“investment in the arts is a sound investment for Northern Ireland..”

The Minister for Culture, Arts and Leisure, the DUP’s Edwin Poots, isn’t a fan of rational thinking when it comes to science.. but what does he think of the arts? And, in particular, public funding of the arts? The recently reconstituted Arts Council have joined the unofficial opposition to the draft budget and claim that they face the equivalent of a £250,000 cut in funding, threatening around 200 jobs and thousands of programmes. Interestingly, the Legislative Assembly in October passed a motion calling “upon the Executive to raise the level of arts funding to at least the United Kingdom average”, whatever that decision’s worth, and during the debate the minister spoke in “support of the spirit of the motion” and in answer to one particular question

Dr Farry: In light of the Minister’s discussions with his colleagues, has his Department, through the CSR, made a formal bid to bring spending on the arts in Northern Ireland in line with the other regions of the United Kingdom?

Mr Poots: The answer is yes, and the Member should not have expected any other answer. It would cost around £26 million over the three years of the CSR. I do not need to tell Members that this is a very tough negotiating round, and we shall see what comes out of it. What happens today will have some impact on the announcement at Westminster on the CSR.

I support the spirit of the motion and of both amendments. For all the reasons that I, and other Members, have outlined, investment in the arts is a sound investment for Northern Ireland. It is important that local government and private funders step up to the mark along with central Government. Members can rest assured that I have made the case very strongly in the context of the CSR, and I very much value the many contributions made by the arts to Northern Ireland, its society, and its economy, as illustrated in the speeches this morning. [added emphasis]

As Karen Fricker at the Guardian Arts Blog recorded in April

To trot out the depressing statistics: per capita spending on the arts in Northern Ireland is by far the lowest in these islands – £6.13, literally half the amount spent per head by the Republic of Ireland, and well below the per capita spends by the Scottish Arts Council (£11.93) and the Arts Council of England (£8.09).

But there’s also the more specific issue of community festival funding.

On 4th December, the Minister made a statement to the Assembly on the future of community festival funding. There was no official press release from his department, although his party colleague at the Department of the Environment welcomed the statement.

The Newsletter had its own particular take on that decision – “Festival funding move may benefit unionists.”

And one of the points made in that article’s was illustrated by this exchange during the questions which followed the statement

Mr Adams: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I thank the Minister for his statement, but I do not welcome its content. The Benches opposite have missed the point entirely; there is not enough money for community-festival funding. I declare an interest, because I am a director of Féile an Phobail, and I thank the Minister for his complimentary remarks about that féile, which he recognises as being one of the largest. In recent years, funding for that féile has been slashed, and the community festival fund owes it £30,000. We are now in a situation where £450,000 will be available for 40 community festivals. Can the Minister tell the House whether there are guarantees to ensure that local councils will match funding? Will efforts be made to increase funding? Will the community festival fund repay the £30,000 that is owed to Féile an Phobail?

Mr Poots: I cannot guarantee what individual local authorities in Northern Ireland will do — thankfully, for everyone, I do not have that authority. Ultimately, Members will seek to influence their local authorities in the best interests of their communities. I do not think that there is a strong case for anyone not to accept the funding being offered, provide match funding and create the best opportunities for their communities to develop festivals.

The West Belfast Festival has been very successful, and its success should lead to more private-funding streams. As that festival moves towards receiving more private-sector funding, having demonstrated its success, opportunities can be created for new festivals on the basis of the funding being distributed across Northern Ireland — west of the Bann; east of the Bann; in nationalist and in unionist areas. My Department is not discriminating against people; funding is being allocated on the basis of population and deprivation, and this is an opportunity for everyone to get a slice of the cake. The larger festivals have the capacity to move forward, and, hopefully, smaller festivals will come on stream that can also move forward and benefit from the funding that might not have been available to them previously. [added emphasis throughout]

But the initial effect, of moving responsibility for funding to Council level with the Department matching any funding provision will, probably, result in a cut in the outlay from the Department – and almost certainly an increase in outlay from Council rate-payers. And the ability of those festivals to attract private-sector funding is not guaranteed. Adds Nor does there appear to be any assessment of whether those festivals could attract any significant amount of private-sector funding.

Here’s the relevant part of the minister’s statement to the Assembly

My intention, therefore, is to transfer the delivery of the community festivals fund to local authorities from 1 April 2008. It is a pressing issue, as there is a significant lead-in time for the funding application process. In most cases, planning for festivals in 2008 is already under way, and organisers need to know their budgets to enable them to book artistes, venues and equipment well in advance. By transferring admin­istration of the fund to local government, it becomes much closer to the community and the people it supports, making it more responsive to differing local needs.

The Minister of the Environment has confirmed that, given the pressing need to inform festival organisers of funding arrangements, she fully supports my proposals. My Department has taken legal advice, and I under­stand that there is no legal impediment to an early transfer of the functions to local authorities. No legislation is required, as local authorities already have statutory powers to fund local events. Indeed, many local councils are already involved in funding festivals.

My Department has consulted with the Department of Finance and Personnel (DFP) on the mechanics of trans­ferring the fund to local government. The preferred option is that DCAL retains responsibility for community festivals policy, and that the Department makes an annual allocation to each council under a specific grant process. That model is successfully operated by the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister to award grants to district councils for their community-relations programmes.

Councils will be required to take account of the Department’s policy and guidance framework on community festivals. However, consistent with the ethos of devolving decisions to local councils, they will have considerable flexibility to develop their own application processes, with local criteria. As councils already operate a number of small grant schemes, that should not be onerous to administer. Furthermore, I anticipate that the application process will be much less onerous for festival organisers, and I know that they will welcome that.

It is my view that councils should support local community festivals from their own resources; there­fore, I shall seek match funding. Many councils already fund community festivals, and will continue to do so, and pooling of the community festivals fund and local support will maximise the benefit. The Department will liaise with NILGA on the detailed arrangements for implementing the scheme. [added emphasis throughout]