Belfast Telegraph

Arts Council's 'hands off' warning to MLAs

Body to fight any overhaul by a restored Northern Ireland Executive

By Noel McAdam

Northern Ireland's Arts Council has come out fighting in a bid to head off a radical shake-up of the organisation by a future Stormont Executive.

It is one of 21 arm's-length bodies under the umbrella of the Department for Communities which are currently under review.

An examination into their effectiveness comes after an Assembly debate late last year heard the organisations had a combined budget of £78m.

The Arts Council has already suffered a 30% budget reduction over the last five years, from £14m in 2011 to £9.8m in the current financial year.

The potential overhaul follows the reduction of Stormont departments from 12 to nine and the reduction of the Assembly itself from 108 MLAs to 90.

Local councils have also been cut from 26 to 11, and thousands of civil servants have taken redundancy in a jobs squeeze aimed at saving the public purse around £90m a year.

No decisions will be taken until the restoration of power-sharing, but the Arts Council is arguing it should remain an arm's-length body.

The Department for Communities insisted all arm's-length bodies must perform at least one of three functions - having expertise external to the department, "absolute political impartiality" in delivering its functions, and an investigative role separate from ministers. The Arts Council is arguing that it meets all three criteria.

Former DUP Communities Minister Paul Givan ordered the review to continue despite the collapse of the Executive in January.

A consultation has been continuing over the summer.

Mr Givan said: "Ultimately, it will be up to the next Executive and Assembly to deal with the outworkings of that review when the findings come through."

The Arts Council said: "We made our case within the initial response to the department's arm's-length bodies review, stating how and why it meets the three functional tests to remain at arm's-length from government.

"In simple terms, these are specialist expertise, political impartiality and independence."

Despite the cutbacks to its budget, the Arts Council has instigated new projects including Building Peace Through The Arts, aimed at older people, ethnic minority artists and groups, disabled people, children and young people, and an all-Ireland scheme that allows arts organisations to tour north and south.

It continues to fund theatre, literature and art by working in partnership with hundreds of groups and venues.

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