Belfast Telegraph

Fresh Arts Council row as chief executive brings age bias case against controversial chairman

By Mark Bain

The Arts Council of Northern Ireland is facing further turbulence after it emerged that its chief executive is taking an age discrimination case against its under-fire chairman.

The Belfast Telegraph can reveal that Roisin McDonough (68), who has served as chief executive of the body for almost 18 years, registered the age discrimination case in January of this year.

The case will be against current chairman John Edmund, the Arts Council of Northern Ireland and the Department for Communities.

No date has yet been listed for proceedings to be heard.

When contacted, the Arts Council said it would be making no comment on the case.

Mr Edmund and Ms McDonough were also unavailable for comment and there are currently no further details over what prompted the action to be taken.

The age discrimination case involving the two highest profile employees is likely to throw the arts body into more chaos.

Ms McDonough, an economics, sociology and politics graduate of Trinity College Dublin, had previously served as director of Brownlow Community Trust, an anti-poverty programme based in Craigavon, was a team leader with Making Belfast Work, and has worked as a director of the Training Network for Women.

She left her position as chief executive of the West Belfast Partnership, the urban regeneration agency she had headed for two years, to take up the role at the Arts Council.

Ms McDonough has warned in the past that the very existence of some arts groups could be under threat in the current economic climate, as the sector faces devastating cutbacks.

In April the Arts Council announced funding of £13.1m for the sector in 2018/19 — a cut of 4.7%.

This meant reductions for 43 out of 100 groups who depend heavily on the money, with another seven having their funding stopped entirely.

Mr Edmund, who took up his position with the Arts Council last January after he was appointed by former DUP minister Paul Givan, is no stranger to controversy in his role as chairman of the body, which serves as the funding and development agency for the entire arts community in Northern Ireland.

In January this year he came under fire from his own board after controversial claims that arts groups here depend too much on grant aid.

In an unprecedented move, eight out of the 10 board members issued a statement saying the chairman’s remarks didn’t reflect official policy.

It was later revealed that the board of the Arts Council had passed two votes of no confidence in their chair late in 2017 and staged walkouts from meetings.

The votes were taken at turbulent meetings in October and December as board members registered their opposition to the chair’s attitude to how the creative sector here should be funded.

Mr Edmund, who has resisted all demands for him to quit, reiterated his controversial position on financing the arts.

He has argued that the Government doesn’t have the money to meet demands from the arts, which, he added, had to be realistic about its expectations.

His response only fuelled anger among people in the sector who accused him of supporting financial cuts.

Then in May this year Mr Edmund’s chairmanship came under fire over a potential conflict of interest as anti-cuts campaigners in ArtsMatterNI raised concerns after he revealed details of work for the Nerve Centre in Derry.

He declared in the Arts Council’s register of interests an “assignment for the Nerve Centre on workforce planning for NI Screen industries commenced 1st April 2018 and due to end on 1st June 2018”.

It was weeks after starting the contract that Mr Edmund admitted a conflict of interest in his accepting the £18,000 contract from the Nerve Centre, an organisation in receipt of funding from the agency he leads.

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