Four hundred years ago, thousands of Lowland Scots crossed the North Sea to settle in county Down, as part of a settlement led by Sir James Hamilton and Sir Hugh Montgomery. This was the dawn of the Ulster-Scots and Hamilton and Montgomery were the ‘founding fathers’. The following year came the Flight of the Earls and this was followed by the arrival of many more Scots as part of the Plantation of Ulster.
The culture that was brought across the sea by those settlers developed into an Ulster-Scots culture which is an important strand of the cultural diversity of Northern Ireland.
As we seek to build a ‘shared and better future’ in Northern Ireland, it must be a future based on equity, diversity and interdependence, and Ulster-Scots is part of that diversity.
What this is our vision for the future of Ulster-Scots culture within that ‘shared and better future’? In the wake of recent controversy and comment about the Ulster-Scots Agency it is perhaps an appropriate time to set out some elements of that vision.
As one of the folk who was involved in the formation of the Ulster-Scots Heritage Council in 1995 and as someone who was deeply involved in Ulster-Scots cultural development thereafter, I believe that the original aspiration is just as valid today as it was then. It was an aspiration to see Ulster-Scots culture move from the margins into the mainstream of the cultural life of Northern Ireland.
We have seen considerable progress over the past fifteen years but 2010 must be the year when we take Ulster-Scots up to a new level.
Education and the media are two important areas for the development of any cultural or linguistic tradition and there is work to be done to put Ulster-Scots culture and history in their proper place in the school classroom, in the university and on the television screen. That is not an unreasonable demand. Indeed it is the right of a cultural community, a right that is set out in international human rights instruments.
Real progress will require a coherent and comprehensive strategy for Ulster-Scots and that will also include such things as cultural development, community empowerment, community education, academic research, publications and social enterprise. The essential elements of such a strategy are well-known and all that remains is for those elements to be drawn together in an integrated document.
The Ulster-Scots Agency was established under the Belfast Agreement and it has an important role to play but it must be ‘fit for purpose’ if it is to fulfil that role and meet the needs and hopes of the Ulster-Scots community. That requires it to be efficient and effective, an organisation that provides value for money. If it is to fulfil those requirements it must have a sound strategy and good governance.
My predecessor Gregory Campbell identified community empowerment as a priority and we need a strong Ulster-Scots community sector. I am encouraged by what has been accomplished in building the sector because it shows what can be done but there are still many areas of the province where activity and infrastructure are weak.
There must also be a strong partnership between the Agency and the community with systematic and structured engagement, based on the model of the government compact with the community and voluntary sector. That is a long standing expectation, reaching back to the days of direct rule, and it must be implemented as a matter of urgency.
As a result of the Joint Declaration there is a commitment by government to support and resource an Ulster-Scots Academy. Much good work has been done and after reflecting on that work and on good practice elsewhere, I am finalising a series of actions to make that commitment a reality.
We are only too well aware of the difficulties and the disappointments. For too long Ulster-Scots culture has been bedevilled by unfair and unfounded criticism from without and by foolish and misguided enthusiasms from within. We cannot stand by and allow that to continue. We need firm decisions, resolute action, sound strategy and good governance.
As someone with a passion for Ulster-Scots culture and a deep desire for a ‘shared and better future’ I am determined to do all I can to facilitate the movement of Ulster-Scots in to the mainstream and up to a new level. That is what the Ulster-Scots community expects and that is what they deserve.