Minister Ni Chuilin's decision to halt cash for band instruments 'perverse', says Nelson McCausland
A decision by Culture Minister Caral Ni Chuilin to suspend funding for musical instruments for bands has been blasted as "perverse".
The Sinn Fein minister announced the Musical Instruments for Bands scheme will be "put on hold" due to budget cuts.
However, she said she remained committed to supporting the programme and will work to find funding to restart it.
The main beneficiary from the scheme are loyalist bands, although bands from the republican tradition and community bands with no affiliation have also received money from it.
Ms Ni Chuilin said she intended to bid for additional funds for the scheme in the June monitoring round. However, as her department is not in a position to confirm whether this bid will be successful, she said the Arts Council would be unable to open the scheme as usual in April.
"Following the reduction of the block grant, there has been considerable effort to minimise the impact of funding cuts on arts and culture," she said.
"That work will continue, and I hope it will be feasible to run this programme again in the future."
Nelson McCausland, chair of the Culture Arts and Leisure committee at Stormont, queried whether the minister had carried out an equality impact assessment before making her decision.
"This scheme meets all the priorities that the minister has set down for her department. Her decision is both perverse and incomprehensible," he said.
"An independent study carried out in 2013 confirmed that there are 660 bands in the sector and that they involve more than 25,000 people in learning and performing music.
"Participation in the arts is one of the departmental priorities and this sector is right up there at the top as the largest community arts sector in Northern Ireland.
"It also meets the minister's priority for Promoting Equality and Tackling Poverty and Social Exclusion. Many bands are based in inner city areas of high social deprivation and many others are in isolated rural communities." Mr McCausland claimed that of all the funding schemes administered by the Arts Council, Musical Instruments for Bands was the most geographically diverse, in that most of the spend was outside the cities of Belfast and Londonderry.
Marching bands have received more than half a million pounds under this scheme in the past three years.
Ulster band activist Quincey Dougan said they were disappointed, but had been expecting the blow.
He said the band scene involved almost 30,000 direct participants, but was "vastly underfunded".
"The band movement has been expecting the cancellation of the DCAL funding for the sector, so the announcement is not a shock, especially given the indifference and ambivalence the minister has displayed towards it in the past," he claimed.