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Irish ire over heritage ‘downgrade’

1 June 2016

Following a general election in March, it took 70 days to form Ireland’s new government, the eventual membership of which reveals a complex narrative of negotiation and compromise. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the ministry responsible for the arts. Over the past quarter century that particular department has consistently changed name and shape, adapting to the interests of whichever political party was in power. Until March it was known as the Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht (the last of these being regions of the country in which Irish remains the dominant language). But when the new government was announced, the department had acquired a new title and now covers Regional Development, Rural Affairs, Arts and the Gaeltacht.

It will be noticed there is no mention of heritage here, although reassurances have been issued that the department will continue to have responsibility for the area. The response from the heritage quarter has been relatively mute, unlike the arts lobby, which in the guise of the National Campaign for the Arts has been vociferous in its denunciations of the perceived downgrade. Since forming in 2009 this body has consistently championed improved circumstances for its members and supporters, pointing out, for example, that Council of Europe data shows Ireland spends 0.11 per cent of GDP on Culture and the Arts compared to a European average of 0.6 per cent.

Fresh ire erupted recently when the country’s Taoiseach (Prime Minister) Enda Kenny flew to Washington to open a three-week festival of Irish arts and culture at the Kennedy Center. In the course of a speech, Mr Kenny declared he was anxious ‘to establish our arts and culture, not as an elegant add-on to what the marketers would call our “national offering”‘ but to have them represent Ireland as a ‘still-young Republic.’

The disparity between his words and his actions when forming a government could not be overlooked: within hours Irish director Lenny Abrahamson, whose last film Room garnered four Oscar nominations, had tweeted ‘Irish art is a photo op for Enda Kenny,’ going on to tweet ‘Despite all the lip service, it’s clear from lack of action that the Irish political class neither understands nor values the arts.’ Meanwhile another director, John O’Brien set up an online petition calling on the government to establish a dedicated department of arts, culture and heritage: it is now heading for 15,000 signatures.

Heather Humphreys, the minister responsible for these areas (along with regional development and rural affairs) has since gone on the defensive, batting a tweet back to Abrahamson ‘I certainly value the arts & film sector Lenny and will be making case at the Cabinet table for extra funding’ and following up with newspaper articles and radio interviews. In all of these she has made the same point: that she recognises the importance of Ireland’s cultural sector and is determined to ensure that in future it is better funded and better appreciated.

Sceptics abound, but even if one were to give Minister Humphreys the benefit of the doubt, the fact remains that she has been handed an absurdly overloaded portfolio and will struggle to manage it all. Like a parent with a large brood of children, she may promise to give one of them special attention but that can only be at the expense of the others.

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