Scots language – does allowing people to make mistakes work?

in response to this piece last week, one Scot responded arguing that Scots could not survive unless people were allowed to make mistakes.

Up to a point, that is true of anything, of course, and particularly of language learning. I have argued for a long time that making mistakes and learning from them is central to the art.

There is a problem here, however. It is essentially this: if I am learning a language, I do not go writing newspaper articles in it until I attain a reasonable degree of fluency.

I would argue this is even worse when the language in question is endangered. Far from people using them wrongly for symbolic reasons, what minority languages need is people taking the time to learn them properly and then using them well. This situation is magnified when the minority language is in any case similar to the majority language (Scots to English, Catalan to Spanish, etc).

No language can survive if, ultimately, it is constantly used with reference to another language (e.g. Scots with reference to English). That applies whether the problem is that there is too much interference from the other language (as is often the case with Scots in Scotland), or if the problem is that the language is artificially distanced (with, for example, deliberately inaccessible spellings and bizarre neologisms, as is often the case with Ulster Scots).

So, yes, people who care about minority languages should use them. But they should use them with the ultimately objective of learning them thoroughly, and they should be aware there are certain levels of proficiency required before they try using it in certain contexts. It is also inappropriate to use it for the sake of political symbolism when it is not being used well – that just invites ridicule, as last week’s blog post demonstrated. To be absolutely clear, if you just write English with a few made-up spellings and pass it off as Scots, you will end up with everyone speaking English and not Scots.

“Liberal Unionists” have no future in UUP

The Ulster Unionists suffered the worst decline of any party in this month’s election, losing both their seats and 30,000 votes even on a higher turnout. In some cases, despite a hard-working campaign and perfectly competent candidates, the vote halved versus March alone.

Yet the party’s base remains conservative in every sense. It has no feel for how to reach out across the divide – as Mike Nesbitt (another victim of an astonishing decline last Thursday) had tried to do in February to the horror of many of his own candidates. There is a strand of opinion even within the diminished party which is in favour of Unionist Unity anyway – seemingly unaware that poor elections are bound to deliver just that anyway.

Where now for “Liberal Unionists”? I have long queried whether these really exist – of course there are people who are Liberal and favour maintenance of the UK, but prioritising constitutional politics is not what Liberals typically do. If the purpose of “Liberal Unionism” is a Northern Ireland for all, there are many non-Unionists serious about that too – and the electoral reality is that the only way to gain influence to deliver is to cooperate with them.

In short, this means there is no point in “Liberal Unionists” trying to deliver from within an ever-diminishing UUP most of whose members are not Liberal Unionists anyway. Remaining a minority of a minority of a minority is pointless.

Ultimately a realignment is going to happen. “Liberal Unionists” have now to decide whether they will take a leading role within it.

What could the various financial deals look like?

We are now at the stage where the DUP has, shall we say, “endorsed” Theresa May’s Conservatives in office but absolutely no more, while talks are ongoing for the grandest possible coalition at devolved level in Northern Ireland. To some extent, the former makes the latter easier – it is now politically easier for the Conservatives to accede to particular financial demands from Northern Ireland, even if they are not from the DUP.

Nevertheless, this does not quite mean that “no pothole will go unfilled” as suggested by one LBC commentator, although I saw his broad point. Regionally identifiable funding is subject to the Barnett Formula, so money cannot simply be dished out.

Nevertheless, some things probably could be worth requesting through a less strict application of “parity” and a series of “Programme Funds”:

– acceptance that the RHI shortfall and the non-application of bedroom tax do not breach parity, at a stroke restoring £40m to the Northern Ireland devolved budget annually (perhaps throwing Air Passenger Duty into the bargain for another few million; reduced Corporation Tax is less likely as Scotland would inevitably seek it too);

– establishment of a “UK-Ireland Infrastructure Fund” (around a third Dublin-funded in line with existing A5 commitments to meet requirements of St Andrews) to assist with infrastructure in border areas (effectively enabling the A5 Derry-Ballygawley and A6 Derry-Dungiven to be built with external money, saving the Northern Ireland devolved budget in effect around £200m/year to the mid-2020s, plus the Border Pipeline);

– establishment of a “UK-Ireland Health Transformation Fund” (mainly UK Government funded but with some Irish funding to explore cross-border cooperation for rarer treatments or conditions) to enable Northern Ireland’s devolved Health budget to be spent entirely on care while an extra amount (perhaps a reasonable sizeable one bigger than either of the savings above) is allocated by the UK Government towards the change management required for the transformation to take place in return for sharing of relevant learning and best practice (for example with developing integrated Health and Social Care systems in places like Greater Manchester);

– establishment of a “UK-Ireland Compensation Fund” (exclusively UK funded but with potential relevance across the Island) to pay victims of historical child abuse without affecting the Northern Ireland devolved budget; and

– a “UK-Ireland Communities Fund” to help inner-city communities overcome paramilitarism and help border communities (and businesses) with any of the administration arising from Brexit.

