in the mid-’90s.

We are left therefore with two M2s but without an M4 (this was meant as a south eastern approach but subsequent development made it impossible); with an M12 spur which has a roundabout and an M22 spur which is in fact the main line; and with excruciating hints of an “M21” once set aside to connect to the International Airport.

It is not just some motorways which are incomplete – a number of junctions did not appear either. Two were planned between Dunmurry and Lisburn (one now used for a service station on each side), hence J3 is followed by J6 (there was also another planned between Lisburn and Moira but this is not noticeable as “J8” was subsequently used for the Sprucefield Park link); one was planned for Bellevue on the M2 (which would have been hellishly steep) hence the absence of a J3 there; and of course the M2 carriageways separate north of Antrim for what was to be the continuation to Ballymena (east of the current A26 dual carriageway).

Worth fixing?

The Republic of Ireland had the advantage of re-numbering for metrication in the 1970s and thus every road has a single number regardless of classification. However, it made the same “error”, arguably, of not future-proofing its numbers – N1-11 run anticlockwise radially from Dublin, and N12-25 do similarly across the entire state (so N12 is north, N13-15 north west, N16-19 west, N20-25 south to south east), but now extra low N-numbers are just allocated sequentially (so the N26 is in the west, N33 in the middle, and so on). Left alone, half a century from now the system will look similar to Northern Ireland’s now, with hints of logic at the time of origin but a lot of randomness.

Is this worth fixing in Northern Ireland? Wholesale re-numbering would be expensive and there are many better things to do with the money. Some quick fixes (for example where a road goes on forever and serves several commuter routes, such as the A2; or where there are blatantly two roads with the same number, such as the A37) may be worth considering, however, to aid tourism and travel updates.

What we do in the system are just some hints of what was once planned, what was once deemed priority, and what was once considered desirable or thought of as feasible. In some ways, looking at an original map it is remarkable how similar many of the routes are; yet in many instances transport priorities have come and gone dramatically and often unpredictably (trams, trains in rural areas, guided busways and so on). Without the benefit of hindsight, public policy (particularly around transport and infrastructure) is often rather less straightforward than many would suggest.

Chorizo in Ibiza

A fun debate broke out on social media a few days ago around the pronunciation of ‘chorizo‘. As so often with language, however, the problem arose when people started deeming a particular response “correct”…

[Obviously this is dealt with in part in my book…]

The usual English pronunciation is “chor-itso”. This was corrected by some because “chor-itso” actually looks like an Italian language pronunciation even though chorizo is a Spanish language word.

Then, when discussing the Spanish language pronunciation, “chor-itho” was put forward as correct, only for that itself to be corrected by others to “chor-isso” given that is the more common pronunciation across the Spanish-speaking world.

The same issue arises with other words, notably the place name “Ibiza“.

Historically, in fact, “chor-itso” (the most common English-language pronunciation) is closest to the way it would have been pronounced by Spanish speakers 500 years ago. The origin of the ‘z’ in most cases in both Spanish and Italian was a palatalisation of ‘t’ before a high vowel (‘e’ or ‘i’), though this was confused a little by the fact it is written ‘c’ in Spanish (hence gracias, grazie ‘thanks’; note Latin gratias/gratiae). Language change (in this case, really, the “principle of least effort”) saw the ‘t’ sound effectively weakened, similarly but not quite identifically to the process in English in the ending -tion (pronounced in Shakespeare’s time much more closely to the way it is spelled).

In the 16th century there was a further shift in Spanish (in fact across a range of consonant) which saw the tongue at the time of articulation moved, delivering a sound very similar but not quite identical to ‘s’. Among more educated speakers, such as in the Royal Court, the differentiation between this sound and the actual ‘s’ was insisted upon and perhaps intentionally more emphasised, resulting in something more akin to English unvoiced ‘th’ (a sound unknown in other major Latin-derived languages); among the more general population, particularly in the far south west, this differentiation was not regarded as important and the sounds came to merge. Most Latin American varieties are derived from the latter, hence ‘z’ (or ‘c’ before a high vowel) is pronounced as ‘s’ (a phenomenon known as ‘seseo‘); it should be noted that some Spanish dialects particularly in eastern Andalusia have gone the other way and even ‘s’ has come to be pronounced close to ‘th’ (known as ‘ceceo‘).

Ultimately this means there is a case for any of the three pronunciations. “Chor-itso”, while probably a mispronunciation essentially assuming the word to be Italian rather than Spanish, is actually closer to the original medieval Spanish pronunciation as the word developed from Latin than any modern Spanish pronunciation is; “chor-itho” is a fair reflection of what most people would regard as the standard pronunciation of Peninsular (i.e. European) Spanish; “chor-isso” is indeed closest to what would be regarded as General Latin American. (Precisely the same applies to the pronunciation of “Ibiza“, leaving aside the native Catalan “Eivissa” which would require another post…)

So, in other words, you may take your pick! Buen provecho.

