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Belfast Festival is too much for us to handle alone, says Queen's University

By Noel McAdam

Published 07/05/2015

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Professor Tony Gallagher

Queen's University is ready to become involved if another body is set up to save the Belfast Festival, an Assembly committee has heard.

The pro vice-chancellor, Professor Tony Gallagher, denied that QUB wanted to wash its hands completely of the world-famous event.

He also admitted it was a loss for the city that the Belfast Festival at Queen's will no longer happen after more than 50 years.

He told the Stormont culture and arts committee: "It's a much bigger thing than the university can handle.

"We're more than happy to be a partner with others, but it was no longer sustainable, from our point of view, to be the funder of last resort, that if anything went wrong we had to pick up the pieces. We can't afford to do that anymore."

Quizzed by MLAs, Prof Gallagher added: "If there is a model put together by the city, or whomever, which could work, we would be very keen to explore opportunities to engage with that, because arts and culture remains a very important part of what we do."

Queen's announced in March it was withdrawing funding for the event - which it started in 1961 - almost a year after its biggest sponsor Ulster Bank slashed its contribution. At the committee hearing chairman Nelson McCausland of the DUP asked whether QUB's decision indicated a change in its attitude towards the arts - and whether it will mean job losses.

Prof Gallagher said the university remained "deeply committed" to arts provision but "will have to refocus", and staff could transfer to a new organisation running the festival.

The university is also exploring opportunities for redeployment and "if the staff wish to remain and work at Queen's and they can find a place for them we accommodate that," he added.

NI21 MLA Basil McCrea asked if Queens was "washing its hands completely of any involvement in the future in the Belfast Festival?"

"Not at all," said Prof Gallagher. The DUP's William Humphrey asked if there was a "cultural problem of people in Northern Ireland relying on government to pay for things and the private sector not doing enough".

Prof Gallagher replied that Queen's was one of the most effective universities in the UK at leveraging philanthropic support and "if it was there to be found, we would have found it".

"In the current economic environment it is very hard to access private support as well," he added.

Background

The Belfast Festival at Queen's began in 1961 and brought more than 50 years of culture and entertainment to the city. Jimi Hendrix, Seamus Heaney, the Moscow State Ballet, Van Morrison, Ennio Morricone and Desmond Tutu are among those who have graced its stages over the decades. The world famous festival, which ran throughout the worst of the Troubles, received a funding blow when principal sponsor Ulster Bank announced a year ago it was substantially slashing its funding. Then, earlier this year, Queen's announced it was withdrawing funding.

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