50:50 is back … for arts festivals

Nelson McCausland speaking at his session at 2010 DUP Conference on Why unionists ignore culture at their perilShould arts festivals (that receive public funding) display a balance across their programming of musical tastes and political opinion? Nelson McCausland is in the news again.

It’s a question that’s raised once more as the BBC lead their bulletins with the results of an FOI request to DCAL that has revealed the local minister’s directions to the Belfast Festival. This morning’s BBC report explains:

The email is part of an exchange between the director of the Belfast Festival at Queen’s, Graeme Farrow, and the permanent secretary at DCAL. In an e-mail seen by the BBC Mr Farrow mentioned that he was preparing a paper for the minister’s attention.

The permanent secretary replied that the minister expected the paper to: “propose an audit over, say, the last five or six years of the range of views represented in political talks and debates in the festival and of the range of traditional music in relevant cultural events.”

The e-mail goes on to list two specific things which the minister wanted to see included in the festival. It said the minister would like to see “a view sympathetic to Israel in any relevant talk or debate” included in the festival programme and “some southern gospel music, which is immensely popular”.

In terms of context, a pro-Israel speaker at a Middle Easter discussion was uninvited at the last minute, which led to allegations of a pro-Palestine emphasis and a lack of balance. The Belfast Telegraph summarises:

Last year Professor Geoffrey Alderman, the lead columnist on the Jewish Chronicle, was invited to join a panel of speakers to discuss the Middle East conflict at the Belfast Festival at Queen’s. However, the invitation was withdrawn days before the academic was due to fly in to the province. Professor Alderman was invited to join the planned discussion after the Northern Ireland Friends of Israel group complained that the speakers on the panel, Avi Shlaim and QUB professor Beverly Milton-Edwards, were both critics of Israel, so the event would be unbalanced.

Interviewed on Radio Ulster this morning, Nelson McCausland pointed to large audiences at southern gospel concerts and suggested that the festival would benefit from the ticket sale revenue. Festivals aren’t all about putting on popular shows.

A normal part of festival planning must be to offset the cost of most expensive or lower audience shows with money spinning events. Belfast Festival planners no doubt appreciate private programming suggestions from any quarter, and the minister’s comments were conveyed in an email exchange between the DCAL permanent secretary and Graeme Farrow, the director of the Belfast Festival.

On Good Morning Ulster, he said:

You can’t have a shared future based on discrimination and exclusion and simply, I was saying to them, make sure that your programmes, over a period of time, reflect balance, fairness and inclusion.

However, the minister has voiced some of these ideas in public before.

During a speech on the Friday night before the main DUP conference in late November, Nelson McCausland publicly expressed his views on the cultural diversity displayed in the Queen’s Festival programme.

Too often we have allowed our cultural traditions to be marginalised and excluded. And in many ways there is still a cultural establishment where unionists are under-represented and therefore it is easy for those organising events programmes festivals to forget about us or to ignore us. And that’s something we need to challenge.

As an example, he pointed to the absence of crowd-drawing gospel concerts from the festival programme and soon after blogged about it.

Was quality an issue? In an ad-libbed remark, he went on to say:

I did point out that one of the star turns in the Queens Festival this year was Hugo Duncan. So I reckoned that if Hugo Duncan was of high enough standard for the Queens Festival I think we should be all right.

You can hear his comments towards the end of the speech.

Commenting on the end of the 50:50 PSNI recruitment policy, Alastair Ross MLA issued a press release referring to “institutionalised discrimination”:

The DUP has opposed the discriminatory 50:50 recruitment policy since its inception, and therefore welcome the end of this policy.

Whilst I would like to see a police force which recruits from throughout the community, discriminating against candidates on the basis of religion or community background was wrong, is wrong and will always be wrong …

Northern Ireland has hopefully moved on, and I look forward to new recruits being judged on ability and merit, rather than on the basis of what religion they are.”

Reflecting that back onto the arts … whilst I would like to see arts festivals which include content from across the widest range of artistic and cultural talents, discriminating against events on the basis of musical genre or politics is wrong and will always be wrong. Northern Ireland has hopefully moved on, and I look forward to festival programming and events being judged on ability and merit, rather than on the basis of what genre or political bent they are.

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  • RebVolley

    The thing is The Belfast Festival at Queen’s does display an amazing amount of diversity and has done year after year. Whether each annual festival can strike a balance between what they are presenting and what Mr McCausland would like them to present is another thing, but surely that goes against the mantra of letting the festival – which receives from Ulster Bank outside of public funding – find it’s own feet and its own artistic direction.

    This is another case of the minister wishing to impose his values and beliefs on cultural events in Northern Ireland, instead of allowing people to explore and discover their own values within the existing programmes.

  • Banjaxed

    I can’t quite make my mind up whether ‘Nelson McCausland, Culture Minister’ is an oxymoron or a bad joke. Does he even think before he comes out with statements which are in effect an abuse of his position and a direct interference in artistic creativity.

    And, if he wants ‘balance’ in the Arts, perhaps he might give thought to the inclusion of the Catholic hymn ‘God Bless Our Pope’ in the repertoire of the Orange marching bands he was so assiduously pushing as an art form the other day. I think I’ll pass on holding my breath on that one.

