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.


Hell hath no fury like a minister scorned


Carál Ní Chuilín: a minister under fire

For more than 16 years I worked in corporate communications. I’m used to colleagues going over the top at what they perceive to be unjust criticism in the press.

One of the main jobs of a communications director is to save colleagues from themselves. The temptation is to fire a broadside at the offending paper and journalist. Often the best response is studied indifference. There is nothing journalists hate more than being ignored.

I know of a few occasions when a communications team decides it is better to throw a colleague overboard than try and save them.

Some years ago, the boss of one major UK institution was persuaded to issue a statement attacking a one-paragraph story on a paper’s gossip page. Few people had read the offending article and fewer gave the gossip column any credence. But the statement alerted everyone to the story and it was front-page news within an hour, precipitating a chain of events that led to a dramatic fall from grace.

Regicide is not to be recommended. The communications chief did not last long either.

In my experience, it is much better to suffer the ire of the boss yourself, than let him or her carry it into the public arena. The quickest way to undermine trust and confidence is to express your inner feelings when you are angry. Revenge is a dish best served cold.

I started life as a journalist. In my first week of work experience on a Sunday paper, now defunct, I was proud of seeing my name on the front-page lead. I was even prouder the following week when I was denounced in the letters page for my scurrilous journalism.

You can imagine then the state of contentment that swept over me when I was passed a copy of a letter Northern Ireland’s Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure had sent to The Irish News about me. It followed a column in last week’s paper about my assessment of her department’s performance. You can read the offending article – click the previous post link below. You can also read her letter in full here.

For the benefit of communications directors and would-be communications directors everywhere, it is a demonstration of how not to respond to an article in the press, even when you are hurting. If you throw muck, you tend to get dirty yourself.

As a side issue, for anoraks looking for an insight into the mind of Sinn Fein, it is a great read. The letter is important not for what it says about me (and the minister certainly knows how to throw insults) – but for what it says about her and the mind-set of republicanism almost a generation after the first IRA ceasefire.

I know who I am. It really does not matter to me if the minister thinks I am a sexist, chauvinistic, middle-class, anti-republican, pompous hypocrite who hates the Irish language, culture and everything she stands for.

Because she thinks it, does not make it true.

I suspect she believes I was born with a silver spoon in my mouth because I like classical music. I happen to be the son of a working class Irish speaker, and am proud of it.

She is right of course. I do have an interest in promoting public investment in the arts.

I happen to believe culture and the arts are critical for the creation of sustainable communities. They allow us to make sense of our lives, and to express our culture and beliefs to the wider world. They make society better, in the same way that investment in other walks of life makes a positive impact on society.

There is a comic sub-plot to her letter. To throw some mud at me, she rubbishes Belfast’s bid to become European Capital of Culture. The city was the bookies’ favourite, but was knocked out in the first round. Making their decision in 2002, the judges decided Belfast was too unstable to be a viable contender.

The bid was the brainchild of Belfast City Council and her department, and it was actively supported by her own party.

The Department’s then permanent secretary was on the board, as were two Sinn Fein councillors. Her party endorsed it in the Northern Ireland Executive and on the floor of the assembly. Sinn Fein’s Lord Mayor of Belfast played a key role in the presentation in London.

The bid process was not perfect, but it was seen at the time as a milestone in developing Belfast’s cultural ambitions, and the city more than recouped the investment in profile, increased tourism and funding of infrastructure projects.

You will also note the minister’s reference to the current consultation process on Northern Ireland’s draft budget. The minister says: “I would encourage everyone to make their voices heard.” Clearly not mine.

Letter from Carál Ní Chuilín, Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure

Tom Collins (The Irish News, Page 19, November 25) attacked me personally, my ministerial acumen, my departmental staff, and our collective commitment to equality, excellence and economy in arts, culture and sports.

The confused scattergun approach of Mr Collins’ attack was surpassed only by the gratuitous agenda underpinning his mediocre blandness. It was, in truth, difficult to identify the precise source for his river of free-flowing banality.

