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Ireland/ 1. Historical perspective: cultural policies and instruments  

Author: Marian Fitzgibbon

Dublin by NightFor the most part, the history and character of the Irish system for policy development and funding of the arts since the founding of the state in 1921 is coloured by a number of factors:

  • the basic tenets of the Welfare State and the Keynesian model as exemplified by the British system;
  • the understandable emphasis of the new Irish state on art of a national or traditional character;
  • the more pernicious dimension of this approach that validated the censorship, or curtailment in other ways, of art that was regarded as non-national or inimical to a narrow definition of Irishness;
  • policy and planning deficits; and
  • endemic underfunding exacerbated by a highly centralised administration.

During the first thirty years of its existence the Irish state did not establish any formal instrument for cultural policy development. In a country with little tradition of patronage, institutional or otherwise, the arts were seen as a luxury, which the new state could not afford. Thus the story of this period is one of official neglect.

The Arts Act of 1951 and the subsequent appointment of An Chomhairle Ealaíon, the Arts Council, as an autonomous arm's length agency, under the aegis of the Department of the Taoiseach (Prime Minister) was the first expression of an awareness of the need to address the area of cultural development.

Despite some gestures in the 1950s and 1960s (notably - and uniquely - the according of tax free status to artists for their creative work), government did little to alter the general policy vacuum. The mood of the 1960s was apparent in the demands of the arts sector. Institutional change tookplace with the introduction of the Arts Act in 1973. This set out the composition of the reconstituted Arts Council and made provision for elective funding of the arts by local government.

The transfer of responsibility in 1975 for the funding of a number of major arts bodies to the Arts Council established further the Council's status as the state vehicle for the arts. Despite low funding, from this period dates the more independent stance of the agency as well as a greater seriousness of intent in relation to its brief - in particular regional development and education. In 1978 a system of programmed co-operation was established with the Arts Council of Northern Ireland. The funding crisis persisted, exacerbated by greater public demand arising in part from the Council's own initiatives.

The launch of the new honours system Aosdána in 1983, providing institutional recognition and support by the state for distinguished creative artists, was universally hailed as the culmination of a series of Arts Council policies in support of the individual creative artist. The publication in 1987 of the Government White Paper, Access and Opportunity, reconfirmed the role of the Arts Council but the promised doubling of funding by 1990, via the National Lottery, failed to materialise. In the early years the advent of a new stream of funding from the Lottery (from 1987) afforded some relief to the Arts Council. Twenty-eight percent of the overall funding of the Arts Council from 2001 to 2006 came from the National Lottery and was subsumed into the overall grant-in-aid to the Council.

It was not until 1993 with the establishment of the Department of Arts, Culture and the Gaeltacht that the planning context for the arts in Ireland took a step forward. This Department was the first significant attempt by government to bring the state apparatus for cultural support under the aegis of one body and also most importantly, gave the sector full ministerial representation. As part of a numberof Departmental initiatives embracing broadcasting, heritage, film and the Irish language, the Arts Council was invited in 1995 to prepare the first plan for the arts. This resulted in an immediate doubling of funding to the Council. In addition, a programme of significant capital investment in the physical arts infrastructure throughout the country was launched by government (using EU structural funds). The appointment of specialist arts personnel by local authorities also accelerated in the 1990s.

In 2003, The Department of Arts, Sports and Tourism brought into effectthe Arts Act 2003 which:

  • repeals the earlier Arts Acts;
  • offers a fuller definition of the arts;
  • provides the Minister, for the first time, with overall responsibility for promotion of the arts both inside and outside Ireland;
  • introduces some changes in the structuring of the Arts Council while reiterating its independence in grant giving matters;
  • empowers the Minister to give a direction in writing to the Council requiring it to comply with policies of the Minister or of the government; and
  • requires local authorities to prepare and implement plans for the development of the arts within their functional areas, and in so doing to take account of government policies on the arts.

Now the Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht (DAHG) holds the brief for the arts, culture, film and music as well as oversight of Ireland's national cultural institutions; the built and natural heritage, the Irish language, the Gaeltacht and the islands and some aspects of North / South cooperation. Other cultural functions have been distributed to different government departments (see chapter 3.1 and chapter 4.2.2). Developments in local government have brought about significant advances in regional arts provision.

Subsequent to 1995, government funding for the arts had been provided on the basis of a planned approach by the Arts Council. Coinciding with the economic boom, government funding had grown to the point where in 2006, for the first time, the Arts Council received exactly what it requested from government. The National Development Plan 2007-2013 made provision for a total of 1.13 billion EUR for the arts and culture. Since 2008, with the dramatic economic downturn, this funding trend has suffered a rapid reversal with swingeing cuts to Department and arts funding (over 30% cuts to the Arts Council), despite strong sectoral advocacy. 

The economic crisis has bitten deeply into the arts sector and continues to do so.  Not only in funding but through a retrogressive recentralisation thrust, the infrastructure of the arts is being eroded in ways that inhibit the development of creativity and cultural life in Ireland.  A recent softening in the 2015 budget offered nothing significant to the arts sector.  The tale has thus reverted to that of the official neglect which has characterised the arts in Ireland since the foundation of the state.

Chapter published: 10-06-2015

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