What hope do they have?

“I saw a boy in the street, not older than five, and I asked him where he lived.

“‘Over there, Mister'” he said, pointing at the [majority Loyalist] area.

“‘And who lives over there?’ I asked.

“‘Them Fenian bastards.’

“And I thought to myself: ‘What hope does he have?'”

That was a story my late father used to tell about an encounter in the city the boy would presumably have called Londonderry almost exactly half a century ago. My father was not, it is fair to say, renowned for his progressive political attitudes, but the exchange stuck with him – as did his conclusion that children in Northern Ireland were being deprived of their future by the poison of sectarian bigotry into which they were introduced right from birth.

“We were all square with four holes to play in the fourballs which we knew would decide the whole match, and I drove left into ‘Ground Under Repair’.

“I retrieved my ball and took a free drop when one of the opposing pair challenged me as to what I was doing. I told him I was taking a free drop from ‘Ground Under Repair’.

“‘But under the rules’, he said, ‘You can’t actually take the drop until you have informed us what you are doing’

“‘Oh don’t be ridiculous’, I said.

“But then my playing partner, who was in the middle of the fairway, simply lifted his ball and yelled to our opponents ‘OK, your hole’.

“I asked him what on earth he was doing and even our opponents seemed a little embarrassed but he was insistent: ‘We broke the rules – it’s their hole!’

“Of course, our opponents simply fell apart after that, knowing that they really should not have taken a hole in that fashion, and we won the next three holes to win the match two up.”

That was another story my late father, a golf obsessive, told about how sometimes it is better – to the point of being cunningly off-putting – to be the stickler for the rules even when your opponents are being ridiculous.

These two stories came readily to mind last night as violence orchestrated by “Loyalist” gangs were met by the self-acclaimed “Leader of Unionism” not with leadership but with what can only be described as half-arsed whataboutery. Half a century on, children were being poisoned by sectarian bigotry and public servants were being attacked at work and the best the First Minister can do is worry about her own standing as she sits by her fireplace, engaging in performative whingeing while the country she professes to love goes up literally in flames around her.

The worst image was of a young boy throwing a petrol bomb against a “peace wall”. How did it come to that? “What hope does he have?”

Anyone who presides over the scandalous waste of money that was RHI, the complete breakdown of the Assembly and consequent loss of her own “side”‘s majority for the first time ever, the shambles of the negotiation that led to a Hard Brexit being foisted upon Northern Ireland in a way which even irked those who wanted it, and now the loss of inner-city streets to thuggery is clearly well out of her depth as a Leader. To do so and still claim the right to “call out failures” in others is to set new standards in delusion. Anyone who presides over the ongoing failure to plan for her party’s main platform and to deliver her party’s main priority policy while all the time demonstrating that her party’s slogan is a mirage because her party stalwarts should be treated more equally than anyone else is clearly disengaged from the real world. Jointly they cannot even agree a Head of the Civil Service, how to publish a Commission’s report, or how to implement their core community relations policies. It is a given that our current so-called Leaders are simply not competent. Neither would ever think of just “giving their opponents the hole” and thus embarrassing them with generosity. For as long as they remain in office, what hope do we have?

However, it must be said that not all the mis-steps have been the joint First Ministers’ (although their predecessors have typically been involved). Indeed, an obvious mis-step with which we are still living was the St Andrews Agreement. Far from beginning the necessarily gradual move away from institutionalised sectarianism at Stormont, it re-entrenched it – providing electoral reward to extremists and, wholly intentionally, outright electoral disadvantage to those who sought to reach across the barricades for genuine reconciliation. Government by mutual veto has not only been a disaster in the sense of the completely ineffective government it has delivered (wrecking the Health Service and pushing the education system to the brink for a start), but also in the model it set for society as a whole. It continues to present the delusion that we can deal with “themmuns” entirely on “our” own terms – that anything “we” get is a “right”, and anything “they” get is a “concession”; all the while, the only people actually discriminated against in the Northern Ireland electoral system are those who seek to represent the whole community. If that remains the case, what hope do any of us have?

The Governments made a critical error in late 2019 when they clung to the belief that reforming how the Assembly functioned was part of the multi-party negotiation rather than a fundamental issue of right and wrong. Supporting those who reach out across the traditional divide is right. Sectarian vetoes are wrong. There can be no negotiation about such basic facts.

Nevertheless, it will soon fall to us, the electorate, to tell the Governments and the joint First Ministers what we think of this ridiculous arrangement which continues to reward extremism and overlook incompetence. The future will be in our hands. That is the hope we have.

