Belfast Telegraph

Art world outrage at Nelson McCausland is just a little melodramatic

By Lindy McDowell

Does a Minister for Arts and Culture have any business poking his nose into affairs of arts and culture? The question is prompted by the hoo-ha that has followed the revelation that Nelson McCausland has sent a letter (or possibly email, I'm not sure) to the organisers of the Queen's Festival.

The brazen cheek of the boy!

We now know of the contents of this missive because it has been released "following a Freedom of Information request''.

According to early reports, Mr McCausland had "demanded" that organisers ensure that pro-Israeli speakers would appear at the festival. And also "demanded" that "Christian music" feature on the bill.

Now you could quite understand how organisers might feel miffed - if that was actually the case. Interestingly, though, later reports began to mellow in phraseology.

Mr McCausland, we learned, had actually "suggested" that during any future debates on the Middle East, a pro-Israeli view might be included in the interests of balance. He mentioned the southern gospel music because he himself thought this might be a crowd puller.

But back to the big question - is this really any of his business?

Not having seen the letter or email he sent, it's hard to gauge the tone used. If he indicated that funding might be withheld if organisers didn't DO AS HE SAID there might be cause for alarm. But there's absolutely no indication that that was the case.

His intervention seems to have amounted to those two points - the minister having recommended the southern gospel stuff off his own bat (thus ensuring it will never, ever appear on the festival programme.)

And having called for 'balance' (surely not such an awful thing?) in debates about matters Middle Eastern. To put this latter in further context it appears he was prompted to write after that embarrassing episode last year where Queen's Festival first invited the pro-Israeli Professor Geoffrey Alderman to speak at just such a debate - but then suddenly, mysteriously disinvited him.

The university later apologised. But still didn't explain why. (Another pro-Israeli speaker at a more recent event in the university - one not connected with the festival - had to flee the premises only a few minutes into his lecture. Are pro-Israeli speakers now verboten at Queen's?)

For the Oxford-educated McCausland to ask, as Arts Minister, if in future, balance could be ensured in similar debates does not actually seem such an impertinent or outrageous intervention.

Besides all of which they could (and probably will) ignore him anyway. So it leaves you wondering though why some critics have worked themselves into such a tizzy about this.

Why they feel it's such a big deal for a Culture Minister to express opinion (even if they don't agree with it.)

The organisers of the Queen's Festival deserve credit for the remarkable programme of events they stage each year (and much respect for the fact that they managed to do this throughout even the grim years of the Troubles.)

Surely they won't have been fazed by the presumably civil correspondence from a Government minister.

So how come this has been turned into such a major production?

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