The approach of the decade of centennial commemorations relating to the beginnings of Irish independence and the foundation of the state has stimulated reflection on Ireland and its identity – simply, what have we made of our independence in the past 100 years and what kind of a country has resulted. This question smarts in the light of our loss of economic sovereignty (2010-2014) and the ignominy associated with the IMF takeover of our public finances. It also has given rise to discussion about the future, perhaps of a more searching nature than heretofore.
The poor role played by the arts in the shaping of Irish society may be attributed to a number of factors, most particularly the place they hold in the education system. The consequences have been far-reaching and have led in the Irish arts world to renewed calls for policy articulation in this area, a relegation of shallow extrinsic arguments for culture, and a desire to allow for leadership and maturation. There is growing impatience with the stop / go trend of cultural history, the flurry of announcements followed almost inevitably by silence and disappointment, the cycle of positive initiatives which are then unrolled or dismantled.
While ministers posit the key role the arts must play in the celebration of the upcoming anniversaries, the reflection these events provoke is perhaps more important in setting the foundations for real and lasting change to bring about a different Irish society where culture and the arts play an appropriate civic role which will contribute to the development of Irish society.
On the operational level, the perennial and interrelated questions relating to the arts in Ireland – funding, institutional status and the value of the arts in the Irish political mindset – persist –and if anything have acquired an additional edge in 2014. Commentators refer widely to infrastructural erosion – if not destruction, based on ignorance and even more brazenly, on contempt for the arts sector. It is clear that the Ministry, while valued by the arts community, is regarded by politicians as an insignificant posting and a 2014 controversy relating to board appointments showed the disdain of the highest office-holder in the land for a major cultural institution.
The reluctance of the arts community to protest in any notable way at sectoral erosion or dismemberment has also been widely observed – the small size of the sector leaving individuals and organisations with a feeling of vulnerability should they express their views openly. Indeed commentary has also noted the reticence of the Arts Council on these matters, despite its self-proclaimed advocacy role.
Of late the discourse has been framed by the cultural sector as relating to the disadvantage of operating in a policy vacuum and both the Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht (DAHG) and the Arts Council have respectively announced an intent to or begun to address this.
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 with the economic crisis has 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 56 million for 2014 with just a repeat on offer for 2015. 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 DAHG, and this despite significant staffing cutbacks in that Department. Current government actions on the arts 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 was 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 recommended 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. While the threat of these has somewhat receded, there remains a determined effort to replace 1997 legislation which granted considerable institutional autonomy – a mark of institutional maturation. Drafts of new legislation considerably reduce this and the potential for Ministerial or Departmental interference in matters artistic has been discussed at a recent Joint Oireachtas Committee meeting. This action is being taken in the absence of an evidence base, of research or even any experience to warrant such a turnaround and all the national cultural institions have protested cogently through the channels available to them. 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 while the DAHG has increasingly taken to direct funding without endorsement by policy or through published criteria.
While the national cultural institutions have performed well in an autonomous capacity for almost two decades, the very Department which now purports to readopt and hold a controlling role in these bodies in the future, has itself been tainted with charges of mismanagement and has been manipulated through hamfisted political nepotism. 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 still in preparation to this effect.