Northern Ireland needs more than a kick up the arts


Northern Ireland Opera’s production of Turandot – the bloodbath on stage mirrored in the arts

The elections are over and the horse-trading has begun for a programme for government in Northern Ireland. Soon enough we will know who will be heading up the new Northern Ireland Executive departments.

Most people will have fingers crossed that the new programme for government will be a triumph for hope over expectation. The last assembly wasn’t exactly a role model for excellence in governance.

But elections can have a cleansing effect, and with a first minister now with a personal mandate to govern there is the opportunity for a new beginning. Arlene Foster has the opportunity to write her chapter in the history books, let us hope she proves up to the task.

One of the disappointments of devolution has been the failure of successive administrations to appreciate the potential of culture and arts. Artists can help us articulate our aspirations; they expand our horizons; and they speak up for people who cannot speak for themselves.

Every society needs a soul, and artists are its custodians.

The arts also provide a space where people from different backgrounds and experiences can come together – a space where healing happens. And Northern Ireland needs healing.

On the face of it, it is a backward step that culture and arts no longer features in the title of the new Stormont department responsible for its oversight. But few tears will be shed for the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure.

But there is a danger that by rolling it into the Department of Communities, the Executive will continue to undermine the Culture and Arts sector, and hasten its decline.

It had been hoped that devolution would have been good for the sector, but it has suffered from serial neglect, particularly in the last administration. For whatever reason, DCAL minister Carál Ní Chuilín showed little empathy for the cultural organisations she was responsible for.

And the arts felt her neglect keenly. The composer Philip Hammond called her “a politician who clearly has absolutely no notion of what is going on in the arts in Northern Ireland, has no notion of what has been happening in the arts in Northern Ireland, and clearly has even less notion of what should be happening in the arts”.

ni chuilin

Carál Ní Chuilín: criticised for her stewardship of the Culture and Arts brief

The minister even became the inspiration for a character in a play at the Lyric Theatre just finishing its run. The role of Donna Ni Duineachair in Here Comes the Night by Rosemary Jenkinson channelled the spirit of the ‘non-culture’ culture minister.

Jenkinson criticised Ní Chuilín’s lack of attendance at arts events – a theme of critics throughout her term. “You just have to have a basic level of knowledge of what’s going on – it’s surely part of the job,” Jenkinson told the Irish News.

Many in Sinn Fein have an empathy with the arts, but Ní Chuilín was not one of them. Her tenure should be a warning to those tempted to put apparatchiks in positions of power.

The fear now is that within a Communities brief the arts will be used as a tool for social engineering rather than cultural expression. Social development is undoubtedly one of the outcomes of a strong arts sector. But that outcome is threatened if artists are forced to pursue a narrow communitarian agenda.

Being in ‘office’ demands something more from a politician than representing their own partisan views – this is particularly the case in the context of the ungainly enforced coalition of our current political settlement.

Posing as an economic department, DCAL identified its priorities as “social and economic equality”. The arts, with their whiff of elitism, were suspect.

Such was the threat that the Arts Council broke cover in the run-up to last year’s budget allocations with a high-profile campaign against its parent department highlighting the appallingly low levels of public subsidy.

At 13 pence a week per head of population, spending in Northern Ireland was less than half that spent in Wales, and the lowest it has been in a decade. The message fell on deaf ears. The figure is now 11p per head.

This is something that needs to be addressed seriously in the development of a new programme for government. Investment in culture and arts repays itself many times over. It generates wealth through the creative industries, and provides ‘soft power’ too.

Much of Northern Ireland’s positive reputation comes from the international acclaim for its artists, writers, actors and musicians – many of whom cut their teeth in organisations subsidised directly, or indirectly, from the public purse.

Hollywood star Liam Neeson began his acting career at the Lyric Theatre. James Nesbitt trod the boards at Ulster Youth Theatre. The Ulster Orchestra and the BBC provided important platforms for Barry Douglas, the concert pianist who became the first non-Russian to win the Tchaikovsky International Piano competition outright since Van Cliburn 28 years earlier.

