Follow the Money

We live in difficult times. Money is short. If you are lucky enough to have any cash in the Bank, it isn't earning any interest and that portfolio of unique fixer-upper properties you bought on the advice of Sarah Beeny is starting to look like a real mistake.

The Coalition (that seems to be its official title now) has decreed that belts will be tightened, waste will be eliminated and efficiencies will be ruthlessly pursued.

In many ways, it is hard to argue with any of that. Indeed, questions should probably be asked as to why we were happy enough previously to quite so wasteful and profligate. There's another example there -  "wasteful and profligate" - when either "wasteful" or "profligate" alone would have sufficed. Such laxity of grammar will not be tolerated under the new regime.

Where then for an Ulster-Scot?

Clearly, there is a rich (no pun intended) vein of humour to be exploited - something to do with Ballymena and so on - but I'm passing that opportunity by and trying to look a little more carefully at the serious issue. I'll trust you to make up your own jokes, at which you may giggle on your own time.

My concern is that Ulster-Scots as a movement is very much in its infancy. It remains many years, or even decades behind the Irish cultural movement and has historically received little attention or, crucially, funding. A lot has changed in recent times. The advent of the Ulster Scots Agency provided a mechanism for funding and many groups certainly derive benefit from its existence.

However, the Minister (rightly, in my view) declared the organisation "unfit for purpose" and instituted a programme to try to remedy its many defects. As that laudable work was in progress, the general election was called and the imperative to rein in government spending followed. Only a fool would imagine that the new-look Agency will not find itself with a tighter budget in the future and one can imagine that alternative sources of state funding will be similarly limited.

So, what can we do? Do we just rail against the inevitable, giving off that Irish is still way ahead financially and imagining that money will be found to redress that inequality? Hmm. That's certainly tempting but it seems to rather fly in the face of reality.

Do we seek to commercially exploit Ulster-Scots to make it self-funding and self-sustaining? We're not there yet. I'm convinced that there are commercial aspects of "Ulster" and of Ulster-Scots which remain to be exploited - all you have to do is look at the "Oirish" tat in the gift shop at the International Airport and you can see that we are mssing a trick - but the movement isn't at that level of development jhust now.

What then?

The place to start to answer that question has to be with an examination of what we need money for and what we have been doing with money we have received thus far.

As an avowed contrarian, I'll start with the latter of those suggestions.

What are we doing with our money?

Not that easy a question to answer, actually. Funding in Ulster-Scots has been the very definition of a scatter-gun approach. We had a brief period when every Church Hall seemed to have an Ulster-Scots night every third Saturday in the month. They followed a formula. A Pipe Band, some kids doing Highland Dance, a few pensioners performing Country Dance, some bloke singing, a little Burns poetry and a cup of tea and a sandwich. Not that I'm knocking that, you understand. Many a night I spent in just such halls. I tapped my foot along and applauded at the appropriate points. A grand time was had by all. The organisers got a few quid which they passed on to the artists and everyone went home happy.

Then they did it all again in three weeks time.

And so it continued.

Small amounts of money were being spent on Ulster-Scots. Meanwhile, there were some unfortunate and well-documented incidents regarding money being spent on taxi fares and the like, which we'll draw a veil over.

As time passed, so things started to change. Positively, the Agency produced fantastic resources in terms of booklets on Hamilton & Montgomery and the Covenanters, amongst others. Promotion started to go slightly awry with events such as the David Healy Fitba Day and the Santa Hats to Ravenhill (totally inexplicable - don't ask) but in the meantime, groups were receiving funding for workers and there was even the suggestion of a Tourist Board type shop at Agency premises. The mild resurgence in tourism had sparked more interest in genealogy which meant that the culture was gaining more acceptance amongst many Americans who were realising that their roots were Ulster-Scots and not Irish.

But all the time, the BBC was still mocking us. The Museums remained green-hued and the middle-classes remained reluctant to engage with their own heritage.

On other fronts, things were brighter.

I have always been of the view that the Pipe Bands are the obvious shop window for Ulster-Scots in Northern Ireland. We have more of them than Scotland at competition level and a healthy smattering of World Champions in any given year. I have my own views (another post there, methinks) on the health of the local Branch of the RSPBA, but the Bands were continuing to develop and money was being channeled through the Arts Council and Lottery to allow bands to buy new instruments and help with tuition.

Dance was breaking into the schools and money was being found for tuition there as well. More children were engaging and there seemed to be a reluctant acceptance that Ulster-Scots deserved some recognition in the curriculum. Stranmillis had a project underway which was admittedly plagued with problems, but at least they were doing something.

So, what was the money going on? Bits and pieces of promotion; useful resources in terms of promotion and education; event sponsorship (variable quality and questionable worth); funding of groups for projects; support of dance and music; a tiny bit of spending on the language.

