Belfast Telegraph

The chair of the Arts Council believes the creative sector should wean itself off public subsidy, while seeking it for himself … he must go

John Edmund has survived two votes of no confidence by his fellow board members, but the latest revelations make his position untenable, writes Conor Shields

Is it not ironic that the same person who chides arts organisations for being too dependent on public funding and who is quick to defend the swingeing cuts the Arts Council of Northern Ireland (ACNI) has had to make to the arts in recent weeks, secures public funding himself?

That irony and the latest revelations in a long line regarding the current chairperson of the Arts Council of Northern Ireland and his relationship with his colleagues further undermines the ArtsMatterNI campaign's confidence in his tenure.

John Edmund, the chairperson in question, does now concede that there is, indeed, a conflict of interest in his accepting an £18,000 contract from the Nerve Centre in Londonderry - an organisation in receipt of funding from the agency he leads.

He admitted to the Belfast Telegraph that "a conflict of interest exists in that the Arts Council is a minor funder of the Nerve Centre".

We welcome this clarification, because it was the main query of ArtsMattersNI's statement on the issue - though we would question whether the degree of funding should be a consideration at all.

However, the information provided by the Belfast Telegraph raises more questions.

The chair said: "I have declared that conflict and will not be part of any discussion that involves the Nerve Centre for one year after the conclusion of this assignment.

"This is standard protocol."

But the chair's declaration of what he now concedes to be a conflict of interest was only made weeks after starting the contract.

Is this the correct operation of this protocol?

The chair says it is standard protocol not to be part of any discussion involving the client.

But has he not clearly ignored that same protocol by competing for a contract with a client of the Arts Council in the first place, while simultaneously presiding over funding discussions in which that same client had a considerable stake?

Moreover, this position seems difficult to reconcile with his formal ACNI role.

The Arts Council chairperson is supposed to preside over the strategic direction of arts policy and the destination of its funds.

How can "absenting" oneself from policy and funding decisions due to a conflict of interest support this role sufficiently?

Does it not defeat the purpose?

Does the chairperson's post-dated declaration inspire any confidence in the adherence to protocols put in place to protect the probity of those funding decisions, for all organisations?

The Department for Communities seems mistaken in its assessment of this conflict of interest as well - it is certainly at odds with Mr Edmund's own understanding. The department states that several other Arts Council members have made similar declarations of interest relating to work with organisations in receipt of Arts Council funding.

However, the Arts Council register of interest says there is only one other paid role in a client organisation.

This is a role taken on by an unpaid voluntary board member, not a remunerated chairperson.

It is, therefore, incorrect to infer that this practice is common. And, from the date on the register, it appears evident that the volunteer board member declared the interest before the discussions around annual funding, therefore abiding by the protocol.

In addition to protecting the probity of individuals in public service, conflict-of-interest management is normally devised to protect those organisations in receipt of, or making application for, public subvention.

Conflict of interest policies and procedures are there to protect all of us.

They should mean that we will not find ourselves compromised by inappropriate approaches, or worried about the consequences of making or refusing payments to someone we might depend on for financial backing.

It may relate to assistance in kind, or even co-opting the profile of an organisation's reputation to influence an outcome.

All of this needs to be sensitively and transparently managed.

At a time of deep, disproportionate cuts to arts funding and with up to 43 such organisations asking for funding outcomes to be reviewed and explained, this sector deserves, at the very least, more empathy from the chairperson of its principal funder, including absolute transparency surrounding funding and procurement.

As of now, after these cuts, every person living in Northern Ireland, citizen or subject, receives just one penny per day from voted-for funds (ie those monies coming from Government). That is not only the smallest amount per head in these islands, but it is less than half that enjoyed by people in the Republic of Ireland, Scotland, Wales or England.

Against this mammoth disparity, we need the support of those charged with funding the sector at the very least.

For a sector with over 6,000 jobs dependent on its survival year-on-year and projections of further cuts that the chairperson has left unchallenged, all this makes the arts in Northern Ireland perilously vulnerable and deeply demoralised.

Every citizen here is being told that they are worth less in terms of arts access and participation - half as much as our nearest neighbours.

People will be losing their jobs, communities their hard-won options.

The chairperson would do well to consider his role and attitude in these insecure times.

For the arts community generally, all but a handful of organisations have been pared back year after year, making themselves incredibly lean and efficient in their management of the scarce resource of funding.

We have argued time and again that increased investment and parity of funding and support to the levels of the rest of our neighbours is required.

For some now, that has almost immediate consequences; for others, a stay of execution, perhaps, or for the very few some additional funds that undoubtedly will not even match the aspirations and ambitions to which those organisations dedicate themselves.

This chairperson's attitude toward his admitted conflict of interest, in the face of the sector's difficulties, is deeply insensitive and lacking leadership.

Unsurprisingly, this only heaps insult on injury.

This chairperson clearly understood that he had - rightly - to step down from his previous role with the Grand Opera House before assuming any responsibility at the Arts Council, which annually awards a substantial funding to the Opera House.

He clearly stood down from a voluntary role at the Grand Opera House, yet went on to bid for and accept a paid role with another client?

Furthermore, we would question whether the degree of funding should be a criterion for consideration when analysing if an action is a conflict of interest or not. Surely, it either isn't, or - as in this case, the chairperson concedes - it is, in fact, a conflict of interest?

These revelations - added to the two votes of no confidence from his colleagues on the board of the Arts Council of Northern Ireland - further undermine the sector's confidence in the chairperson's tenure.

Surely now, having seen, time and again, the way this current chairperson engages with his role and the sector, his position is wholly untenable.

Conor Shields is convener of the ArtsMatterNI campaign group

Belfast Telegraph

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