Minister must account for actions
It may be a few days late but there could be fireworks next Thursday when Culture, Arts and Leisure minister Caral Ni Chuilin appears before her department's scrutiny committee at Stormont to be quizzed about arts funding. Her predecessor Nelson McCausland, now chairman of the committee, raises some very worrying questions about the issue in his column in this newspaper today.
Essentially he suggests the minister has given preferential treatment to the West Belfast Festival in recent years at the expense of other cultural and arts organisations.
This is a serious charge for him to level at the minister and some people might dismiss it as symptomatic of the suspicion and bad blood that exists between their parties, the DUP and Sinn Fein, even though they are the senior partners in the power-sharing administration.
But, the issue having been raised, now deserves an answer. Why did the minister give just over half of a fund of £500,000 to the festival in 2013? The money came from a cultural programme fund which was meant to showcase arts and culture to competitors in, and visitors to, the World Police and Fire Games in Belfast. Most of the rest, according to Mr McCausland, went to an Irish language society in north Belfast and to the Belfast Film Festival which grew out of the main West Belfast Festival.
The following year the entire £350,000 for a cross-community programme went to the festival without any sign of a funding stream, Mr McCausland claims.
While the department says that the cultural programme was developed and progressed in an open and transparent way, members of the scrutiny committee will expect a much fuller explanation from the minister when she appears before them.
And it is imperative that she is as open as possible to allay any suspicions of favouritism. The arts sector, not uniquely, has suffered swingeing cuts to the money it receives from Stormont and those who are striving to continue their work on hugely diminished budgets will want to know if they lost out unfairly on possible funding streams from the department.
It must be remembered that this is public money which should always - especially at a time of growing austerity - be spent prudently and accounted for scrupulously. Were all departmental guidelines followed and were bids for funding encouraged from other organisations? We should be told.