However, Mr Collins seems to dislike my gender, my class, my motivations, my background, my politics, my commitment to equality, excellence and economy in public office, and most of all – my core republican values. (The electorate by whom I am proudly elected have a different perspective on all that.)

Perhaps it would have assisted readers if Mr Collins’ column had properly declared some of his own material self-interests which is also relevant background to his political, ideological and class-based criticism of my role as a Sinn Fein minister.

Mr Collins’ allegiance as a former Board Chairperson of the Ulster Orchestra is undoubtedly commendable. However, it is also materially relevant to attacking me over Executive cutbacks to DCAL’s budget caused primarily by the British Treasury’s assault on public services here.

As Chair of Imagine Belfast 2008 Mr Collins’ Board oversaw a bid by Belfast to host the European City of Culture 2008. The bid wasn’t even shortlisted but cost £1.3m of public money. His credibility for criticising DCAL over the effectiveness of public expenditure therefore requires a more detailed discussion than this space affords.

Meaningful debate about the funding, direction and delivery of future progress in arts, culture and sports, does not benefit from tolerating the type of pompous chauvinism indulged by Mr Collins.

The evidence of my commitment to excellence, equality and economy in all of DCAL’s work is upfront and unquestionable. So too is my agenda to ensure that cultural and artistic prosperity goes hand-in-hand with community participation.

The overriding priority of the power-sharing Executive (as outlined in the 2011-2015 Programme for Government) is to grow the economy and tackle inequality. Within this, DCAL is working to promote excellence and equality while tackling poverty and social exclusion. 

In referring to examples of local culture, Mr Collins mentioned the Lyric Theatre and the Ulster Orchestra. The Lyric was rebuilt with more than £10m of government funding. The Ulster Orchestra has received over £10m from DCAL in the past five years.

Mr Collins failed to mention the 2013 City of Culture in Derry, an unprecedented celebration of the arts, which continues to resonate across the North West and beyond. It received more than £12m in government funding through my department, with legacy projects continuing to be supported.

He also failed to mention DCAL’s introduction at my direction – of creative Social Clauses designed to maximise all departmental spending for added public good, such as the additional social returns built into the £110m Stadium Programme. Could that be because he hasn’t bothered even asking?

By condescendingly swotting my commitment to the Irish language, Mr Collins did a huge disservice to over 7,000 citizens who have signed up for the Linitiative to learn our native tongue. This includes many from traditionally unionist and loyalist backgrounds.

I understand the Irish arts sector is passionate and vocal, particularly in the current financial climate. I have heard these concerns since the day I took office, and I will continue to listen to the people and represent them.

I am currently engaging directly with many individuals and groups across culture, arts and sports. Such meaningful and effective engagement is a core part of my department’s current consultation process on future budgetary decisions. I would encourage everyone to make their voices heard and full details of the various ways to respond to the consultation can be found on the DCAL website: or by telephoning 028-90515081.

I am more interested in building a new society where culture, arts and sports can thrive based on excellence and equality, and I won’t be deflected by personal agendas or political attacks whatever the source.

Carál Ní Chuilín 


Arts deserve a minister who will fight for them


Culture minister Carál Ní Chuilín

I’ve never met Carál Ní Chuilín, so I shouldn’t make too many assumptions about her. She has a Masters degree in management, and a track record as a ‘political activist’. A euphemism, I know. But at least she wasn’t a banker, and times have moved on. “The hand of history…” and all that.

This clever lady with a colourful past is currently Minister for Culture, Arts and Leisure. And she sure knows how to put the wind up people. Last week she warned arts organisations might go to the wall because of cuts.

She would “endeavour to ensure that frontline services are protected as far as possible” – a pledge fast becoming a cliché through overuse by cost-cutting Ministers.

In tortured corporate-speak, her department said it was “highly likely” some arts organisations “will cease to receive funding and this may put their viability into question”.