I should emphasise, not all of these would be on my priority list and I am not suggesting this is all fair. Much of it simply kicks the economic can down the road. Nor do I think all of it is deliverable at once. But it is a judgement of the sort of thing the main parties may be looking at as the various deals unfold.

Could Brexit mean end of NHS?

I earned headlines in Dublin last week for my contention at a European Movement/Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung conference at Iveagh House that a Hard Brexit would turn London into some kind of casino town, attracting the rich and playful but doing very little for those on low and fixed incomes elsewhere in the country as Sterling declined. In the room, however, there was more interest in my contention that Brexit could mean the end of the NHS.

I would, in fact, have thought this was obvious from the very start. Sir John Major warned before he referendum that Brexit would place the NHS (by which I mean a universal health service free at point of access) in the hands of people who did not care for it as a model. Figures last week showing that nurses seeking entry to the UK have declined by 96% – an inevitable consequence of the whole atmosphere of post-Brexit Britain – show that it will be impossible to staff the Service without investing huge amounts (ahem, like more than £350m/week) in training alone. Most of all, the simple and obvious fact is that restricting trade will make the country materially poorer, reducing Government revenues and, as an obvious consequence, Health Budgets.

This is why the whole £350m claim was so utterly bogus. Leaving the EU will inevitably reduce, not increase, UK Government revenue and thus cost the Health Service money as well as staff. Since it is already teetering, it is genuinely hard to see how it survives.

There was genuine debate at the event as to whether the recent UK election result raises the prospect of Brexit not in fact proceeding. I am genuinely unsure. However, if a referendum were re-run now, making the obvious point that Brexit almost certainly means the end of the NHS, I wonder just how many people would vote for it… what, indeed, is the “will of the people”?

No need for significant tampering with laws of football

Something I feel Association Football has over other sports is the simple and unchanging nature of its rules (actually “laws”). There are only 17 laws of the game (a sizeable proportion of which refer not to gameplay itself but to equipment and such like), and they are very simple. In fact, very often, when reference is made at the start of a season to changes in the laws of the game, this should properly be a reference to interpretation; the laws themselves rarely change much.

Not only does this provide simplicity, but also consistency through the ages. You can go back and watch a Cup Final from the early 1970s, or the brilliant Brazil of Pele, or whatever, and you know that the laws of the game were more or less the same then as they are now. There have been some minor amendments – notably around when or how the goalkeeper is entitled to hold the ball (the back pass law and precise rules around regaining “possession” having dropped the ball), interpretation of offside (which now gives the overwhelming benefit, both positionally and in terms of “interfering with play”, to the attacking team), and the restart of play (most obviously and most recently the kick-off, which is no longer required to go forward at all). Some interpretations have changed too, including around the “professional foul” and the precise circumstances in which an immediate red card is a legitimate punishment. However, the fundamentals are unchanged and easy to understand. Compare this with almost any other version of football, and the consistency is remarkable.

The game’s rules body, the IFAB, has now produced a report on some quite radical outline changes. I happen to think these are taking a sledgehammer to crack a nut, but they are worth looking at.

Match timing change

I don’t like it at all

One proposal is for the game to consist of two 30-minute halves, but with the watch stopped for every dead ball (between a penalty being awarded and taken, between a goal and kick-off, between a card and restart of play, between a signal for substitution and restart, etc).

I can see why this is thought worthy of consideration, but for me it is impracticable. At amateur level, where there are not even linesmen far less stadium clock assistants, it would put too much pressure on referees, who have plenty more to be dealing with. (At amateur level a referee doesn’t generally stop the watch at all, just taking a mental note of the length of any exceptional stoppage. At least, that’s what I did…)

Half/full-time only on ball going dead

On balance, I don’t like it.

