Belfast Telegraph

Staff turn on Arts Council chair in row over letter ‘questioning their even-handedness’

By Victoria Leonard

Arts Council staff have submitted an unprecedented letter of protest concerning chairman John Edmund after he refused to give an assurance in a letter to a Stormont department that the body had treated all communities fairly.

A source said that a row had broken out after Mr Edmund failed to provide an assurance in a letter to Ian Snowden, the then deputy secretary for the Engaged Communities Group in the Department for Communities, that the Arts Council is operating according to equality principles.

The staff letter, sent to Arts Council chief executive Roisin McDonough, on September 24 on behalf of 80% of staff, states that they had been "moved by extraordinary events to write to you and strongly refute the comments made by John Edmund, Chair, to Ian Snowden, Deputy Secretary of DfC, in his letter to Mr Snowden of August 20, 2018".

The Belfast Telegraph has seen the letter, which continues: "In that letter, the ACNI Chair refuses to give an assurance to the Department for Communities that 'in our funding allocations we treat all communities fairly'.

"We reject the allegation that staff working for the Arts Council of Northern Ireland do not act fairly in assessing, advising and allocating public funding to the arts sector and we seek to know what the Executive and the Board intend to do to rebut this view. With that in mind, we ask you to consider bringing this letter to the Board's attention under the Chief Executive's Report at the October meeting."

The Belfast Telegraph understands that the letter was raised at a meeting of the group's council last Wednesday.

The letter row is the latest to hit under-fire Arts Council boss Mr Edmund, who was appointed by then-DUP Communities Minister Paul Givan in 2016.

Last year the board of the Arts Council passed two votes of no confidence and staged walkouts from meetings in opposition to Mr Edmund's attitude over how the creative sector here should be funded.

In January he faced calls to resign after making comments that the arts should be run more like a business during an arts and business awards ceremony in Belfast.

And in May concerns were raised over a potential conflict of interest after Mr Edmund revealed details of work for the Nerve Centre in Londonderry.

Then, in August, it emerged that Ms McDonough, who has served as chief executive of the body for 18 years, had lodged an age discrimination case in January against Mr Edmund, the Arts Council and the Department for Communities.

A source said that staff working in administrative and arts development roles are "united in objecting in the strongest terms" to the implications contained in his letter.

They said: "He has lost the council, the executive and now the staff.

"Staff at all levels objected to the implication that they were behaving in an improper way towards the public."

They described the letter from the staff as "unprecedented".

"It means that the council, the executive and now the staff body are at odds with the chairman.

"The Department for Communities is the parent department. Whose side is the department on?"

The Arts Council responded: "The Arts Council of Northern Ireland can confirm that a letter from staff members was sent to the council's board.

"The board and the senior executive are working with the chair on the issues raised and cannot comment any further on this matter."

The Department for Communities said: "It is not appropriate for the department to comment on matters that are currently subject to the proceedings in the Industrial Tribunal, and related matters."

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