Queen’s University Belfast – another publically funded organisation – provided a home for some of the finest poets in Britain and Ireland, including Seamus Heaney, Paul Muldoon and Ciaran Carson.

The film industry is a commercial beast. But even it cannot survive without access to a steady stream of actors, set-designers, make-up artists, technicians, musicians and composers who learned their craft in the subsidised arts.

Where did the crew of Game of Thrones learn their skills?

The Communities department has inherited a mission statement that is positively Stalinist in its view about the purpose of the arts and artists: “To promote social and economic equality, and to tackle poverty and social exclusion, through systematically promoting a sustainable economic model and proactively targeting meaningful resources at sectors of greatest inequality, within areas of greatest objective need, in the wider context of effectively developing tangible opportunities and measurable outcomes for securing excellence and equality across culture, arts and leisure, and a confident, creative, informed and healthy society in this part of Ireland.”

Creative people are concerned about equality, poverty and social exclusion as much as anyone, but social engineering should not be their primary purpose.

Sadly, these days political correctness does not allow us to celebrate the arts for their own sake. Everything has to pay its way and demonstrate its worth. But there comes a point at which everything is reduced to dreary utilitarianism.

Seamus Heaney once said: “Anyone born and bred in Northern Ireland can’t be too optimistic.” The new administration has an opportunity to challenge that assumption.

Over the years, we have tried many things to reenergise society – perhaps it is time to unleash our writers, actors and musicians and see what they can do.

There has been enough keening; some day hope and history will rhyme. You need the arts and artists to make that happen.


University axe spells end for Belfast Festival at Queen’s



Could this be the end of the road? Queen’s University calls time on the international arts festival that bears its name


It’s often said we live in a society that knows the price of everything and the value of nothing. Belfast Festival at Queen’s learned that lesson last week when its ‘parent’ pulled its funding.

It remains to be seen whether or not the other key partners – Arts Council, Belfast City Council, British Council, and Tourism Northern Ireland – will walk away too.

The festival can’t easily be kept going. It is not a separate entity; it is a university department.

Queen’s provided the staff, buildings, management systems, and it carried all the legal liabilities. The Festival director has gamely promised to fight on. But robbed of the protective mantle of Queen’s, the festival will die like an infant abandoned on a cold mountainside.

Like it or loathe it – and the festival has its critics – there can be little doubt that in its 50-plus years Belfast Festival at Queen’s has made a major contribution to the cultural life of Northern Ireland.

It has given audiences the chance to experience international artists at first hand. It helped Northern Ireland keep its dignity through the long years of the Troubles. And it changed people’s lives for the better – not only audiences, but the thousands of volunteers who made it work.

Festivals – particularly multi-disciplinary ones – are special because they are one-offs; bringing together a community of artists from different countries, genres and backgrounds to create something unique, never to be repeated.

That’s why audiences love them. They are events – special – and Belfast’s had its special moments.

The festival was important for Belfast, and it gave the university a point of difference. It was worth more to the Queen’s ‘brand’ than the university ever recognised. But Queen’s brought something to the festival too, credibility and a financial cushion other arts organisations would have died for. Whatever the size of the deficit – and the festival was rarely in surplus – there was never a cash flow issue.

In truth, Queen’s University’s direct financial contribution was never that large. The Arts Council, City Council, private sector businesses and box office provided income too. More recently the British Council and Tourism Northern Ireland have weighed in. But the university brought security. Even in today’s austere times, the university has deep pockets. The festival director always had the comfort of knowing that, if all else failed, the university would be the funder of last resort.

It was this factor that created the greatest anxiety in the university’s corridors of power – there was always the fear that the festival would go belly-up and Queen’s would be left to deal with the consequences. I understand that, with a six-figure hole in the budget for the 2015 event, and no one committing to help, Queen’s felt it had no alternative but to pull the plug.

