Belfast Telegraph

Note of hope sounded for Ulster Orchestra as Stormont composes a new budget

By Chris Kilpatrick

The Ulster Orchestra has welcomed a much-needed cash injection from Stormont - but serious concerns remain about its long-term future.

The orchestra had been facing closure but a deal was announced this week to provide funding - reportedly in the region of £400,000 - giving the body a reprieve.

That money came as a result of the January monitoring round, when cash is reallocated between Stormont departments.

The details of the cash injection are set to be laid out on Monday.

A spokeswoman for the Ulster Orchestra yesterday told the Belfast Telegraph it had not yet been told exactly how much money was being made available.

It had faced a £500,000 gap in funding.

Musicians within the orchestra will have to sacrifice some of their income in the hope of safeguarding its future. They won't be paid for additional work they do.

The head of the orchestra, Sir George Bain, said he was "very hopeful" its immediate financial problems had been solved, but said further discussions were required regarding it's long-term viability.

The BBC provides financial support of almost £640,000 each year towards the orchestra.

It is also hopeful of achieving a deal for the free rent of the Ulster Hall from the city council.

That is worth £300,000 each year. Mr Bain said there had been a "great deal of progress".

"The first group that should get a lot of credit is Belfast City Council," he said.

"They were the first movers, they agreed to give us £100,000 towards our deficit and rent-free use of the Ulster Hall and the Waterfront Hall, and that really set the ball rolling."

Sir George told the BBC: "The main thing that needs to be done with the orchestra is a new financial settlement with all the key players and the only people who can really fund the orchestra, and all orchestras outside north America, have to be funded by outside sources, are Belfast City Council, the Arts Council of Northern Ireland, the BBC and DCAL.

"Really, what has to happen over the next year is for conversations both bilaterally and multi-laterally between all those four organisations as to what the new arrangements should be."

Former Alliance politician Seamus Close criticised the public spend.

He said he understood the orchestra was cherished by many, but added: "If I don't have enough money to feed the family am I going to take them to the pictures? I don't think so. I think it is all about gauging priorities."

He said all of the grants towards the orchestra were from public funds.

A spokesman for the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure said: "It would be inappropriate to comment on any additional funding for the Ulster Orchestra until the Assembly has considered the January monitoring allocations."

It costs about £4.5m a year to run the Ulster Orchestra. The orchestra employs 63 musicians and 17 staff.

Belfast City Council agreed on December 1 that it would hand over £100,000 in funding, but this was dependent on other funders also coming forward.

Extra money was also given to the Department of Regional Development to improve street lighting services as a result of the January monitoring round.

The Stormont Executive passed a budget for the next financial year on Thursday.

The spending plan was voted through by DUP and Sinn Fein ministers at a meeting in Stormont Castle in the face of opposition from the smaller parties, the UUP, SDLP and Alliance.

Striking a budget was a key precursor for the implementation of many aspects of the recent Stormont House political deal on a range of long-standing disputes impacting power-sharing. In particular it will mean the Government can press ahead with legislation to devolve the ability to set corporation tax powers to the Executive.

The budget also reflects the deal on implementing welfare reforms in Northern Ireland, which was another element of the Stormont House Agreement.

Finance Minister Simon Hamilton said an extra £150m had been able to be diverted to departments on top of what had been envisaged in draft spending proposals last year.

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