Is Unionism completely lost?

There is something odd about the concept of “Easter Tuesday”. Although there is little documentary evidence, it appears to have been a Unionist innovation in the days of “Majority Rule” to differentiate, well, “Protestant” Northern Ireland from, well, actually everywhere else. Instead of taking a holiday on the day of the actual sacrifice, let’s take one, er, two days after the resurrection and just restrict drinking on the day of the actual sacrifice. So far, so typical (and so “There’s another thing any vaguely sane government would long ago have changed”).

Yet there is also something odd about this picture [credit: Wesley Johnston] from the opening of the “Ballymena Bypass”, built as what was to be part of the “M2” motorway linking directly to the existing motorway built to Corr’s Corner in Newtownabbey (now the terminus of the “A8(M)” because in the end the direct route from there was deemed too difficult and the road was diverted from Sandyknowes near Mallusk to Antrim Town). The two “M2s” have never been linked so we ended up with two M2s (and there is yet another thing any vaguely sane government…)

But that’s not the oddity. The oddity is the sign, from the mid-60s, which does indeed say “1km“.

The Government of Northern Ireland’s motorway plans of 1964 were slightly mad, but they did point to a government which was at least partly gripped by the “white heat of technology” – in other words to one which, by the standards of the time, was at least capable of being “progressive”. This picture sums that up, as it clearly contemplated – off its own bat – going metric more than a decade before the Republic actually did so.

Indeed, in 1992 one delegate to the Young Unionist Council used this very argument – that Northern Ireland was more progressive than the Republic – in favour of the Union, quoting by way of specific example the Republic’s constitutional ban on abortion. The delegate happened herself to be female. Her name was Arlene Foster.

Unionists do descend from people who were typically at the vanguard of progressive politics in Ulster and across Ireland. Many of their ancestors were among the men of 1798; many others were at the Liberal end of theological debates between then and the start of the Victorian era; still others a century or so later were among the founders of the Labour Party at the time Belfast identified as an industrial, workers’ city.

Although oddities such as “Easter Tuesday” suggest there was always a reactionary element to Unionism, other areas of policy suggest that in fact it saw itself as progressive – at least in areas such as transport and agriculture. Yet now the kneejerk, every single time, is towards a crude and outdated capital-C Conservatism which exists nowhere else away from parts of the American South. In Councils Unionists cannot discuss misogyny without “mansplaining”, won’t even allow debates on animal rights, and even manage to make a fuss about free sanitary products. On literally any subject at all, they will adopt positions instinctively some of which would make even Donald Trump blush.

And so it is that last week a debate which began with a horrific and farcical reminder of Sinn Fein’s disgraceful conduct around a funeral last summer (when the party trashed its own Regulations and declared to all and sundry that an “Ireland of Equals” would make themselves alone more equal than everyone else) ended up with the likeliest political casualty being the Leader of the Ulster Unionist Party (who managed to turn an interview about the potential resignation of the Chief Constable into five painful minutes in which the resignation of his own colleague the Health Minister, in fact the most popular Executive Minister according to polls, became a much more logical conclusion of what he was saying). The Leader in question is Steve Aiken, whose name is in fact so irrelevant to public debate that the second caller could not even recall it.

I wrote myself that this is what happens when you follow the DUP Leader down a rabbit hole. Already Arlene Foster had turned the heat off Sinn Fein and for some reason on to the Chief Constable, on the basis of a decision made contrary to the Chief Constable’s wishes by the Public Prosecution Service. Having let Sinn Fein off the hook by making a demand which could never possibly be met, she was then herself let off the hook by the Leader of the smaller and supposedly “more moderate” Unionist party and the whole thing became a wrangle about Unionism.

A consequence of this and that other great rabbit hole – the campaign to abandon the Northern Ireland Protocol which is in fact fundamental to the type of Brexit the DUP’s votes made inevitable and which is required to make the UK-EU relationship function – is that many Unionists are feeling genuinely lost, and sadly some have turned to recreational rioting thus condemning youths in some communities to another generation of deprivation and marginalisation brought on because their role models are still gangsters given credence by the Leaders of Unionism (while claiming that the Protocol was to the detriment of everyone in Northern Ireland, Arlene Foster’s “outreach” reached out only as far as the Orange Order and the LCC, a “community council” made up in practice of gang leaders whose very establishment was with the objective of making itself redundant long ago). As a result Arlene Foster now jointly leads an administration which will have to implement a Protocol she claims to want scrapped and a Department (the Executive Office) whose core policy is to rid society of the very gangs she herself went to meet. Yet, far from pointing out the nonsense of such positions (and the decisions over the past five years or so which have inevitably led her to them), the other Unionist party decides to follow her down the same reactionary rabbit hole.

