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: www.dcalni.gov.uk 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