A week before the Executive parties were to enter talks, it was announced that the arts events funding open call for the following year had been cancelled. This is far from a coincidence.
In a recent statement the Enterprise Minister, Arlene Foster, spoke about waiting to “see what happens in the 2014-2015 budgetary discussions” before a decision could be made about future funding. A more cynical person might wonder if she means a future when welfare reform has been implemented. The arts scene collectively just became the latest pawn in the DUP/Sinn Fein ideological struggle.
The arts scene, like much else in Northern Ireland, has been transformed over the last decade or so. People want to come here – artists, musicians, actors, film-makers, but also audiences. Nor is it just a matter of so-called ‘highbrow’ culture; we recently witnessed the incredibly vibrant sixth Belfast Culture Night, with some two hundred events and around thirty thousand people thronging the streets, generating an exciting and inclusive atmosphere.
Just before that was the Mela, grown from small beginnings to a massive celebration of cultural diversity, with as many as 25,000 people of all backgrounds packed into Botanic Gardens. There’s the Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival. There’s the Open House Festival. There’s Belsonic. There’s the Belfast Nashville Songwriters Festival. And we haven’t even started on the legacy of Derry-Londonderry’s year as City of Culture, or any of the lively local arts scenes across Northern Ireland, let alone the buzz about the new Venezuelan Chief Conductor of the Ulster Orchestra.
As a result our cultural wealth has grown and diversified.
So the news that some 37 arts organisations – including that newly reinvigorated Ulster Orchestra – are to have their funding withdrawn must make a lot of hearts sink, and not just those directly involved in the scene.
Nothing brings people together like arts and culture – at least when you do it right. Do it wrong and you’ll find a whole wave of our most creative young people taking their talent elsewhere. It’s not as if they have far to go – look at Dublin’s creative scene, never mind London.
There is an economic argument too, of course – generally you get a good return on your investment when you fund arts and culture, in terms of added tourism, additional spending and other knock on effects.
But to focus on narrow economics is to miss the real point. You just have to think back too far to remember Belfast City Centre emptying just after the shops shut. Wander in much after that and the only things moving were the chip-papers blowing like tumbleweeds. It was bleak, forbidding, anti-social.
In the end, it is a question of what sort of society we want to build together. Our political leaders have, rightly, put a lot of emphasis on ‘Building a United Community’, combatting racism, fostering inclusion and so on. Nothing will help us achieve those aims better that culture and the arts.
You can stand up and lecture people all day on the moral and political case for a non-sectarian, non-racist society, and they will go away with a bit more information. Put a drum in their hands, let them jam with an expert African djembe player, and people from all backgrounds will come together in a living, breathing encounter with another culture, an experience that is not available any other way, and one that contributes to a kind of wealth not measurable in pounds and pence.
There is so much at stake in the current cross party talks that cuts to arts funding may seem like a side issue. However the arts scene is a barometer of how far we have progressed in Northern Ireland as a result of the peace process. Both are in jeopardy as a result of the irresponsible governance of the DUP and Sinn Fein.