This is primarily a problem for Unionism, of course; but it is in the end a problem for all of us, because the solution to it is far from clear. Unionism itself has become something of a hologram – the world which it professes to represent and the objectives it professes to pursue simply do not exist, least of all to a movement commanding minority and declining support and loyalty. There is nothing any of us could do to make that world or those objectives exist, even if we wanted to. To point out that the UK electorate voted in a Government with a mandate to deliver the Protocol with an 80-seat majority or that Unionism is now a minority at every electoral level in Northern Ireland is not to be spiteful; it is simply to point to reality.

The issue here is too often stated in constitutional terms; but those young people who picked up criminal records rioting for purposes about which they had no idea whatsoever (and for stated objectives which simply do not exist) are being disadvantaged not by any Protocol or any Chief Constable but by the very people elected from their communities to represent them. The very fact those representatives engage in a fantasy world where they can still boss others about when they are 1% of the UK population and barely 40% of the NI population with no reliable external friends whatsoever is exactly why they are so marginalised. No one alienated them – they alienated themselves.

So where are the Unionists who represent that tradition of being at the vanguard of progressive, forward-looking politics? Where are the Unionists who recognise the need to deal with the actual world – the one in which democratic structures determine what decisions get made (including the UK’s relationship with the EU and who is the Chief Constable), the one in which the very real issues around the difficulties caused by the Protocol or poor policing impacting on us all get prioritised and dealt with, and indeed the one in which Northern Ireland’s future may be genuinely best secured as part of a multinational union free of the technocratic nonsense which has seen the EU (and thus the rest of Ireland) fail so spectacularly on vaccines?

Where are the Unionists even who, if you suggested “Easter Tuesday” simply isn’t a thing and needs to be removed from the calendar, would just agree with this obvious point rather than knee-jerk to some ludicrous defence of it?

It is in fact in all our interests for such Unionists to appear. If only the answer to how that could happen were as simple as the metric system…

“Unity” debate never gets beyond the surface

It is bin night tonight in my part of “Antrim and Newtownabbey”, and I will put out an entirely different set of bins here in what was “Newtownabbey” from my fellow borough residents in what was “Antrim”. Seven years have passed since the first merged council was elected.

When I phone social services on behalf of my mother, who lives in “Ards and North Down” (in the bit that was “North Down”), I am still asked before being put through in effect which of the old Council areas she lives in.

Yet we are supposed to believe that a “United Ireland” would immediately herald trains to Omagh and stratospheric GDP levels; or indeed that it would raise the appalling prospect of paying to see your GP or the cost of living in Belfast suddenly rising overnight to match that of Dublin.

Literally none of this would happen.

For good or ill, Northern Ireland would continue to exist, as would the RoI (“Rest of Ireland”?) – they would remain distinct legal jurisdictions with their own education systems, their own health services, and most of all their own cultures. Northern Ireland would not suddenly develop an outward-looking, entrepreneurial culture; nor is there the remotest prospect of an “All-Island NHS”. Transport projects would still be assessed by the Northern Ireland Civil Service according to its own systems and cultural norms; health would continue to be provided along current lines in each jurisdiction (Northern Ireland is a quarter of the way through a reform process fully six years after it started…), GPs would continue to be independent (and free, in all likelihood, for residents north of the border), and the cost of living would continue to be lower in Belfast than in Dublin – precisely because, with the exception of a few industry sectors, it does not have the entrepreneurial culture and outward-looking philosophy which makes Dublin an investment and start-up hub not least given its whole education system is based around churning out doctors, lawyers and teachers but absolutely not wealth creators.

Turning Northern Ireland into the Republic or the Republic into the North – whichever your preference in different areas – would take half a century even if everyone agreed it was the wise direction of travel.

As for a “new Ireland”, the question there is what is in it for the 5 million people in the current Republic. I would wager most would see a unity referendum as a choice for Northern Ireland of joining the Republic or remaining in the UK – and “joining the Republic” would mean “joining the Republic”, not creating some new Ireland. If we still need to create a “new Ireland”, what were the last 30 or so years all about, as they embarked on the most dramatic economic and social change perhaps ever seen in a western European country in peacetime?

Ultimately, there remains a profound unreality to all of this. A choice of UK or UI is a constitutional choice, but the political wrangles would remain (comfortingly or frustratingly) familiar. Ultimately, the objective needs to be to have Northern Ireland governed competently and as a united community by people who have an ability to think and feel for all its people rather than a particular cohort. If changing the constitutional position or indeed maintaining the constitutional position can move us towards that goal, I am listening. But right now I don’t hear anyone on any side speaking to that challenge – at least in the real world.