It has long been the case that none of the other funders was prepared to share the risk – even though they shared the benefits.

Over the years there have been repeated attempts to establish the festival on a sustainable basis. None has succeeded. The most recent independent report, commissioned last year by the festival’s main funders, set out in stark terms the limitations of the current festival and proposed a five-year plan to get it back on its feet.

Critical was the need to shift the burden of funding from public sources to earned income – sponsorship, fundraising, box office, merchandising and so on. In the current climate, that would be a tall order.

It’s tempting to blame Queen’s for the festival’s demise. In a sense, with its decision last week, it’s been caught in the act. But in its defence, the university could justifiably claim the festival has been on life support for years. Turning off the power was more humane than letting it linger on.

In penning the festival’s obituary, it would only be fair to acknowledge that the university kept the festival alive during the years when it was most important to Northern Ireland: the lean years when the festival, the Ulster Orchestra (itself recently imperilled) and the Grand Opera House were the extent of Belfast’s grip of culture; the years when the Shadow of a Gunman was more often stalking the streets than playing in the Lyric.

It was an accident of history that the university ended up running a festival. Student Michael Emerson had an idea and ran with it, Michael Barnes (an old style academic) sustained the vision until he ran out of steam. Queen’s turned a benign eye on his regime. Universities embraced eccentricity in those days.

There have been a number of notable directors since. The mercurial Sean Doran rejuvenated it artistically, but at a price-tag that worried the university authorities. Robert Agnew brought a bit of stability. Stella Hall brought pageantry, street theatre and community engagement, but she wearied of the university (including me, I was her line manager). And Hall couldn’t comprehend why other funders did not buy into her vision. Graeme Farrow – now with millions to spend on culture at the Wales Millennium Centre – made silk purses out of sows’ ears; but he too was sapped by the bureaucracy that accompanies modern arts’ management.

Many universities are patrons of the arts. But today they are obsessed by pounds, shillings and pence. They have to be. We now expect them to operate like a poultry factory producing oven-ready chickens.

In a world of cutbacks, audits and accountability, there is no place any more in higher education for oddities like an international festival. That’s a sad fact of modern life.

When Sir George Bain was in charge at Queen’s, contribution to the community was one of the three key pillars of his strategy – education and research being the other two. The festival had its place and the subsidy could be justified.

Sir George was a renaissance vice-chancellor, and a patron of the arts. He knew the value of culture. But even during his time there were voices who believed the university had to get out of running an international festival. Those voices have now prevailed, the Northern Ireland Executive’s cuts in higher education funding have given them the reason they needed.

In recent years the festival had become a pale imitation of itself. Some of what it did is now done better by other festivals. It used to compare itself to Edinburgh – it doesn’t come near now, if it ever did. So what’s to be done?

While Queen’s operated as funder of last resort, there was no incentive for Belfast City Council or the Arts Council to do much. As a result Belfast has had an international festival on the cheap – but one insufficiently resourced to compete with city festivals like those in Manchester (with its £12 million budget), Brighton, Canterbury (led by Rosie Turner, formerly of Queen’s), and even Galway.

The Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure – which has presided over the dismantling of the arts in Northern Ireland – says it is stony broke. Belfast City Council, in its current guise, is in its dying days. The Arts Council unleashed misery on countless organisations last week when they got notice of funding decisions.

None is in a strong position to breathe new life into a now dead festival. And they shouldn’t. To do so would be like nailing legs to a cadaver and telling it to walk.

The best course would be to give Belfast Festival at Queen’s a decent cremation – it deserves one. If a phoenix is to rise from its ashes, it will need commitment and a significant injection of money: millions, not thousands.

A genuinely international festival would help grow the economy and put Belfast firmly on the cultural tourism map. If that’s important enough, the money will be found. The fate of Belfast Festival suggests that the will just isn’t there.

  • This article first appeared in Scope NI on March 23 2015.