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”.

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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.