From the perspective of the arts and cultural community, the Fine Gael governments from 2011 to 2020 represent a period of severe austerity and a lack of both public investments and governmental advocacy for arts and culture. The Fine Gael and Labour Coalition as well as the Fine Gael and Fianna Fail Coalitions have overseen the worst period of public investment in arts and culture for quite a significant time.
The cultural achievements of the Fine Gael party relate mainly to grand celebratory gestures such as the Gathering 2013, Limerick City of Culture 2014, and the 2016 Centenary Commemorations. These events achieved success in relation to the economic development of tourism through increased foreign visitors, while at the same time providing opportunities for creativity and community engagement. They also allowed citizens to re-imagine Ireland in a positive light, which in turn builded new partnerships between residents, artists and cultural organisations. However, these events could be seen as an instrumentalisation of arts and culture towards policy objectives outside of culture and arts. The financial commitments to such grand gestures have been made at a loss to normal direct funding of arts organisations. From a peak in 2008, government funding was initially decreased during the austerity measures imposed by the troika bailout and recovery plan. Investment in culture then stagnated, even after economic stability had been achieved. The working conditions of artists and arts workers deteriorated as a result. Many great artists and arts workers have been forced to quit the profession through economic necessity.
The Fine Gael government brought in a work placement scheme tied to social security payments called JobsBridge in 2011. The scheme was successful in getting people off the live register of unemployed. It also offered additional educational opportunities through affiliated courses in education institutions. The scheme was taken up by a large number of arts organisations that were under severe financial pressure of austerity measures, as well as government imposed recruitment embargos. This led to the majority of cultural jobs being given to JobsBridge candidates above other candidates. The scheme can be seen therefore as a contributing factor in the rise of a ‘precariat’ class of cultural workers where work has become extremely unstable and infrequent to the point that it keeps workers on or below minimum wage levels without the rights associated with longer term contracted employment. At the time, JobsBridge was seen as the only option to get into the workforce for many young graduates, but they clearly understood it to be exploitative and lacking respect for their levels of qualifications and related investments.
Also in 2011, the increasing expectation of free artist labour under proposed publicly funded cultural opportunities lead to a national campaign by Visual Artist Ireland (VAI) to insist on fair pay for artists work (‘Ask! Has the Artist Been Paid!’). The Arts Council has since supported the issue with the launch of a new policy in 2020 entitled ‘Paying the Artist.’
The government also attempted to address the working conditions of artists by offering a new social welfare scheme for professional artists in July 2019. The scheme allowed qualifying artists to avail of jobseekers allowance without having to take part in the job activation programme for one year. This allows artists to focus on their artistic work for one year. However, the scheme has not been very successful to date in terms of uptake and it is only provided for artists and not arts workers.
Fine Gael also made a number of promises in relation to cultural policy in Ireland. A fifty percent increase in funding was promised by the party during the 2017 elections campaign. There was very little evidence that this increase was ever going to occur with only an increase of 17% between 2015-2020. The first significant funding increase did take place in 2020 with an additional EUR 25 million for the Arts Council in 2020. This has been followed by a substantial increase in funding allocation for 2021 to EUR 130 million from EUR 100. While these substantial funding increases have been universally welcomed by the arts and cultural community, as they come at the centre of the COVID-19 crisis, it is unclear if they are merely propping up the sector during these challenging times or if they represent a significant trend.
In 2015, the coalition government also promised a new cultural policy for Ireland called Culture 2025. The arts and cultural sectors approached this news positively and welcomed a reform of existing legislation. The sectors engaged fully in sessions feeding into the policymaking process. However, the Culture 2025 policy did not arrive. In its place a draft version was published in 2016 which eventually developed into a framework policy published in 2020. The final document demonstrates very little sign of any review of existing legislation for culture. The only change of note was the establishment of a new agency within the department called Creative Ireland in 2017 to support the implementation of Culture 2025’s instrumental use of culture as a means towards cultural/social wellbeing. While the Culture 2025 policy vision reads well in parts as being conceived from culturally democratic values, it is weak on clear support for the professional arts and cultural sectors. The government has been clear in its financial support and advocacy towards one sector, namely the audio-visual sector. This sector has seen great market potential for growth, which has been acknowledged by government through increased funding.