Oh, and that thing about paying for bin collections in the South and not in the North? Don’t expect that to change. At least not for at least seven years…

Without intervention, Inspector’s Report buries A5

It should be emphasised that posts of this nature are written in a personal capacity, as someone who once worked on feasibility studies for transport projects. They represent a statement of the situation, rather than a personal preference.

The Minister and various local politicians put a brave face on it, but the truth is the Inspector’s report into the A5 probably delivers a knock-out punch to it. This provides a serious challenge to the Minister – it is not good enough to remain “committed” to a project for which there is no evident rationale (that is ultimately what the report says). She has to decide – is she going to offer a Ministerial Direction to make it proceed despite the numerous objections raised by the Inspector, or is she going to accept that the lack of clear rationale and array of environmental concerns bury it?

It was widely assumed that work on the Derry-Strabane section of the road was just months away from commencing (not least on Wesley Johnson’s excellent and definitive site). However, the Inspector’s report can hardly be seen as a complete shock. The peculiar history of the project – and, specifically, the fact it would not have been conceived without a sudden offer of external funding – has always been its potential undoing.

The basic problem is that there is not, really, a rationale for the project (at least, in its entirety) that could not be presented for just about any other main road. This frustrating truth is demonstrated by the Inspector’s report and, specifically, its assessment of what the Department has stated is the rationale for the project since it was first conceived over a decade ago. The Inspector points out that this keeps changing; and that in itself hardly breeds confidence. It is, after all, simply not viable to spend over £1 billion of taxpayers’ money (regardless of which jurisdiction those taxpayers happen to live in) on a project whose rationale keeps shifting, and the Inspector makes this point directly. After all, that is why the story of the project so far is of tens of million being spent without a centimetre of road constructed.

Of course, it is obvious that the current A5 is not a great road; it is not even wide, so hold-ups are common and risks are high. However, the question posed is whether the fact it is not a great road is sufficient to justify what is effectively a 60-mile motorway, by far the longest road of its type ever constructed in Northern Ireland. Once environmental concerns are added to the mix, that case becomes objectively difficult to make.

The A5 was not considered a major corridor by the Northern Ireland authorities until, suddenly, flush with cash during the Celtic Tiger era the Irish Government (keen to link Dublin to Letterkenny) offered to fund half of the project. Design work was taken forward by the Northern Ireland authorities on the understanding that it was getting, in effect, twice the bang for its buck due to matched funding from Dublin. That is understandable, but it still does not provide a clear rationale for a project which had never been conceived on remotely this scale before Dublin’s intervention. After the financial crisis hit, the Irish Government also became a little less keen to mention what it had offered.

The issue of the corridors bears repeating. If the rationale is to connect Derry to Dublin, on pure financial terms it is easier to do that by upgrading the A29 Maghera-Dungannon or even the A26 Antrim-Lisburn – these are, respectively, seven and nineteen miles longer than A5/N2, but they are already of superior standard so the total cost of the necessary upgrades would be notably lower and would also provide other benefits which would make them more persuasive to an Inspector.

Put another way, bluntly, the cost-benefit analysis of constructing an expressway from Derry to Aughnacloy cannot be made to add up no matter how you try, particularly once you consider the range of environmental concerns (from local wildlife to requirements to be carbon neutral). The Report expressly states that the southernmost section from Ballygawley to Aughnacloy (and thus the border) simply cannot be justified – ever.

The Minister needs to be aware also that is not a black and white “construct or do not construct” issue either. The Department’s insistence that this must be seen as a single project (but then on constantly changing the rationale for that project) is its undoing. A justification could be made, for example, for constructing the Omagh-Ballygawley section to expressway standard as that would not just help Derry-Dublin traffic but also Omagh-Belfast; the Department effectively insists, however, that Omagh-Ballygawley cannot stand alone. As a result, even Omagh-Ballygawley gets stalled and tens of millions get wasted on a road which will never be built. On top of this, is there not at least a case for looking at alternative Derry-Dublin routes which would be cheaper and easier to construct to high standard? (This, of course, rather depends on what the rationale actually is…)

That is why this needs more than “commitment” from the Minister. The Inspector’s Report says the project lacks clear rationale and even that part of it can never be justified. (It is also so full of environmental assessment requirements that they alone could never be completed effectively – by the time they had all been done, they would all need to be re-done, and the cycle would go on forever.)

There are choices to be made by the Minister. She can instruct the project go ahead contrary to the environmental concerns raised. She can instruct her officials to break the project up and see if smaller sections with specific rationales of their own could get the green light. Or she can accept the environmental and financial hurdles are too great. But meekly talking about “commitment” while a project which has cost tens of million already simply subsumes even more money that really could be better spent elsewhere will not suffice.

