Saturday, March 25, 2017

Cutting Culture

Big redwood postcard 640

Local political tensions have been very high for quite some time. Just one of the ingredients, yet an absolutely critical one, has been the handling of two specific Irish language issues - firstly the renaming of a fisheries protection boat, and secondly a residential scheme for children. Both of these decisions were bad ones. The reactions and outcry were both justified and predictable. I have at least two sets of friends whose children have enjoyed the Liofa Bursary residential summer scheme - normal people who work in the creative industries and who enjoy this dimension of their heritage.

The reaction was additionally interesting because, in years gone by, Ulster-Scots funding streams have also been chopped, but these have had no equivalent reaction from the affected community, politicians or the media. Phone-in shows did not inflame the public mood. There were no lengthy 'think pieces' in the newspapers from academics and commentators about how outrageous this was. There was no queue of politicians asking hard questions about what on earth was going on. No high-profile protest campaigns from the arts & heritage sector about lost opportunity. And so there was no community outcry. Hardly anybody knows it even happened. The chopping was quiet and effective.

Ulster-Scots has been used for decades now to provide a 'sop' in umpteen political agreements. During the negotiations which led to the historic 'Good Friday Agreement' of 1998, the Prime Minister's right hand man was said to have laughed out loud at the notion of funding for Ulster-Scots, despite him reportedly having done a university thesis on the subject. Big announcements made, fig leaves handed out, but often minimal actual delivery. Swathes of promised funding ... but which then gets 'delayed', 'reallocated', 'handed back', ‘returned to the centre’, 'not spent'… suffocation caused by skilfully managed ‘process’ … there is much that could be said or disclosed but I had better not go any further.

It is sad that culture in Northern Ireland has been allocated a 'polarity' – Irish for one side, Ulster-Scots for the other side. In reality and practice, culture is not that simple – it ebbs and flows and overlaps in many directions across Northern Ireland. This also creates the impression of a kind of equivalence, whereas is reality there is a vast difference in how each is resourced. In February some stats were announced, which suggest a financial ratio of around 20:1. In terms of infrastructure, they are nowhere near equivalent - it’s like comparing junior league and Champions League.

Some of you will know that I was Chair of the Ulster-Scots Agency (June 05 – June 09) and it was far from an easy role. There is lots we didn't manage to achieve. There were legacy issues inherited, and fresh issues which arose, which limited the effectiveness of projects. We did some good stuff. But not enough as could have been done.

In my first meeting in 2005 with the top civil servants of DCAL (the Department of Culture, Arts & Leisure as then was) I pointed out to them that, despite being 7 years old, the Agency had still not appointed a Director of Communications, an unthinkable scenario for a public body whose core legislative function is "promotion of greater awareness”. I proposed that the Agency be gradually restructured to become more like the Health Promotion Agency, the only similar body within the public sector at that time. The civil servants did what I came to understand they did regularly - nod and murmur in agreement, take the minutes of the meeting, email them to you for approval - and do nothing. Here we are 12 years on and that post has never been approved, advertised or filled. During my term, which ended in June 2009, one of the other Director-level roles was vacated and, just the same, has never been filled.

For culture to be of present and future benefit to us all, this all needs to be re-thought. It needs to be approached holistically, treated with a common regard and respect – not 'weaponized' as a political football, not cleaved into two (very unequal) pieces and not selectively reported on by the wearying, controversy-seeking, elements of the media.

Chopping down other people’s things is not the same as nurturing your own.

Stop chopping. Plant some trees.

"Even if I knew that tomorrow the world would go to pieces, I would still plant my apple tree". – Martin Luther

“The arts are essential to any complete national life. The State owes it to itself to sustain and encourage them….Ill fares the race which fails to salute the arts with the reverence and delight which are their due.” – Winston Churchill