Autonomy of national cultural institutions under serious threat in recentralisation drive and suggestions of amalgamations.
Weakening of Arts Council position observed in the form of relegation from a development to a policy implementation role.
4.1 Main cultural policy issues and priorities
In December 2011, the Arts Council celebrated the 60th anniversary of its founding, an event that in the view of a number of commentators was marked by a threat of serious erosion of the arts in Ireland, not only in funding but in relation to freedom or autonomy – in structural terms.
On the funding side, government investment in culture in Ireland during the boom years began the task of addressing years of chronic underfunding. Despite increases in allocation, international reports still placed Ireland at the bottom of the European league in this domain. Arts Council funding, which increased by 14.3% from 2005-2009, fell in real terms (inflation rate 14.6%) and with the economic crisis has now returned to less than the 2005 level and been reduced by one third since 2008. Similarly allocations to the National Cultural Institutions reduced over that period – by as much as 44% in the case of the National Library. With the collapse of the economy, the Arts Council grant has reduced to EUR 59.9 million for 2013, and EUR 56 million for 2014. Equally swingeing cuts in staffing are having far-reaching negative implications in terms of capacity, service and planning.
Much debate has centred on the status of the institutions which represent the pillars of the arts and culture in Ireland. Not only have long-trumpeted plans for the development of the National Concert Hall and the National Theatre been shelved, there is ample evidence of a move towards more centralised control by the Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, and this despite significant staffing cutbacks in that Department. Recent government actions on arts policy have been the subject of coruscating attacks in the national media, outrage in the Senate and the resignation in protest of a leading public intellectual from the board of the National Library of Ireland. Similarly the National Campaign for the Arts bemoaned the fact that under the rubric of public service reform, some 13 national arts institutions and agencies are pegged for changes that will have far-reaching negative effects. This matter has been the subject of a major international conference hosted by the Royal Irish Academy in 2013. Cost-saving government reports pointed to a proliferation of quangos in Ireland during its boom years and suggested a strong culling. Regrettably some of the national cultural institutions were conflated with such agencies and suggestions for amalgamation were proffered which made little sense and would deliver even fewer savings – in the view of key informants and based on experience of amalgamations elsewhere. These suggestions have impacted on the National Gallery, the National Museum, the National Library, the National Archives, the Irish Manuscripts Commission, the Irish Museum of Modern Art, the Crawford Art Gallery and Culture Ireland. (The Library Council has been dissolved.) Similarly some comment has focused on a weakening of the position of the Arts Council in the form of relegation from a development to a policy implementation role. The record offers good reasons for trepidation at a re-absorption of the cultural bodies into the central state machine. The importance of the "arm's length" principle needs little elaboration having been eloquently set out by the then Minister (and now President of Ireland) in the debates which led to the 1997 Cultural Institutions Act. However legislation is now in preparation to this effect.