Government is about decisions – and this needs one, now.

It was a penalty, you know…

I see the “experts” were at their work yesterday, saying that Arsenal’s second-half penalty should not have been awarded. It was in fact as clear-cut a penalty kick offence as you will see.

The problem arises from a broader sense of fair play – that the ball was already away and the chance already fluffed before the foul took place. Under the laws of the game, however, that is irrelevant.

Let us take a look.

Under the laws of the game (specifically Law 12), a number of offences must to be “reckless” before a foul requiring the award of a direct free-kick is committed (for example, “charging”). However, some are fouls regardless of whether or not they are specifically reckless – one of which is “impeding the progress of an opponent through contact“.

There is no question that Lacazette’s progress was impeded by an opponent through contact.

The laws of the game go on to note: “If a player commits a direct free kick offence within their own penalty area, a penalty kick is awarded irrespective of the position of the ball, provided the ball is in play“.

Therefore, to be clear, a foul has been committed which must be penalised regardless of the level of recklessness and irrespective of the position of the ball. As it was committed in the penalty area, a penalty kick is the correct award.

In the case of a foul committed through contact, the laws of the game sometimes make a distinction depending on the level of recklessness, but they make no distinction for the impact of that foul on the play (and they do not make a distinction even for the level of recklessness in the case of impeding progress through contact).

In other words, a foul is a foul.

Lacazette himself was not wrong to say that he had been “lucky”; he had indeed already fluffed the opportunity and the foul was therefore senseless in the context of the play. This was the sense that some people had – that it was “lucky” and therefore somehow should not have been awarded. However, as a matter of fact, the laws of the game must be applied regardless of the level of “luck” involved.

Interestingly, those designing the rules of hockey do take account of that “lucky” aspect. The rules of hockey set out under Rule 9 a range of offences, which include “touching, handling, [impeding] or interfering with [another player]“; however, they then note at 12.1 “a penalty [i.e. a free hit, penalty corner or penalty stroke] is awarded only when a player or team has been disadvantaged by an opponent breaking the rules“. Leaving aside the complexities of the distinction between a penalty corner or a penalty stroke, this means that an offence of this nature long after the ball has gone would not be subject to a penalty of any kind in hockey, given it has not caused the opponent a disadvantage.

In football, however, there is no “Rule 12.1”; a lucky penalty award does not mean it is a wrong one. In some ways, this rather sums up the standard of public debate on a range of issues – we have to be able to distinguish between what we think should be the case ideally and what is the case actually.

What is the case, genuinely without bias, is that lucky Lacazette was correctly awarded a penalty kick.

NI roads – a quiet revolution

The first stretch of motorway built anywhere in the UK & Ireland outside England was the M1 Belfast-Lisburn almost 60 years ago. The perception is that once vast plans for motorways springing up everywhere in (the east of) Northern Ireland were stalled by the Troubles; they would probably have largely been stalled by reality anyway.

By the time I started driving in 1995, there were around 70 miles of motorway in Northern Ireland – 60 “networked” on what were once to be called the North Approach (M2 mainline and M22) and South Approach (M1), plus another ten or so on the stubs of what were once to be greater things (M5, A8(M), M12, M2 Ballymena Bypass and, opened that year, M3).

With the exception of the M3 Lagan Bridge, from the mid 1980s until 2010 mainline upgrades were carried out almost universally by “dualling”; simply adding a carriageway to an existing carriageway and putting traffic on either side. This gives many of the benefits of a motorway (including two lanes each way and a 70mph limit for cars) and is safer than a single carriageway main road, but it still allows traffic to cross and right turns and other impediments such as roundabouts or even traffic lights. The most obvious example of this was the A1 Lisburn-Newry (the final stretch of which between Banbridge-Newry turned out to be the last stretch of road so built in 2006), but there was also the A26 Antrim-Ballymena, A2 Londonderry-Derry Airport and some other short stretches. By the mid 2000s, however, this option was becoming seen as fundamentally unsafe – a cheap option with a frightening toll.

The cross-border road on the Belfast-Dublin mainline was built as what is commonly called an “expressway” (officially “high quality dual carriageway”), distinct from regular dual carriageways because it allows left exit/entrance only and thus enables a safety barrier all the way down. Such roads provide almost all (indeed sometimes, as in the case of the Newry Bypass and road across the border, all) the advantages of motorways while being marginally more efficient in terms of the land take – so as opposed to dualling on the cheap, they genuinely provide a safe and efficient alternative.

Between late 1962 and 1975, 108km of motorway was constructed in Northern Ireland.