No-one in the arts is safe. Across Northern Ireland, organisations large and small are quivering in their boots.

Other than her status as a card-carrying member of Sinn Fein, it’s difficult to comprehend quite why Carál has ended up as head honcho (or should that be honcha) of Culture.

Sinn Fein is not bereft of individuals who are interested in the arts and who understand the positive impact they can have on people. But Carál isn’t one of them it seems.

A carefully crafted mini-biography on her departmental website: “In addition to being a life-long political activist, Carál has a particular interest in human rights, housing, community development and the Irish language.”

OK, I’ll grant you the Irish language is a cornerstone of our national culture. (Indeed, where would English literature be without the influence if Irish on Swift, Joyce, Wilde, O’Casey, Friel, Heaney and any other group of Irish writers in English you would care to mention).

But one would have expected to see mention of music, theatre, poetry – any of the arts in fact. But no – not even a hint of delight in the portraiture of Robert Ballagh. I bet predecessor Nelson McCausland would have had the gumption to put down Country and Western music and line dancing as among his interests in life.

Ministers are not appointed to fuel their passions. There’s many a competent finance minister who hasn’t been able to add up. You wouldn’t expect (or want) the health minister to give a helping hand in A&E on a fractious Saturday night.

But you do expect government departments to ‘pass the Ronseal test’ – doing what they say on the tin.

Let’s take another trip to the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure’s website.

Emblazoned across the top is the illiterate legend: “DCAL – a Department for the Economy and of Equality.” Below, DCAL declares: “Our top priority is to promote social and economic equality and tackle poverty and social exclusion.”

It’s a noble aim – but why then are there departments of Social Development; Finance and Personnel; and Enterprise and Investment? Do Mervyn Storey, Simon Hamilton and Arlene Foster know that Carál Ní Chuilín is masquerading as them?

No wonder she has no time to go to concerts or the theatre. The poor woman appears to be running four ministries.

If it’s not about sport, culture and the arts – what exactly is the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure for?

The Executive spends a pitiful 13p a week, per head of population, on the arts. In Wales the figure is 32p. Much is made of the importance of the creative industries for generating wealth.

Commercially successful enterprises such as Game of Thrones do not happen in isolation. They need a strong ‘culture’ in which to flourish, a culture that produces people with skills in writing, directing, acting, composing, designing, lighting, make-up, filming – the list could go on and on.

Many of our cultural icons cut their teeth in subsidised organisations – Liam Neeson at the Lyric, Barry Douglas at the Ulster Orchestra, James Nesbitt at Ulster Youth Theatre, Heaney in the pages of the Honest Ulsterman, to name just a few. Virtually every arts organisation is involved in community outreach, initiatives in schools, nursing homes, hospitals – even prisons.

Ní Chuilín is not the only offender. With a few exceptions, Northern Ireland’s political class has never valued the arts. A society that does not cherish culture will never thrive. Look around you. I rest my case.

The least the arts deserve is a minister prepared to stand up and fight for them. On current form, they have been saddled with one who is inadequate to the task. As an exasperated Niall Sedaka might have sung: “O Carál.”

* A version of this article first appeared in The Irish News



A kick in the crotchets for Belfast’s Ulster Orchestra


The Ulster Hall, Belfast, home of the Ulster Orchestra

One of the most remarkable acts of people power I witnessed during the Troubles happened at a concert in the Ulster Hall. The Ulster Orchestra was giving a concert, and during the interval a bomb warning was phoned through. Its then Chief Executive, David Byers came on stage and told the audience they would have to leave. The audience refused to go.

The Orchestra, he said, was happy to play on. So we all checked under our seats, and having assured ourselves that there were no ticking bombs, sat down and enjoyed the rest of the concert.

Okay, there have been greater acts of courage. But throughout the Troubles, the Ulster Orchestra played on, bringing a sense of normality to a country very much in need of one.

