Northern Ireland Executive’s decision to give funding back to marching bands is step in right direction
Minister Paul Givan’s reinstating of the musical instrument grant rights a significant injustice, says Nelson McCausland.
Early last month, I attended the Belfast Tattoo in the SSE Arena and it was a spectacular evening. There were several British military bands, as well as marching bands from Holland and the Irish Republic and a rich selection of bands from here in Northern Ireland.
Ballinran Flute Band were there from the Kingdom of Mourne and there were two accordion bands from north Antrim, Dunloy and The Vow, as well as pipe bands such as Ravara, McDonald Memorial and Marlacoo from Northern Ireland, Thiepval Memorial from Donegal and New Ross from Co Wexford.
The event is now firmly established in the cultural calendar of Northern Ireland — and rightly so. Indeed, this year the Saturday evening performance was filmed by the BBC and broadcast some weeks later. For some years, I have been pressing the BBC to provide more coverage of bands and this was a welcome development.
Of course, people can enjoy band music in a variety of settings and many of those opportunities are free of charge. There is an annual programme of open-air competitions organised by the Royal Scottish Pipe Band Association and bands also play a significant role in many parades.
The Saturday before the Tattoo was the last Saturday in August and I was in Lisburn for the Royal Black Institution demonstration, as were many other people.
There, we were able to enjoy a feast of band music that had both quality and variety, with accordion, flute, pipe and silver bands.
There are around 650 bands in Northern Ireland and perhaps half of them are flute bands, with a smaller number of accordion bands and around 100 pipe bands.
There are, then, well over 20,000 people in those bands who are learning music and performing music throughout the year and in communities across Northern Ireland. That probably makes them the largest community arts sector in Northern Ireland.
Some years ago, when I was Culture Minister, I commissioned an independent report on the sector and there was a follow-up report when I was Minister for Social Development.
Those were useful reports in that they provided valuable information about a sector which has often been marginalised or undervalued.
One of the key issues in relation to the arts is to increase participation and bands provide musical tuition in communities right across Northern Ireland.
Another issue is performance, or quality, and here we are able to benchmark the quality of our bands against the rest of the world for our pipe bands bring home British, European and World titles on a regular basis.
Turning back to the Tattoo, we can also see flute and accordion bands performing alongside some of the best military bands in the world. That shows the quality of the sector.
The Arts Council, as an arms-length body of the Department for Communities, provides support to many arts organisations and this is a sector that, on the grounds of both participation and performance, deserves more recognition and resources.
Unfortunately, under the previous Culture Minister, the Musical Instruments Fund for Bands was curtailed in 2014-15 and then totally withdrawn in 2015-16. This was the only sector where funding was totally withdrawn — a fact that did not go unnoticed.
After the recent Assembly election, the new Minister for Communities, Paul Givan, reinstated the fund at £200,000 and then, on Tuesday afternoon, he announced in the Assembly that such was the demand that a further £98,000 has been added, so that all the eligible applications can be funded. That will provide support for 68 bands, with a maximum grant of £5,000, and will help to redress what happened in recent years.
It has been a good fund, which helps the Northern Ireland Executive to meet its targets in relation to supporting culture, targeting social need, addressing rural need and ensuring a good geographical spread.
By restoring the fund, Paul Givan has righted a wrong that should never have been inflicted in the first place.