The completion of the Drumahoe-Dungiven A6 expressway will mean 92km of expressway will have been constructed in Northern Ireland since 2010 in a slightly shorter period than those motorways were built; the conversion of the A1 Hillsborough-Banbridge also to expressway standard, hopefully to follow within a couple of years, will see the expressway network expand by a further 23-24km. The A5 upgrade will then see the expressway network grow to markedly longer than the motorway network.

As of now, just over 40 miles of expressway have been constructed in Northern Ireland in the last twelve and a half years – the upgrade of the A1 and completion of A6 upgrades will in fact see this total rise to close to 70; the northern section of the A5 in the Derry/Strabane Council area will in fact, upon its likely completion by mid-decade, increase the length of the “expressway network” to longer than the “motorway network” (even including stubs) in Northern Ireland, with even further stretches of A5 to follow imminently.

Interestingly, 75 miles of the total of around 170 miles of combined motorway/expressway network (albeit still interrupted by frustrating roundabouts in areas such as A6 Toome, A8 Glengormley and A1 Hillsborough) thus constructed by the second half of this decade will be west of the Bann. This quiet “expressway revolution” is providing Northern Ireland with a fairly rapidly improving major road network, and largely to the benefit of places previously ignored by it.

We have not noticed because our neighbours in the Republic have done all of their motorway/expressway building in the last few decades and now have, probably, the finest motorway/expressway network in Europe. But, while far from perfect, Northern Ireland’s will by the late 2020s be really quite good by UK standards, delivered without tolls. So, it is a good news story in an era of cynicism…!

Ulster-Scots census – for guid an ill…

One of the most talked about aspects of the census, currently being returned across Northern Ireland, is the availability of an Ulster-Scots version as well as a question about it. There are numerous issues here – the question, the purpose of a version, and the need (for the sake of Ulster Scots itself as well as the humble taxpayer) for professional translators.


First off, however, we need to distinguish between just ridiculing Ulster Scots for the sake of a few “likes” on one hand, and legitimate criticism of the way it is presented/translated on the other. In that regard, it may be worth checking my post last week and then bearing in mind both that “Swiss German” has no written standard (so developing a written standard need not be part of minority language development), and also that “Luxembourgish” does have a written standard which can be subject to ridicule by those more used to Standard German (so if the process of standardisation is commenced, ridicule will inevitably be part of the bargain, with various degrees of legitimacy – notably, in fact, the first attempt at a written standard for Luxembourgish was abandoned and entirely replaced by the modern standard).

So, to be clear, the story from German-speaking Europe is that Ulster Scots is worthy or respect and study; it does not require a written standard; yet it may decide it wants one in which case ridicule is inevitable; however, the first attempt at one may need to be abandoned. In other words, the ridicule may be illegitimate but actually it may be legitimate, provided it is aimed at what is presented rather than at the overall process of language study.


I should add that I am slightly troubled by the question in the census, and let us go back again to Luxembourgish. The question asks if I “speak, read, understand or write” Irish or Ulster Scots, or if I have “no ability”. With Irish, none of those applies in my case – I cannot claim really to “speak”, “read”, “understand” or “write” it in any way approaching proficiency, yet nor do I have “no ability”; I was forced, reluctantly, to tick the latter option on the basis I really could not claim any of the others. With Ulster Scots, conversely, almost everyone in Ulster (all of it) will “understand” Ulster Scots and most will “read” it; whether they “speak” it is more questionable and whether anyone really “writes” it is unclear – and the census translation demonstrates that. I can legitimately claim all four (I have even written blog posts in it) given that the key to the latter is consistency – as we are about to see – but then noted that in practice I do not do so very often (therein may indeed lie a problem – the focus is so much on developing a written standard that the opportunities for using it in practice are few and far between).


In this case, criticism of the census translation is largely justified. It is not the worst I have ever seen, but it contains unnecessary complexity, inconsistent spellings and an unawareness of grammar. The obvious immediate issue with this is the continued spending of public money on linguistic development being carried out by people with no qualifications to do it. (I would say we would not do that in any other walk of life, although of course Chris Grayling had other ideas with his boat contracts…)

Let us not bore ourselves with the whole thing (I did it in English, for reference) and instead look at where this one has gone awry.

OO not OU: A minor point here, but writing “oo” in Ulster Scots is in fact to use English spelling to represent a Scots sound – Scots speakers will know to pronounce OU in the way English speakers pronounce OO – so better out, count, about etc.

OAN: As above, OA is not traditionally used this way in Scots writing (“on” will be pronounced as if “oan” naturally by Scots speakers – they don’t need to be reminded by an English spelling convention): also form (no need for foarm).

scrievin: A spelling and a semantic error here. Scots is almost invariably EI (so screivin or screivein but not scrievin); but the semantic error is more troubling, as the verb screive really means “scribble” or “jot”, so it is extending it somewhat to suggest that it can refer to formal writing or form-filling.