Rugby fans will remember this year’s Six Nations match between France and Wales, where play continued for a full extra quarter (20 minutes) as France sought the winning try and conversion. The laws state that the game should only end once the offensive team concedes possession or forces the ball to go dead; but the practical outcome was ludicrous.

Equally ludicrous, perhaps, was Welsh referee Clive Thomas’ decision to blow for full time as Brazil took a corner against Sweden in the 1978 World Cup – the kick was headed directly into the net, but the goal deemed to have been after time. That was equally ludicrous.

Association Football does perfectly well in comparison to either these days. There is clarity about the minimum amount of time to be added, and the whistle is typically blown with the ball near the half-way line or after a clearance. That is fine.

The proposal here is for half-time or full-time to occur only upon the ball going out of play. For me, this could make the final minutes highly artificial, with a team needing a goal desperately trying to keep the ball fairly central, and the defensive team trying to carve out opportunities simply to launch it out of play. I do see the potential advantage in the clarity of the situation, but for me there is nothing wrong with it as is.

Passing to yourself at restart

On balance, I don’t like it.

This idea is that the player taking a corner, goal kick or free kick could simply dribble – something allowed from a free hit in field hockey, by comparison.

I am not vehemently against this, but I wonder how practicable it is. When would we deem the kick to have been taken?

Another proposal would allow the goal kick to be taken even with the ball moving. Although I see why (essentially to speed up play), this seems an unnecessary complication to the laws.

A further proposal is for goal kicks to be taken on the side the ball went out. This seems consistent, because this is a requirement for corners. However, it would actually slow down the game potentially, just at a time the other proposals are designed to speed it up. (In practice, it would also often be difficult for a referee at amateur level to judge the side.)

Notably, the current laws require any goal kick or free kick from within the penalty area to leave the area before the ball is deemed to be in play. It is unclear how this requirement would be dealt with. I say leave well enough alone!

Back pass penalty

I thoroughly dislike it!

Perhaps the most bizarre proposal is to make handling of the ball by the goalkeeper from a back-pass throw-in an offence, thus penalised by a penalty kick.


The laws of the game are clear that handling the ball from a back pass, like offside, is not an offence. It is merely a technical infringement, thus penalised by an indirect free kick. Leave it be!

A ‘penalty goal’

On balance, I like it.

The specific proposal here is for a goal to be awarded where a player other than the goalkeeper stops the ball entering the goal with the hand.

I have in fact long advocated that when a goal is certain to be scored and is stopped by a foul, a ‘penalty goal’ should be awarded – I outlined the details here.

So I wonder about limiting this to handball. Nevertheless, I like the principle and perhaps it is a useful starting point.

Clearer definition of ‘Handball’

I like it – it’s necessary.

This is a nightmare for referees. What appears incredibly simple in theory is not at all in practice.

The law states essentially that handball must be deliberate but is unclear about whether any movement of the hand/arm and subsequent touching of the ball or the specific intent to play the ball is meant. I always called it according to the former, but I may well have been wrong.

Sudden death penalty

On balance, I don’t like it.

The proposal here, again in fact an alignment with field hockey, is to deem the ball dead as soon as a penalty is saved, as per a penalty shoot-out.

This is designed to stop encroachment into the penalty area as both teams chase the rebound, but I do not see the problem. You can stop encroachment merely by stopping encroachment!

I can see some merit in stopping the lottery of the rebound follow-up. However, it would be inconsistent with the other laws of the game and I see no compelling reason to make this change.

General changes 

I like them all.

Some other changes are already being trialled, and I have to say I quite like them:

  • changing the order of kicks in a penalty shoot out (these would become more like a tennis tie breaker, with the team winning the toss going first but then kicks proceeding two for each team);
  • captains only speak to the referee (I used to insist on this anyway); and
  • players leave the field at nearest touchline even for substitutions (to save time wasting).

However, beyond these and a couple of others noted above (alongside a minor amendment I would make around allowing a goalkeeper to take a free kick inside his/her own area from the hands), there is not much wrong with the laws as they stand.

Keep it simple…

Opposition needs to learn from Corbyn that criticism is not enough

Anyone acquainted with me in any way whatsoever will be well aware I am not exactly Jeremy Corbyn’s greatest fan. However, there is one thing he gets absolutely right that Northern Ireland’s smaller parties get wrong – he does not just criticise, he offers something.

