Category Archives: Uncategorized

Judge Trudeau on delivery

In the midst of the craziness – as Farage visits Trump while Putin licks his lips – Canadian PM Justin Trudeau seems to outsiders like a breath of fresh air. His 50% female cabinet, apologies to native groups, and attendance at LGBTQ events have been a welcome relief for social liberals; his knowledge of quantum physics, commitment to healthy living and even pro-activity on the national anthem (removing a specific male reference) have provided a real role model for those looking for a response to the global retreat to isolationist conservative nationalism.

No wonder he has, therefore, attained hero status among the social liberal “elite”, stung by political reverses almost everywhere else. It may be (and indeed I hope it is, as I would have voted and campaigned for his party without reservation) that he lives up to his billing.

It is worth noting that history does suggest otherwise, however. Remember, he hasn’t actually done anything of practical significance yet. (And even though it is not his fault, social liberals themselves should always be uneasy about someone who has attained artificial prominence because of his surname.)

Mr Trudeau’s current global popularity reminds me very much of a certain Mr Blair’s at a similar stage in his premiership. That same Mr Blair did deliver some quick wins – from the Belfast Agreement to a successful (often now forgotten given what came after) military intervention in Sierra Leone. Youthful, good-looking and charming, initially it appeared Mr Blair could do no wrong. Remember that?

I recently spoke to a close friend in western Canada to whom I had not spoken in some time, not least because child care is so hopeless that almost all her time (and money) as a working mother is taken up with that. There had also been health issues in the family for which there had been no option but a long waiting list to use an inflexible service. Traffic is also a significant problem. One example only, but immediate evidence that all is not exactly perfect. My friend backed Mr Trudeau – but is still waiting for some action to address such issues. It is inconceivable she is alone in that; and even more inconceivable that she will forgive him if she has to wait much longer.

Quick wins – like changing the words to the national anthem – are good for setting the scene (and are welcome), but actually they make no practical difference to people’s lives in the long run. Let us see some of the practical delivery before we engage in too much hero worship. Let us learn from history, in other words…

Ireland needs to think again re Olympics

“Team GB” had a staggering Rio Summer Olympics. For many, including me, it was a marked comparative improvement on the last one, given that it came away from home and was so far in excess of what past comparable hosts (cf. Australia 2004 after 2000) have managed.

It was, however, “Team GB”. Northern Ireland contributed not a single medal to the haul.

Most Northern Irish competitors were, of course, competing for “Team Ireland”. However even that entire team, with a population higher than New Zealand and comparable to Denmark, mustered just two silvers. Let us even leave aside the disgrace around its Chief, who ended up arrested.

To be clear, to reach the semi-final of the 1500m at the Olympics or reaching the latter stages of the archery is a fantastic achievement; and if you do it, it should be cause for much local and family pride. One boxer was, of course, outright robbed in the quarter-final. Individuals have no cause for disappointment – many performed admirably given the resources and facilities available.

There, perhaps, is the issue, however. “Team Ireland” (and “Team Northern Ireland” in Commonwealth Games) has consistently now won only a handful of medals, and even those have usually been confined to one or two disciplines. Sure, therefore, when it comes to Olympic sport the island of Ireland needs to think again – just as the UK did in 1996 having won just one gold medal (imagine!!)

Ireland, even as an island, cannot of course hope to match Great Britain in terms of the availability of resources and facilities. It can, however, copy much of what has proven so successful there, or in other comparably sized countries such as Denmark and New Zealand. It can identify talent more efficiently; it can invest in world-class facilities (which have potential community as well as “elite” benefit); most of all, perhaps, it can focus on funding coaching.

“Team Ireland” at the Olympics (as Northern Ireland at the Commonwealth Games) has some reason for pride, but fundamentally it is second rate. If it wishes to close the gap with the real first-class performers, it will need to reform fundamentally how it operates. It will also need to aim considerably higher.

[Just one slight niggle – we can’t have it both ways re GB’s result. Either positions are determined on total medals (in which case GB’s performance in 2016 was better than 2012 but it came third, not second, in the table) or on golds (in which case GB came second in 2016 but its result was narrowly worse than 2012, when it won 29 golds). According to the IOC, it is the latter.]

#Olympics – who is coming second?

With the United States (39 gold, 106 medals) well out in front, and Germany (16, 39) and Russia (13, 48) well back, the question over the next 24 hours or so becomes which country will come second – Great Britain & NI (26, 63) or China (23, 67)?