I remember former Ulster Unionist Party leader David Trimble – a man who knows his music – saying the regeneration of Belfast city centre was due to the Ulster Orchestra’s decision to launch its concert series in the early 80s. Until then, Belfast city centre was just one large no-go area.

The arts are much undervalued. But the simple truth is that actors, musicians and writers are often the people who hold societies together in the midst of the most horrific circumstances. Jewish musicians played Schubert in Nazi concentration camps, cellist Vedran Smallovich played chamber music in ruins during the siege of Sarajevo, and Daniel Barenboim’s East-West Divan Orchestra brings together musicians from Palestine and Israel, demonstrating that the human spirit can transform the most horrible of conflicts.

The Ulster Orchestra’s contribution to Northern Ireland is in the same league. Alongside the Lyric Theatre and Belfast Festival at Queen’s, it provided an alternative narrative to bombs and bullets and sectarian strife.

People around the world who bought its award-winning recordings, who listened to its concerts on the BBC, or who attended its international tours, heard a different Belfast voice.

But the Orchestra’s real impact was at home. The musicians provided the bedrock of music education across Northern Ireland – not just for classical musicians, but for people playing Irish traditional music, and music in brass and flute bands.

Innovative education programmes touched the lives of school children from Fermanagh in the west to Down in the east – not only were children given the opportunity to listen to musicians at the top of their game, but they played alongside them. In one particularly memorable project, Peter Maxwell Davis’s Turn of the Tide, primary school pupils played music they themselves had composed.

Northern Ireland punches above its weight where music is concerned. It does so because its artists and composers have cut their teeth with the orchestra. Barry Douglas, a towering figure among concert pianists, was one man whose career was forged in front of Ulster Orchestra audiences.

Michael McHale is carrying on that tradition for the current generation of young musicians. Sir James Galway, soprano Heather Harper, and the irrepressible Derek Bell of Chieftains fame have shown the best of what Northern Ireland has to offer on stage with the orchestra, as have Phil Coulter, Horslips and Anuna.

The list of composers it has encouraged could fill the rest of this page – many may not be household names, but without the Ulster Orchestra we would not have definitive recordings of music by Hamilton Harty, Charles Villiers Stanford, Howard Ferguson and the redoubtable Joan Trimble, among many others.

Orchestras do not come cheap. But the Ulster Orchestra has existed on a shoestring since its foundation. Structurally underfunded since its inception, it has always walked the thin line between solvency and bankruptcy. The Arts Council has been its biggest funder, followed by the BBC, Belfast City Council and the private sector.

Grants could be illusory. Most years, the Orchestra regularly paid more to the city council in hall hire fees than it received in its grant. It is ironic that the latest threat to the Orchestra’s future comes as plans are announced for an extension to the Waterfront Hall. There is no point in having two of the finest concert halls in the UK if you don’t have a decent orchestra to play in them.

After years of ducking and diving, it looks like time is running out for the band.

Northern Ireland’s politicians have never really faced up to their responsibilities to a the arts. Classical music doesn’t win many votes, and most politicians seem indifferent.

None of the Orchestra’s main sources of funding is secure. The Arts Council is chronically underfunded, with ministers insisting that funding decisions are based on social rather than artistic criteria. Belfast City Council does not fully appreciate the city’s cultural assets. The BBC is being squeezed financially and its long-term support for the Orchestra cannot be guaranteed. As for the private sector – it simply does not have the capacity for major arts funding.

Belfast tends to look to Glasgow as a model of Victorian cities which have transformed themselves from post-industrial wastelands to thriving urban centres. Glasgow has invested in cultural and arts, creating a quality of life which is a lure to high-value industries – financial services, technology, and new media among many others. It is a concert base four orchestras – the RSNO, BBC Scottish Symphony, Scottish Chamber and the Scottish Ensemble – each with an international reputation.

If the Ulster Orchestra is allowed to go under, Belfast will have hammered another nail in its own coffin and there will be no-one around to play its funeral march.


  • Tom Collins was chairman of the Ulster Orchestra from 1999-2007