I or anyone else may choose to disagree vehemently with what Mr Corbyn offers and to cast it as irresponsible or outright dangerous, but at least it is something.

Have a look at the smaller parties in Northern Ireland, most obviously the Ulster Unionists and the SDLP. Just glance down their recent releases or watch anything their Leader has said. What you will see and hear is criticism of what others (the larger communal rival, the other side, the UK Government or even Jessie Jackson) are doing or saying or indeed not doing – but what you will not hear is an offer of anything. What exactly would be different if I voted for them?

Earlier this month Jeremy Corbyn got incredibly lucky, because his gains were down primarily to the pathetic campaign of Theresa May. However, he did offer something – and many genuinely responded to his call for hope and politics for the many. What are Robin Swann and Colum Eastwood offering that is even remotely comparable?

It is simply not good enough to critique the larger parties or the national governments and then hope people turn to you. You need to make an offer of something discernibly different. Agree or disagree, like or loathe, that is what Jeremy Corbyn did. It is to be learned from.

Difference between Scots and Gibberish

Oh dear.


Let us leave aside the sentiment. Linguistically, this is nonsense.

Scots is not just makey-uppy English; it is a linguistic system in its own right and, despite the lack of an absolute standard, that system has rules – including with regard to spelling.

This should in fact read something like: we soudna be takkin the fit aff the undependence accelerator, we soud be pressin it tae the fluir! Like Wallace, nou isna the time for faint herts – it’s the time for bauld new braveherts!

The most obvious confusion concerns the digraph ‘ui‘, as in guid ‘good’. This has a very specific pronunciation (although it varies from dialect to dialect, it is always higher than in English), which is distinct from the ‘ou‘ in soud/shoud ‘should’ (pronounced more or less as in English) and the ‘i‘ in fit ‘foot’. In fact, the only word in which it actually appears is spelled in the original to suggest a different pronunciation – in fact the vowel in fluir ‘floor’ is pronounced in Scots as in guid (the original ‘flair’ is just nonsense). There is more to writing Scots than just guessing based on English pronunciation.

Even in this small section, there are other obvious errors and inconsistencies, notably ‘bold’ (actually if it is auld ‘old’ it must, etymologically and phonologically, be bauld ‘bold’).

The problem with the promotion of Scots in Scotland has for some time been the reverse of the problem for Ulster Scots in Northern Ireland and Donegal. In Scotland, the tendency is to go too close to English; in Northern Ireland, the tendency is to go too far away. In both cases, however, the result too often is a completely inconsistent mess with no basis on good linguistic practice.

Underlying this particular piece (and, it must be said, others like it in the same paper) seems to be the rather ludicrous notion that because someone is Scottish they can automatically speak and write Scots. Actually the vast majority of Scots speak and write English, albeit with notable Scots influence. Scots itself, however, is a different linguistic system with its own etymological, literary and orthographical heritage – something you would think independence supporters would recognise! Like anything else, it must be learned properly before it is used – otherwise the result just looks like scunnersom haivers.



To survive, SDLP cannot just be “SF lite”


Two years ago Alasdair McDonnell narrowly lost the SDLP Leadership and, with it, his parliamentary seat. His replacement, Colum Eastwood, was a lot greener in every sense, and his determination to try to match Sinn Féin’s position in everything has now delivered the most crushing electoral defeat in its history, including costing Mr McDonnell himself his seat as Unionists came out in droves to replace him.

Six weeks before polling day the Irish News ran a story on the front page that Sinn Féin and the SDLP had discussed a pact. Then MP for South Down Margaret Ritchie was horrified, tweeting immediately that the SDLP did not do pacts – partly no doubt because she recognised they would cost her lent votes from Unionists, but probably also because she believed it. Her Party Leader said little, however, and the news agenda was set. He was later forced to admit that they had been discussed. If Ms Ritchie had ever had any chance of nicking enough tactical votes to retain her seat, it was gone now and she probably knew it.

Three weeks before polling day the SDLP launched its manifesto. Speaking at the launch, the Party Leader chose to prioritise in his speech something which was barely in the manifesto at all – a “Border Poll”, and by the end of the decade at that. At that moment, it is not unreasonable to believe that 170 people of broadly unionist background decided they could not lend their vote to a party whose platform was now utterly indistinguishable from Sinn Féin’s in any case, and his colleague Mark Durkan lost his Foyle seat.