The likelihood is that it will be GB on golds and China on overall medals – but perfection on one side and disaster on the other could yet change that. It will almost all be decided by 3am (UK time).

Gracenote Sports tried to project it but already a number of predictions have not gone to plan.

The certain medalists for either team are:

2300 (Sat) CN gold or silver – women’s team (volleyball)

1900 (Sun) GB gold or silver – Joe Joyce (boxing)

Thus, the worst GB can finish is with 64 medals, and China 68.

The likely medalists in addition are (all on Sat eve/Sun morning UK time):

2200 CN – Chen Aisen (diving)

2200 CN – Qiu Bo (diving)

0200 GB – Mo Farah (athletics)

0215 GB – women’s relay team (athletics)

Of these, you would say the first three are almost guaranteed. Notably, however, China‘s cannot both be gold as they are in the same competition; but conversely GB‘s are less likely to be golds and silvers anyway.

Of course, there can always be surprises elsewhere – to move ahead on medals, GB will probably need one; to move ahead on golds, China will definitely need one!

Ultimately, we could see it all decided by taekwondo. On the men’s side, there is only one possible (not necessarily likely) medal for either in the last event as of the quarter-final stage:

2030 GB – Mahama Cho [quarter-final match]

Indeed, there could be a mouthwatering (and conceivably even decisive in terms of second place in the official medals table) final in the women’s last event:

0215 – Shuyin Zheng (China) v Bianca Walkden (GB)

The bet is both teams will have their fair share of wins and losses, leaving GB ahead on golds and China on medals. It will then be pointed out that the IOC officially places teams by golds…

£9m on an air route is dubious at best

I have long been an advocate of direct air routes from Belfast to enhance economic connections and thus give us the means of promoting export routes and inward investment. Thus, I reckoned the reduction in Air Passenger Duty for Northern Ireland, despite the often unmentioned cost of £2.4m annually from other devolved public services, was on balance a worthwhile risk to maintain one such direct link to Newark. If it was true that the route is inevitably loss-making, however, that risk would fail.

However it now appears that United Airlines, the operator of the route, has returned to the Executive for another £9m bail-out. This demonstrates that indeed the route is inevitably loss-making. This is no longer a “risk” – it is a constant direct subsidy from the Northern Ireland rate-payer to an American airline.

I for one am unconvinced that we pay our taxes and rates to subsidise an American airline to fly here, when very few people use the route (I last used it in 2005; my next flight to North America is ex-Dublin because it offers more routes at more times). A still bigger issue, perhaps, is it demonstrates the Executive’s inevitable short-termism, and its inability to be pro-active.

The Executive is, not for the first time, answering the question in the wrong order. The question is not “How can we maintain an air route to Belfast to boost our economy?”, but rather “How can we boost our economy to maintain an air route to Belfast?”

In other words, the real issue is why is it that an air route from New York to Belfast is not profit-making? I would suggest it is a combination of how little business is actually done in Belfast, and how easy it is to fly to Dublin (barely an hour away from the southern outskirts of Greater Belfast now anyway).

This goes beyond the obvious transport issues – Dublin’s growth as a European hub airport; the nonsense of a city the size of Belfast having two airports; the lack of proper road and rail connections to either of those airports; etc.

It is in fact a more fundamental issue that Belfast (and Northern Ireland in general) is not worth coming to economically. And remember, this is the same Executive taking money out of skills…


No excuse not to upgrade NI A1 immediately

Yet another life, horribly, was lost on Northern Ireland’s A1 dual carriageway this month. While I do not wish to impose upon the specifics of that incident, it is a fact that almost every fatality on that road occurs near and because of a “gap junction” – i.e. an area where there is no central barrier and vehicles are allowed to turn right across the traffic.

I am not the only one to have noticed.

The reason such “gap junctions” are lethal is obvious and requires no investigation. A road designed for speeds of 120kmh (and allowing 115kmh) then sees vehicles moving across each other, and thus into potential collision. The point is obvious; indeed, I appeared on an interview on UTV fully eleven years ago to point it out.

Thus, the task is simple – the entirety of the A1 from the Hillsborough Roundabout to the border should have an unbroken central barrier. That way, vehicles can proceed safely at 70mph, with no prospect of a crossing collision. A road built to such a standard would, on average, see less than a fatality a year – compared to five last year and two already this. Over the eleven years since that interview, that means the vast bulk of fatalities have been simply unnecessary – a horrific toll.

