Just as in Britain, recent days have witnessed a reshuffling of office holders within Ireland’s coalition government, a process which included the appointment of a new minister with responsibility for the arts. One suspects the previous incumbent of this post will not be much missed.
Prior to becoming involved in politics in the early 1980s, Jimmy Deenihan was best known as an outstanding player of Gaelic football and he always gave the impression that sports held more appeal for him than did matters aesthetic. During his three-year tenure as Minister for Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht – the last of these refers to those areas of the country where Irish is the predominant language – he has been largely invisible except when called upon to open an exhibition or launch a publication, and has displayed no evidence of a coherent strategy or vision for his brief, nor indeed any great stamina to battle on behalf of an ever-diminishing arts budget. Last January he showed himself maladroit in handling a crisis at the onset of Limerick’s year as City of Culture, announcing his awareness of what was taking place came from reading newspaper. Amiable but ineffective is probably the best report that could be given of his time in the department.
At first glance his successor hardly looks an improvement. Heather Humphreys first secured a seat in the Irish parliament at the last election, having previously been manager of a County Cavan credit union. Her only cultural credentials seem to be that she began taking piano lessons at the age of six, and word is that she now plays the organ at Sunday services in the local Presbyterian church. It is likely her personal tastes are conservative: Irish Presbyterianism has not been known for its radicalism since the late 18th century.
Tellingly she was only offered her new position shortly before it was officially announced by the Taoiseach (the Irish prime minister) and this fact, as much as Ms Humphreys’ inexperience, is a reflection on how little value the present government places on the arts. Indeed the ministry has been on a slide ever since it was first created in 1993 for Michael D Higgins; ironically he is now the country’s President. Following his departure from the office in 1997, it was gradually downgraded and folded into a portfolio with other loosely related areas. To help her manage these, Ms Humphreys will be assisted by a likewise newly-appointed junior minister, Joe McHugh who, like Jimmy Deenihan, was once a keen Gaelic Footballer.
He will need to be adroit in the field because as well as having a role in the same sundry departments as his superior, he is required to engage with the Department of Communications, Energy and Natural Resources with special responsibility for Gaeltacht Affairs and Natural Resources. Mr McHugh’s previous interest in the arts has yet to be divulged, but already attention has been drawn to the fact that, despite he and Ms Humphreys having responsibility for the Gaeltacht, neither of them could be described as proficient in the national tongue: Mr McHugh has hastily promised to take a crash course and brush up on his linguistic skills.
Last weekend Irish Times columnist Fintan O’Toole commented that during the weeks leading up to the cabinet reshuffle ‘political commentators have been unanimous in writing about the arts brief as a makeweight, a consolation prize, the next worst thing to being kicked out of the Cabinet altogether.’ Since Heather Humphreys and Joe McHugh alike have not hitherto been in the cabinet, the hope must be that they make the most of their opportunities, if only to ensure they are subsequently promoted to more high-profile and better-funded departments.
Editor’s Letter: Culture Secretaries (Thomas Marks)