Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 10 July 2014

Our wonderfully fertile arts quarter must not be gelded

The Social Development Minister should reverse his decision to scrap the Laganside events fund, says Paul McErlean

Belfast - like many cities across the world - is known for its quarters. But often those quarters make the news for all the wrong reasons.

North, south, east and west, rightly or wrongly each evokes the image of distinct class, or social make-up.

Often, there is friction at their borders. Quarters in Belfast often mark out territory; 'ours' and 'theirs'.

But in central Belfast, the Cathedral Quarter has proved that it is possible for us to create a shared space that is a site of cultural inclusivity. The Cathedral Quarter is a place of collective ownership and, over the last number of years that I have been chair of the Cathedral Quarter Steering Group, we have been part of a wider coalition that has worked tirelessly to create a genuine cultural quarter in the city.

Thousands of volunteer hours have been put in to establishing a thriving cultural venue that everyone in Northern Ireland can be proud of.

Those efforts were recognised and aided by the Government through the Laganside Corporation, which created its own events fund. When the Laganside Corporation was wound up, the Department for Social Development (DSD) took on the events fund and has been administering it ever since.

The Cathedral Quarter now hosts a whole series of events, such as Culture Night, the Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival, the Open House Festival, the Out to Lunch Festival, the Festival of Fools and Young at Art - all of which have benefitted greatly from the support of the events fund.

The events and festivals have animated the Cathedral Quarter; they have created new audiences and driven visitors into Belfast city centre - many of them visiting for the very first time.

The Cathedral Quarter is now a very important part of Belfast and Northern Ireland's tourism 'product' and major new investment has been successfully driven into Belfast city centre.

Last week, though, all of the organisations which benefitted from Department for Social Development funding received letters to say that the events fund had closed.

Neither warning nor consultation took place.

No suggestions or support for how to overcome the funding gap were forthcoming.

That was deeply unfortunate - and surely not the way to treat organisations that have brought so much value and been such an aid in the very thing that the Department for Social Development is trying to achieve; urban regeneration.

What is perhaps most difficult to understand about all of this is the fact that The MAC - Belfast's major new art centre - is about to open in the heart of the Cathedral Quarter and yet all of the events which have helped to justify the investment in The MAC in the first place are now under threat. One of the guiding ideas of The MAC is the clustering of arts and cultural events in a shared place, accessible to all.

But only two months from opening and with the withdrawal of the events fund, the unveiling of The MAC could look like a football team sending Wayne Rooney in at centre forward without any of the other players taking to the pitch.

It is perversely appropriate that in the month that sees the 200th anniversary of Charles Dickens' birth, Belfast now faces its own 'Tale of Two Cities' moment.

On the one hand, we could build on the successes we have made and nurture a location that has been a beacon for cultural inclusivity, the likes of which is rare on the island of Ireland.

Or, alternatively, we can spurn that opportunity, undermining the economic and social benefits that a thriving cultural quarter brings.

It would be a far, far better thing that you do, Minister Nelson McCausland, if you were to reverse your decision and retain the Laganside events fund.

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