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