The issue is, of course, slightly complicated by the fact that simply putting a central barrier in place would mean there would be very few locations from which to exit the road. The task then is to build some more “grade-separated” junctions enabling traffic to leave and enter the road to the left (not crossing traffic), and then cross over the road if necessary via elevated bridges. Some such junctions, notably close to Hillsborough itself, have already been constructed.

This, however, only makes the failure to fix the road more scurrilous. Plans already exist for four (effectively five) new grade-separated junctions [illustrated as ever by Wesley Johnston] between Hillsborough and Banbridge:

  • Listullycurran (the current western exit marked “Maze, Moira”);
  • Gowdystown (just north of the Halfway House, marked “Dromore” to southeast);
  • Skelton’s (marked “Blackskull, Donaghcloney” to west);
  • Waringsford Rd (close to a quarry site just north of Banbridge); and
  • upgrade to Castlewellan Rd from Banbridge.

Collectively, these would cost around £50 million.

Additionally, to complete the project, two more junctions would need to be planned and constructed between Loughbrickland and Dromantine (the latter a site for four relatively recent fatalities), something which on average would cost just another £25 million.

By the standards of road construction, £75 million is peanuts – just half the proposed York Street Interchange, for a road which would thus be made massively safer.

It is nothing short of criminal that this work has not already been completed. The five junctions should be constructed and the two remaining ones planned absolutely without delay. Such unnecessary loss of life is simply inexcusable.

Ludicrous “Greenland” fantasy doesn’t help the “experts”

The now gloriously forgotten Michael Gove became famed during the referendum campaign for the line that “People are fed up with experts”.

It was nonsense populism from someone who should have known better, and who was thus buying into the ludicrous notion that one person’s ignorance is equal to another’s knowledge. It isn’t. This notion is destroying democracy.

Sometimes the experts do not do themselves any favours, however. Since the referendum, one fanciful idea has been doing the rounds, backed by some academics who should know a lot better, that somehow Scotland and Northern Ireland could remain in the EU while the rest of the UK leaves.

This notion is so idiotic, politically and practically, it is hard to know where to begin with it.

Firstly, the idea is based on Greenland leaving the EU while Denmark remained in during the 1980s. However, they tend to miss the point that Greenland is not part of Denmark! Although it does send representation to the Copenhagen Parliament, legally and practically Greenland’s relationship to Denmark is almost identical to that of the Channel Islands and the Isle of Man to the UK. There is simply no parallel to Scotland and Northern Ireland, which are actually part of the UK.

Secondly, the UK voted to leave the EU. The ridiculous “reverse Greenland” idea means that in fact the UK would remain a member state, with England and Wales leaving the way Greenland did. This is ridiculous in theory because European and foreign affairs are not devolved; and in practice because it is just ridiculous. Nicola Sturgeon and Martin McGuinness going to European Council meetings to represent the UK?

Thirdly, it is practically nonsense anyway. Outside the EU, England and Wales could choose to leave the customs union and single market, meaning border checks and separate immigration policy within the UK. If you have to show your passport and open your boot every time you pass through Gretna Green, what exactly would be the point of the UK existing?!

The fact that Scotland and Northern Ireland voted to remain is relevant. The task for Leavers is to come up with a realistic proposal to withdraw from the EU without breaking up the UK. There is a case to be made for the UK remaining within the EU on the basis that the proposal to leave was not carried in a majority of constituent countries of the UK. However, ultimately, either (all of) the UK withdraws from the EU, or it doesn’t.

And if the UK withdraws from the EU, the only route for Scotland and Northern Ireland to remain in the EU is to leave the UK.

Let us just be clear about the basic practical political and legal facts. (And beware of people posing as “experts” who lack even basic expertise!)

What is a language?

Actually there is perhaps one question more scary for a linguist (professional or amateur) than “How many languages do you speak?

It is, simply: what is a language?

As noted in the above-linked article, in the same way astronomers cannot really define an apparently simple term like “planet”, linguists cannot really define an apparently simple term like “language”.

In any attempt to answer it, it is worth re-emphasising a core point at the outset. When we refer to “English”, usually (particularly when we refer to the language in teaching or administration) we in fact mean “the standard dialect of English based on the form deriving from the variety spoken by the educated classes in the Oxford-Cambridge-London triangle at around the time of the invention of printing”. French has a similar story to the area around the Sorbonne; Spanish to Salamanca; Portuguese to Coimbra; Italian a notably complex one back a little further in time but based around Florence; German an even more complex one involving Frankfurt (written) and Hanover (spoken). Regardless of the exact history in each case, in most cases we are generally referring to an agreed “standard” written variety and how that variety is reproduced in contemporary speech. There is, notably, a degree of artificiality to this, and yet any “standard” could not survive if it did not represent a variety of the language widely understood and accepted by its users.

