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Arts in Northern Ireland may not survive the latest round of cuts

There might not be much more public art like this in Belfast. Paul Faith/PA Archive

The arts scene in Northern Ireland is under serious threat as the government gives the appearance of placing less and less value on culture. The announcement before Christmas of funding cuts of up to 50% facing film exhibition and education initiatives supported by Northern Ireland Screen shook the sector – and despite the news that the government has found some extra funding to allocate to these areas, the Arts Council of Northern Ireland (ACNI) still see the budget cuts as “deeply disappointing”.

Despite the submission of 17,000 responses calling for no more cuts to the arts budget, the ACNI has received confirmation of an 11.2% reduction in its allocation for 2015/16. This measure is only the most recent of three waves of cuts announced last year.

Northern Ireland is not alone within the UK in slashing its arts budget, but the figures in its case are staggering. It cannot be denied that the unique politics of power sharing in Stormont and the difficulties in reaching any sort of agreement on budgeting, particularly implementing UK government welfare reforms, have left Northern Irish arts and culture in a precarious financial position.

For a while it looked as if the Ulster Orchestra, which had seen its funding diminish by one-third over recent years, may not survive the attrition, but a grant of £400,000 from the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure (DCAL) has bought the region’s main orchestra some time as it tries to secure long-term funding.

But DCAL itself may not survive a shake-up of government departments at Stormont which is committed to reducing the number of departments from 12 to nine before elections are held in 2016. The reorganisation would bring the existing Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure (DCAL) together with the Department of Social Development (DSD) and part of the Department of Employment and Learning (DEL) into a new Department of Social Welfare, Communities and Sport.

A way of life

Just bureaucracy, you may say. And there certainly is a case for understanding culture as “a whole way of life”, bringing together notions of welfare, community and sport. But removing “arts and learning” and a clear reference to culture from the name of the proposed restructured department raises questions about the value arts and culture has for Northern Ireland’s government.

Moments such as these ought to give us pause to reflect on why governments fund the arts in the first place. Government policies are born not just from austerity measures, but from philosophical viewpoints grounded in historical as well as social, economic, political and institutional contexts.

The place of art and culture in Northern Ireland is very much connected to, and reflective of, a society still emerging from a history of conflict. While now relatively stable, Belfast has more peace walls now than when the Good Friday Agreement was signed in 1998. Research published in 2013 on Poverty and Social Exclusion in the UK shows that “levels of deprivation and financial hardship, are more extensive in Northern Ireland than in the UK as a whole”. It’s not surprising then, that the words used within public policy documents for arts and culture are reflective of this situation.

In Northern Ireland, documents such as the Northern Ireland Executive’s Programme for Government, 2011 – 2015 and the 2014/15 Business Plan for the Department of Cultural, Arts and Leisure (DCAL) are the instruments that shape the territory for arts and cultural activity. In these documents arts and culture are given a key role in promoting equality and tackling social exclusion. The Programme for Government places arts and culture “as instruments for positive change” in:

Building relationships between communities, encouraging active citizenship, reducing the incidences, and impacts, of … abuse and harm directed to … vulnerable groups

Such ideals demonstrate the significance Government places on the “transformative power of culture, arts and leisure”. Often a case that arts and culture sectors find difficult to make in order to secure funding, Northern Ireland government is well entrenched in the notion that the arts and culture can deliver impact in other areas of policy, such as economic, welfare, poverty and social exclusion. This is a point all too obviously made in the proposed name of the new department, but it actually makes the extent of the cuts curious.

The current situation reveals that while the government may argue for the impact of arts and culture, it’s actually failing to demonstrate “value” for it. Instead, government is reshaping a territory for arts and cultural activity that is nearly hidden from view behind a utilitarian rationale. Such a situation may only further damage an already fragile relationship.

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