For all its honourable past, under current leadership, the SDLP offers nothing of consequence different from Sinn Féin. Brexit is bad, the DUP can’t be trusted, we should have a Border Poll more or less immediately, Tory cuts are terrible – in fact the only meaningful difference is on abortion, where it is Sinn Féin which takes the more moderate position. “Sinn Féin lite” with an added dose of social conservatism is never going to cut it.

As a consequence, the SDLP lost its entire Westminster representation and is now relegated firmly into the second tier alongside the Ulster Unionists and Alliance. It will no doubt point to 95,000 votes, but almost exactly half of those were cast in the three constituencies where the SDLP had the incumbent. In the other 15, the SDLP was a distant fifth – and with no incumbents next time, it is hard to see how any of the three previously held seats will not now swing to Sinn Féin the same way as Newry & Armagh post-Mallon or even Belfast West post-Hendron.

Like the Ulster Unionists, the SDLP shows no willingness even to learn that it will never ever out-do its communal rival on the constitutional issue. If I want a United Ireland tomorrow, I’ll vote for the party with Dáil representation thanks. If I want someone who will take their seat to take on the Tories on the NHS and welfare, I probably won’t want to risk those in a United Ireland tomorrow anyway (whether or not it is my ultimate aspiration).

You can shoot the messenger all you like, but try to ride two horses and you tend to fall off.

Media analysts need to report talks, not create own narratives

In this era of 24-hour news, on demand TV and Twitter, there is a real sense in which the media (in whatever form) seem to create stories and narratives rather than report them. One example is the impact of a potential Conservative-DUP arrangement at UK level on talks to restore a devolved Executive in Northern Ireland.

It seems to me some in the media have decided that this creates a problem because it apparently imbalances the talks process.

What is interesting, and indeed to be applauded, is that Sinn Féin itself has said no such thing. It has suggested that a Conservative deal is not in the interests of Northern Ireland in general, and there are many who share that view. But in fact it has said clearly that it wishes to get on with the talks process, noting that it never saw the UK Government as impartial anyway (a point it made frequently long before last Thursday). Indeed, its implicit position is that the restoration of a Conservative Government of any kind is all the more reason to restore political powers to this part of Ireland – which, if it becomes explicit, is an entirely logical and sensible position for any left-leaning party to hold (and even more so for an Irish Republican one).

For all their faults, both the DUP and Sinn Féin generally say what they mean. The DUP got a mandate on a specific platform of restoring devolution “with no red lines”; Sinn Féin has said we should get to work. The media’s role is to report that is what they have said, not to create a notion of further instability based on the analysis of those same “pundits” who misread how well those two parties would do in the election in the first place.

Although of course I stand opposed to them vehemently on most of the issues, it is the DUP and Sinn Féin who will decide whether they want devolution restored, and the evidence of a fairly tame election campaign (for which both were rewarded by the voters) and a reasonably mature line taken after it is that they do. So they should be given every chance to prove they can deliver. After all, where there is a will there is a way.

Everything on the table on Brexit

I am in Dublin today with the Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung hosted by the European Movement for a conference on our future relations with the EU which could not be better timed. Suddenly, everything is back on the table.

Even a Conservative-DUP coalition would hold a majority in the Commons of just 12 (after the Speaker and SF). It takes just six rebels for it to fail, and by-elections will surely reduce that number even if Parliament survives in current form.

Theresa May went into the election seeking an increased mandate for a line which was essentially “no deal is better than a bad deal”. The people spoke, and said “Actually, no Brexit is better than a bad Brexit“.

Political parties are all about holding on to power. With a recession coming, Conservatives have already begun muttering that they never really intended to leave the Single Market. Interestingly, they don’t need the DUP for that – the similarly electorally chastened SNP would give them the numbers to deliver that and get off the hook of requiring an independence referendum it would surely lose.

Then the question arises about the Customs Union. The reason for leaving it is to do “our own trade deals”, but that is nonsense. The UK would not get better trade deals on its own that it would as part of the world’s largest trading bloc. The people aren’t as stupid as Brexit Secretary David Davis seems to think, so he must know that they know this.

Putting maintenance of the Single Market and the Customs Union back on the table then raises the obvious further question – why leave at all? I suggested immediately after the referendum that what the UK should in fact negotiate is an emergency brake on immigration while remaining in the EU as an “associate”. Suddenly, that looks like not only the most sensible option, but probably also the most popular one…