Carál Ní Chuilín, the Northern Ireland minister of culture arts and leisure, was interviewed on Radio Ulster’s Arts Show last Thursday. Asked what she thought was important about the arts here, the minister replied: ‘That people don’t see it as another whinge.’
On Tuesday, three hundred artists and art workers gathered, under the banner of Arts Matter NI, in front of Parliament Buildings at Stormont, not to whinge, but to give vent to justifiable anger. Northern Ireland has the lowest per capita arts spend in these islands, one of the lowest anywhere in Europe. Earlier this autumn, the minister followed up an 11 per cent cut in her department’s annual allocation to the arts with the announcement of a further in-year cut of 8 per cent, equal to around £870,000, the bulk of it to be borne by Northern Ireland’s 32 largest arts organisations.
The cuts were not inevitable. Or certainly the depth of them was not. The cuts are ideological, based on an idea of the arts as elitist and out of touch with (that much abused word) communities, an idea that the minister has gone out of her way to promote.
It came to light last week that the minister has, over the past couple of years, found money in the budget – more than half a million pounds – for a cultural programme fund that no one, apart from the minister and the recipients, seems to know anything about. By far and away the single biggest beneficiary was Féile An Phobail/The West Belfast Festival, which has always enjoyed support from the minister’s party, Sinn Fein.
Nobody I know is saying that Féile, or the handful of other organisations that benefitted, did not need or deserve the money. But we are saying that in a sector characterised by low pay, a sector in which jobs are now on the line, everyone deserves the same opportunity to compete for what money is available. The arts are not divisive, but current arts policy and the rhetoric that goes with it are. There is no surer way to turn people away from the arts than by telling them the arts are not for them.
In her Radio Ulster interview, the minister referred to ‘snide remarks’ about her not going to the theatre, and there is no doubt that some of the criticism of the cuts she has presided over has been personal, but it is our system of government that makes it so. Ministries have become fiefdoms (which I am a little sorry to say does not make individual ministers ‘fiefs’), impervious to censure unless it comes from within their own party hierarchy. So I’ll broaden this out. I’ll ask the minister’s party: is her view of the arts your view of the arts? And if it is then I would ask voters all across the island of Ireland to take note.