Belfast Telegraph

Caral Ni Chuilin found wanting again as she presides over another debacle

By Nelson McCausland

The success rate for Culture, Arts and Leisure Minister Caral Ni Chuilin is already low, and I think it is about to get even lower.

She hasn't managed to redevelop Casement Park "under her watch" and she hasn't managed to introduce an Irish Language Act. Now add to that the unfolding debacle of her Arts and Culture Strategy.

On Monday, the minister made a statement to the Assembly and announced the launch of a consultation on this strategy. It is something that has been awaited by the culture and arts sector and by many others, but the whole process has been deeply disappointing, and what she is asking folk to consult on isn't even a strategy.

Ms Ni Chuilin has been working on this project since the summer of 2014, and her arts branch produced a "project initiation document" in September 2014.

She established a ministerial arts advisory forum in January 2015. There was also a cross-departmental steering group with officials from various departments and arms-length bodies, since this is intended to be a cross-departmental strategy.

A consultation document has now been published, with a 12-week consultation period and a closing date of February 12, 2016, but it isn't a strategy and neither is it a draft strategy.

Originally, she had promised a consultation period of 20 weeks and obviously believed that such a period of time was necessary, but she is so far behind her own schedule that she has had to cut it down to just 12 weeks, otherwise the consultation period would run into the middle of April and would end just mere weeks away from the next Assembly election.

There would be no time to consider the consultation and no time to bring forward her strategy for Executive approval.

The 12 weeks is the very shortest consultation period that she could run with, but she doesn't even seem to have a draft strategy to consult on.

When the consultation ends on February 12, her department will then have to analyse the responses, publish a summary of the responses and then seek the approval of the Executive.

If the analysis is to be genuine and meaningful, it alone could take six weeks, especially if there are a lot of responses, and there is simply not enough time to do all that before the election.

Time will tell - and I have never claimed to be a prophet - but unless the minister has mastered some method of cramming a gallon of work into a pint pot of time, I simply do not see how this process can be completed.

So why is she so late in the day bringing this forward? Why is she so far behind schedule?

After she made her statement in the chamber on Monday, we had the opportunity to question the minister, although it soon became clear that she was in a rather tetchy mood.

I asked her when she received a draft document for approval, and she admitted that she had received it "in early summer". I understand that it was with her around June, so what has she been doing between then and the end of November?

She talked about having to do work on the document and about the Stormont House Agreement talks, but most of the work would have been done by her departmental officials, and they weren't involved in inter-party talks. Her answer was less than convincing; in fact, it wasn't really an answer at all.

It is right and proper to have a strategy for culture and arts for Northern Ireland, just as we have a strategy for sport. But those five wasted months may well mean that we are left without a strategy.

That lost time has put the minister in a position where her process will run out of road because of the election in May.

Nelson McCausland MLA is chair of the Assembly's culture, arts and leisure committee

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