WHUT: Again, an English spelling convention to represent (erroneously, in fact) a Scots sound – Scots traditionally has whit here (also later in the census wird ‘word’) which will be pronounced by Scots speakers to rhyme with bit (which no one spells but).

THA: This is not the end of the world but is blatantly just differentiating for its own sake – traditional Scots is happy with the.

onlie/yinst: two slightly strange aspects here. Phonologically, while the -t here is not unknown in Scots (cf. English ‘amongst’, ‘whilst’) it is in fact more associated with Mid Ulster; traditional Scots would in fact be ance (the initial y-glide is automatic to Scots speakers); more relevantly, yinst and onlie are ultimately the same word with a different ending, so ance and anelie are the traditional spellings (cf. ‘once’ and ‘only’; also ‘lonely’, ‘alone’, ‘one’ in English) – this type of error when the writer goes for an ear-spelling rather than considering the etymology, grammatical linkage and actual meaning of the word is too common.

10 yeir: this is actually correct (after numbers the singular form of measurements is used in Scots), but renders thrie *monds later in the census incorrect (thrie mond translates to ‘three months’).

picter: I have not even added the written accent here – it is very odd and there is no reason for it; again, this comes from the sense that you have to dictate to the reader how to pronounce the word, but an actual speaker will know!

axes… this whole sentence is problematic. Firstly, the word here is ask (it is true some speakers invert the consonants but that is up to them); then you cannot ask for speirins; speir is an archaic word (in Ulster at least) essentially carrying the meaning of ‘ask’ in the sense of ‘consult’. As a result, I’m genuinely a little lost what the sentence is supposed to say; also, if tha yin day (the ae dey is more likely in literary Scots) is ‘the same day’ why would it not then be tha yin [ae] speirins?

Sawbith… and then the date is very curious. It is true that some speakers refer to Sindey ‘Sunday’ as the Sabbath Dey but then they do in English too – the formal name of the day, however, is Sindey (not least, ahem, in a secular census); then 21st is retained where traditional Scots would in fact allow a variation here to 21t; but then the weirdest thing in the entire translation is the random insertion of an ‘and’ in the middle of a number. Do we write ‘200and8’ in English? Well, no.

gethert bi: this is really a grammatical “error”, insofar as those can exist in a minority language with no standard form. Broad Scots in fact would have gethert frae – the preposition used with the passive is different (generally frae for willing actors and wi for non-willing ones – e.g. blawed ower wi the wind ‘blown over by the wind’).

uised tae mak: I am unclear how idiomatic this sentence is, really, but it is definitely for tae mak in Broad Scots – where intention is meant, Scots adds for here.

oan: I am unclear why this is preferred to the actually differentiated and undeniably formal, literary Scots anent.

hoo: this is indisputably a lexical “error”; hou in fact carries the meaning of ‘why’ in Scots; better here whit wey.

pye: actually a habitual is probably required here: pyes [peys].

plenish: I do not know what this means here.

lake: this is a random ear-spelling – Scots would allow any of like, lyk or perhaps even liek or lik but definitely not lake.

leir, convoy an halth: these are not the end of the world although really transport would be fine; it is good to see halth here actually, in preference to the often erroneously used poustie (which in fact carries a meaning more like ‘prosperity’).

things: oooh, horrible random umlaut – please take it away!

that irnae: hmmm… not disastrous but more fluent contemporary Scots speakers would be likelier to say at/as (b)isna – with a singular verb form and perhaps a habitual (in fact used earlier as bis).

haetae: this is a typo, essentially – there are two words here (there is also an and later rather than an).

bodie wha: again, as with that irnae, this is not really contemporary speech and represents an Anglicisation which afflicts even the best Scots writers; in most if not all varieties of spoken traditional Scots, wha is exclusively a question word – bodie that or bodie at would be preferred otherwise (and probably even was at the time of Burns, who himself should probably have written Scots at haes…!) – oddly, later in the same paragraph, bodie that indeed appears (but then makes it inconsistent).

ether… I get a bit lost on this line, to be honest.

bes: it was bis above – either is in use, but it is best consistently to use one or the other.

There is a lot more I could have said, but that gives a flavour of the basic issues – ear-spellings, inconsistent spellings and grammatical usage, lack of focus on grammar, and general lack of clarity. This is before we consider whether the whole thing is really written in the right register for a census form, and whether some of the lexical choices (not least heid coont [count]) are really legitimate.


We need to be careful not to ridicule Ulster Scots itself on the basis of some poor choices in linguistic development.

Nevertheless, it would remain a wise idea for linguistic development in all its various forms actually to involve linguists. That should go without saying, but in the modern world you do wonder…