Then, in most of Europe (and most places which speak languages of European origin) and parts of the Indian Subcontinent at least, it is worth noting that nearly all “languages” derive from a common source, most likely somewhere in modern Ukraine around 4000-5000 years ago. At that time, in that location, there was a tribe which spoke what we now refer to as “Indo-European”, which was of course never “standardised”. As that tribe broke out, notably westward (from a European point of view) and southward (from an Indian), its language dispersed. As speakers entered new areas, they had to describe different things (new types of tree, sorts of landscape, or even shades of colour, for example); and they came across other tribes from whom they borrowed words and who influenced grammar and pronunciation. The real issue here is that the difference between languages is not just one of space (notably through modern mutual intelligibility), but also time. At some stage Indo-Europeans were speaking a single language, and later they were speaking Latin, Ancient Greek, and Sanskrit; later still Italian/Romanian/French/Spanish/Portuguese, Modern Greek and Hindustani.

Additionally, at certain times but in very different epochs we find the first written examples of each tree, and then the first published examples – all of which may have an impact of our perception and sense of what is and is not a language. The issue here is that our instinctive Western bias towards defining “language” very closely alongside “Standard written variety” is problematic. Did “Latin” only exist once it was written? Did “German” only exist once it was published? Do Amazonian tribes with no concept of writing not speak “languages”? In future we may find generations rejecting any language which does not have at least 1,000,000 Wikipedia articles as evidence of its existence!

We also have to consider further the distinction between written and spoken varieties. Clearly, they are connected. However, they are also differentiated in ways which to many of us are simply intuitive. How often do you use the word “therefore” in daily speech, for example? If we take this further, we find that a majority of people globally in fact do not only switch between spoken versus written and/or formal versus informal registers, but actually between languages. A rural dweller in Morocco, for example, may well speak Berber at home, Arabic at the market, and French in education and government dealings. Does that person speak three languages, when they are not each used in all contexts? Indeed, if Berber is never used for commerce, education or administration (and is never written), is it a “language” at all? And then, if that person meets a trader from Syria who also purports to speak “Arabic” but they cannot understand each other at all, who is speaking what and are they different “languages”?

Most of the terminology around this issue is in fact borrowed from German – Abstand refers to language differentiation by linguistic distance (“Irish” is clearly linguistically different from “English” but not from “Gaelic”; “English is clearly different from “Irish” but not from “Scots”); Ausbau is the notion of how far a language is deliberately developed (not just towards written standards, but that is an obvious issue); Dachsprache is essentially a person’s sense of which language they are speaking (or writing) regardless of context (so a northwestern German farmer may linguistically speak something closer to Standard Dutch than Standard German at home, but if he regards himself to be speaking German then, arguably at least, by definition he is); and Halbsprache is a term used for a linguistic variety which is not fully developed as a written standard language of a community or communities, but has some sense of development and commonality (perhaps, for example, in literature) which goes beyond a perfectly regular non-standard regional dialect or similar.

It is here that we find “language” status, in the West at least, is an intensely political thing – the old maxim is that “a language is a dialect with an army and a navy”. At the time of the French revolution, Parisian French would have been easily understood by only a minority of the population, many of whom spoke completely different languages (from Breton to Dutch) and most of whom spoke a different variety originating from Latin; at the time of Italian unification it was openly admitted “We have created Italy; now we have to create Italians”. Of course, this political-linguistic emphasis can go the other way too – the successful revivals of Catalan and Welsh are tied, with different levels of connection and comfort, to nationalist/separatist political movements (as are many rather less successful ones). Countries such as Spain generally struggle with the challenge of so many languages at different levels of development and with different levels of popular support.

What is the solution to all of this? I have no idea! However, I would suggest the best solution I have seen is a language pyramid:

Spanish Arabic French
Japanese Russian German Hindi Indonesian
Thai Swahili Polish Dutch Gujurati Korean Wolof
Kannada Zulu Irish Catalan Afrikaans Papiamento Belarussian Maori Icelandic

Here, we can see (if formatting allows!) that English has a unique status as the foremost language of global trade, knowledge and diplomacy. Even here, this presents challenges, however. How different are the varieties and should we specify which one (American, British, or even a different non-native version) predominates? For how long has English had this unique status? Which language had it before and how did it lose it?