Actually, when you look at it, that all seems laudable enough, if sometimes misguided and ill-advised in its implementation.

And so it is/was. However, things will change. As the belts tighten, so we must prioritise. That's where the other limb of the examination comes in.

What do we need money for?

Some things that Ulster-Scots do can be very expensive. We obviously have a marching band culture and the figures when you look at running a pipe band (I declare an interest here) are terrifying. It is the general estimate that a member of a band will cost an average of £1000 to "put on the road". That would cover a modest uniform and either a set of pipes or drum. Uniforms need replaced and instruments become outdated or simply wear out. That money has to come from somewhere. Consequently, a lot of bands have become reliant on Arts Council or similar funding. The picture for Accordion bands is likely similar and is slightly less daunting for the typical (not competition) flute band - simply because the cost of a 5 key flute is much lower than of a set of pipes.

The Language has been neglected for decades and serious work needs to be done on archives and a dictionary project. The troubled Academy may deal with some of those issues but suffice to say, it will be expensive and is time-sensitive as the spoken language is inclined to dwindle. Expertise is required and that costs money to procure. The job is simply too big and too urgent to be left with unfunded enthusiasts.

Resourcing generally is another big issue. By that I mean the provision of "stuff". It can be hard to find Ulster-Scots "stuff". Whether it is for help with tracing your family tree or researching your local history, you can be hard pressed to find the necessary bits and pieces. We don't have enough guide books and pamphlets and we need to have the people to write them. Those people need to eat and feed their families - thus they need paid. More money in the expenditure column there.

That is only scratching the surface - we need dance and music teachers, for example, but I think the point that I am moving towards is to say that we need to examine carefully what we regard to be "core" to our activities. The Fitba Day? Nope. The Santa Hats? Nope again.

More controversially - should we prioritise workers (mostly administrators) for our local groups? Probably nope also.

I have heard it said by more than one individual that the day a group receives core funding and appoints a worker is the day that group begins to wither. The work which was done by a team of volunteers is suddenly dumped on the worker and the volunteers then lose interest as they are not properly engaged any more. The worker becomes inclined to concentrate on the reporting requirements to satisfy the funder amd the impetus for the group's endeavour is lost.

I have always suspected that one of the reasons that we have focussed to such an extent on seeking core funding of groups in the past is that we have confused the notion of Ulster-Scots groups with the more generic "community groups". Certainly, the unionist/pro-British/Protestant/primarily Ulster-Scots side of the house lacks the community structure we can observe elsewhere. There is therefore an understandable urge to redress that imbalance and to fund will-nilly until the community sector appears to have a greater sense of equality.

A problem with that approach is that, in many of those areas where there is lack of a community sector, it seems to be due to apathy on the part of the community itself. There is no community group because the community doesn't want one. Thus, funding a group is wasted money and the new organisation quickly atrophies.

It seems that in many of the areas where Ulster-Scots is likely to receive the warmest welcome, there is no appetite for groups - be they community or cultural. The people are independent and not inclined to want to gather together to navel gaze about who and what they are. Rather, they desire a recognition of their identity, respect for that identity (no more "hoots mon" on the BBC would be a good start) and appreciate the notion that, should they want to explore their history from time to time, there would be a way to do it and a place to go to do it. That comes back to the notion of the need for more "stuff" - the nuts and bolts that make the culture accessible and available.

Looking at it a slightly different way, if you had a thousand pounds to spend on Ulster-Scots - and a thousand pounds only - where would you spend it?

Would it go on classes for music or dance? Would it go on keyrings, bearing the legend "Ulster-Scot and Proud"? Would you buy a couple of new drums for your local band? Would you place an advert for family history research in the Edinburgh Tattoo Programme? Would you fund a support worker (very briefly) to help local groups with administration?

At the minute, I'm not sure that I know the answer to the questions I pose. I do know that the questions can't be avoided. The recession is seeing to that.

I lean towards the notion that resources which will outlive us all should be the priority at this point. That means work being done on collecting together an Ulster-Scots language resource (part of the Academy project). It means promotion of the family history and local history aspects of Ulster-Scots - books on Genealogy and re-writing some of our local history tomes. It means creating, training and supporting a new generation of musicians and dancers, fluent in the musical tradition of Ulster-Scots.

Unfortunately, it may well be that most of those things lie at the "unsexy" end of Ulster-Scots. The nuts and bolts stuff that creates a resource but isn't nearly as much fun as a nice day out with David Healy. But it needs to be done. If we don't prioritise this stuff now, I fear that it may be too late - and all we'll be left with is a Santa Hat, an autograph from Northern Ireland's top-scorer and a vague memory of who we used to be...