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The arts express the very soul of our society; we starve them of the funds they need at our peril

Minister Paul Givan should reverse cuts to cultural budget as matter of urgency, says Alban Maginness

Published 27/07/2016

The Lyric Theatre has hosted a variety of productions, including inmates from Hydebank Young Offenders Centre performing in Observe The Sons Of Ulster...
The Lyric Theatre has hosted a variety of productions, including inmates from Hydebank Young Offenders Centre performing in Observe The Sons Of Ulster...

Frank McGuinness's play Observe The Sons Of Ulster Marching To The Somme is a gripping and vivid account of the hopes, the toil and suffering of eight ordinary young members of the 36th (Ulster) Division on the eve of the battle, in which thousands of young men from here died.

The play is not propagandist, nor is it a political polemic of the First World War, nor an attempt to explain the complexities of that conflict as far as Ireland was concerned. These are simply eight young Protestant recruits, from differing backgrounds throughout Ulster, who are thrown together in the Army, but share a common cause to fight for their faith and country.

But they are doomed to die in the battle and the feeling of pain and exploitation and the inevitable waste of human youthful life pervades the play. The drama is both humorous and bleak, but very human in its treatment of the fears and feelings of these ill-fated soldiers.

This play is concerned with the humanity of the situation, not the politics, and serves to complement the current surfeit of official Somme commemorations and much more detailed documentaries on television dealing with the 100th anniversary of this great slaughter.

I saw this play performed lately in the Lyric Theatre in Belfast. The Lyric, in co-operation with the Abbey Theatre in Dublin, is to be congratulated for the staging of this fine production.

It is, of course, appropriate that this insightful drama be performed in Belfast at a time of commemoration in our society.

It gives much food for thought as we retrospectively probe the Battle of the Somme, which, for many in the unionist community, is seen as a sacred blood sacrifice that ultimately brought about the establishment of a unionist Northern Ireland.

This play provocatively challenges the conventional thinking of the audience. And that's what drama should be about. Drama should shake us out of our comfort zones. For me, the drama illustrated the extraordinary waste that was the Battle of the Somme, a waste that makes me not just sad, but angry.

The Lyric Theatre has been challenging audiences for nearly 50 years and is not just another theatre, but a creative artistic institution that produces extraordinary drama to audiences right across the community. It is a jewel in the artistic crown in the same way as the Ulster Orchestra is our musical jewel.

Thankfully, we have a dynamic artistic sector, be it drama, film, music, the visual arts or other artistic expressions. Artistic activity in any civilised society needs to be nurtured as well as appreciated.

Art is the outward expression of the soul of any society. It is the lungs through which society breathes its innermost thoughts and imagination. Without artistic expression society is impoverished.

But artistic life needs public financial support and that is as true here as it is in London or Berlin. Without financial support many artists will be unable to carry on with their work. Creativity will be unsupported and artistic growth uncultivated.

It should also be remembered that artistic activity has an economic value as well.

As artistic activity develops the economic benefits inevitably multiply. So, there is a good case economically for public funding in order to encourage and grant support to those involved in artistic pursuits until they can become self-sufficient. Therefore, the recent announcement that the Department for Communities has reduced the budget for the Arts Council by £500,000 came as bad news.

Overall, this doesn't seem such a huge cut, but it is in fact a disproportionate slice and one that, if not readjusted, will be damaging for artistic life here.

Nobody in artistic life would argue that the arts should remain immune from budget cuts, but any cuts which are made must be proportionate. The arts budget here is less that 1% of the overall Executive budget, therefore we are talking about a very small part of public expenditure.

Spending on the arts should not be seen as an optional extra, but as an essential part of public spending. Minister Paul Givan's decision to make this cut is extremely short-sighted and should be corrected quickly.

Also, the timing of the cuts' announcement, being juxtaposed with the restoration of £200,000 for instruments for marching bands, was perceived as sectarian and was received with general dismay.

This, coupled with his widely circulated photograph gleefully lighting a bonfire on the Eleventh Night, did nothing to inspire confidence that this able DUP minister would try to be a Minister for Communities, rather than a minister for a community.

He may well argue that I have misunderstood his actions, but he needs to remember that - in politics - perception is everything.

Belfast Telegraph

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