In the next level, purely by way of example, I include three languages of unquestionable global reach and cultural relevance. That said, even here they have attained this status by different means. Spanish has it by weight of numbers; Arabic due to its religious role; and French due to its previous role as the high language of Royal elites and global diplomacy. Some of these may not stand the test of time.

At the next level we have significant national languages, not only because they are spoken by a lot of people in globally relevant economies, but also because they have some degree of reach (Pokemon, vodka, Vorsprung durch Technik, guru, nasi goreng etc.). Even here, we have some challenges. What exactly does Russian cover? Do we allow for Austrian German in any way? Is Hindi to be considered distinctly from Urdu, and why? Is Indonesian to be considered alongside Malay, and does this affect its status?

At the next level we have significant national languages which perhaps do not have quite the same reach, or significant international trading languages in particular regions. These are quite distinct issues, and we are now touching on just how far our Western bias towards “Written Standards” takes us, versus the practical reality of trading and living in some form of “lingua franca” for hundreds of millions of people.

At the final range we have a lot of distinction: established regionally significant languages, national languages in restricted use but of historical significance, growing regional languages in large economies, languages in administrative use in regional powers, significant inter-regional trading languages, national languages whose status distinct from other languages is disputed, national languages within nations, and linguistically significant national languages of small countries. Maybe these do not all belong at the same “level”, but they show a range of uses and challenges in terms of definition of a “language” and why it may (or may not) be so defined – globally, nationally, regionally; socially, politically, economically; never mind linguistically!

Of course, most of the world’s languages would not even make it on to the above pyramid. From tribal languages of restricted range to languages of uncertain status (Ulster Scots anyone?), the challenges only multiply below the pyramid! This is to say nothing of constructed languages such as Esperanto or Klingon; or indeed codes or systems which meet some of the common definitions of “language”.

We may, in practice, never be able to agree on the definition of a “language”. We should at least reach some agreement, however, on the complexities which surround the challenge of agreeing that definition!




102 years on, we have learned nothing from WW1

The lights went out across Europe this day 102 years ago. A generation never saw them lit again.

The tragedy is not just the 17 million lives lost in that war and the 50 million lost in the one directly consequent to it. The tragedy is we have not learned.

I wish I could disagree with Tobias Stone in this article about how history is bound to repeat itself. Indeed, I have written similar myself, though not as effectively.

I am not by nature particularly a pessimist, but 102 years on the lights are about to go out again. Post-factual eras where people ignore those who actually know what they are talking about and turn to strong men always turn out the same way – in revolution and war. We can only hope it will not take as long this time for the light to return.

Northern Ireland must prepare for sovereignty

David McWilliams was making mischief again in his recent article on the simple fact Northern Ireland does not pay for itself.

I do not agree with all of his working, but I do agree with his ultimate conclusion – not only does Northern Ireland not pay its way, but there is an ever dwindling number of people willing to pay for it.

This is yet another reason the DUP was so foolish to play footsie with English Nationalists six weeks ago; and why it is so ludicrous that Irish Nationalists cannot (indeed, refuse to come up with) a workable plan for Irish unity. In other words, public opinion is shifting against, both in the jurisdiction which does pay for Northern Ireland and in the alternative one which would.

After all, when there is an ever decreasing amount of money to go around, it does not matter who you are, why would you hand it to another jurisdiction for no apparent gain?

The DUP and other idiots completely forgot to ask why anyone would pay £200m a week to Northern Ireland (particularly when you have just voted to stop paying exactly that amount to the EU)? Would that money, currently raised from English taxpayers, not be better spend on the NHS in England? Most residents of England would not take too long to give a decisive answer to that one!

So Northern Ireland can no longer reliably depend on England’s taxpayers’ money; nor on southern Ireland’s. It is going to need to move towards a position where public spending and welfare in Northern Ireland is allocated on the basis of revenue (taxes) raised in Northern Ireland.

In an increasingly crazy world, Northern Ireland needs to prepare to look after itself. It needs to prepare for sovereignty, in other words.

About these “Trade Deals”…

… if the UK does “its own Trade Deal” with, say, the United States or China, tell me this: what happens in practice if the United States or China simply doesn’t adhere to it?


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