  • Jimmy

    Well there is a little in what he says, There is a defict regarding public debate on the Palestinian question on public forums regarding Israel. That being said whether is is a hegemony on the Part of pro Palestian supporters or just the fact that there are very few people who could Justify ‘Zionist’ Israels treatment of the Palestinians. Maybe Nelson should join in some active debate. However being a local and myopic inward looking Politician (A trait of NI politics) I doubt he could hold the debate in his favour.

    Nonetheless what pertubs me more is why 300,000k of public money is being spent on a festival by QUB an organisation thats yearly profits consistently add into double figures in the millions every year? Free advertising as well.
    Corporate welfare by Government to rich institutions cannot be justified in todays climate, money that could have been put to other uses.

  • I think its reasonable that he who plays the piper or fluter should call the tune. Equally reasonable that the Arts fraternity who tell us that they know about Art (and they probably should) make decisions and make resonable requests for subsidy because it is in the public good to be exposed to Art.
    Over my adult lifetime, the “Belfast Festival” has ceased to be merely “The Queens University Festival” and patly in respnse to private and public funding and to expose our City to new delights has introduced what I might call “middle brow” culture as well as the “high brow” stuff. Perhaps just a sop to the masses.
    For many years, the child rearing years I could only watch the Festival thru news items or late night special programmes on BBC/UTV and inevitably my most likely thought was “but is it Art”?
    And generally speaking if I am told something is “art” I will go along with it.
    I have I should point out have no understanding of visual Art…modern art or sculpture. I am so insecure about my understanding that I will happily leave it to the experts. It “might” be a loada old nonsense and the artist over-charging but Id hate to appear uncultured and actually open my mouth to say so.
    After all I cant draw a straight line and these people went to Art School.
    Likewise I have absolutely no interest in the high brow stuff……opera or ballet….in part because of the pretentious folks who are photographed in the glossy Ulster Tatler pages for merely being there.
    But converesely its Opera and Ballet productions that require the biggest subsidy from private or public sources. The cost of a production (settings, theatre, orchestra) etc requires a lot of cash……and as was pointed out at the luvvy gathering yesterday ……writers only need paper and pens.
    In recent years with the kids grown up, I have managed to get to see some Festival shows. It has come a long way from the drab Ocober nights where it lit up the City and gave us a sense that despite the bombs and the bullets and the bodies we are deep down a reasonably civilised group of people.
    But our Societys new found middle class wealth has allowed us to see things more often and like all the nouveau riches “fur coat, no knickers” (Tatler) set, our society has no real conception of what Art is.
    Some folks like me prefer not to go to see modern art, ballet, opera….cos Im pre-disposed to not liking it. Other folks like to go and pretend they like it. Heaven forfend that they appear to be unsophisticated.
    In the Direct Rule years Westminster basically wrote the cheques and told the Arts Community to get on with it. Bread and an autumnal circus.
    Enter the Peace Process. Our own Government and our own Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure….Nelson McCausland the man the liberal dissidents despise almost as much as they hate the Good Friday Agreement itself.

    I mean God-fearing, non-drinking, Orangeman and inventer of the Ulster-Scots language in charge of …..Art. It wasnt supposed to be like this. Look at the script.
    All I can say is Thank God for Nelson McCausland. He wont mind me mentioning God but the liberal dissidents will hate me for it.
    While writing out the cheques, he has dared to suggest that the Belfast Festival might be more inclusive and include Southern Gospel Music. Why not?
    The luvvies dont like that. They would much prefer if Belfast people were exposed to to poetry reading by Mongolian tribesmen. Well of course we will still be exposed to it. Just subsidise a trip to Mongolia for those interested. It will be cheaper. The Arts Community prefer Art to be “exlusive” while making small cosmetic changes to their programmes to give the impression that it is “inclusive”.

    Yesterday over coffee at the Ulster Museum I observed the Arts Community up close and thought to myself “what is the likes of me doing here?” Meanwhile the Arts Community gathered round me and pointed at me and wondered to each other “whats the likes of him doing here?”.
    I know how Nelson McCausland feels.
    Seriously there is a debate to be had.
    Minister McCausland is democratically elected and accountable for money his Department spends. And we all know how interested the liberal dissidents are with how public money is spent.
    Should he have any influence over how money is spent by the Arts Council or the Festival?
    Should the Arts Council and Festival people not show a degree of inclusiveness and an acknowledgement to the City in which they are holding these events.

  • otto

    what’s a “liberal dissident”?

    what are they dissenting from?

  • RebVolley


    ‘Nonetheless what pertubs me more is why 300,000k of public money is being spent on a festival by QUB an organisation thats yearly profits consistently add into double figures in the millions every year? Free advertising as well.’

    As stated, this the Belfast Festival, the largest of its kind in Ireland, not just the preserve of QUB. Perhaps the money it receives in part due to revenue it generates for local businesses and establishments who benefit from the coverage and attendance that the festival creates? It’s not just about filling the coffers of the university.

  • backstage

    I’m simply astonished at the lack of interest from MLAs and the wider community in a government minister who repeatedly abuses his position to influence the spending of public money on his own personal interests.

  • Reader

    backstage: …government minister who repeatedly abuses his position to influence the spending of public money on his own personal interests.
    In this case, it seems that he believes that Southern Gospel Music might be a bit of a moneyspinner for the festival. I don’t know; he might be right. In which case, its inclusion might broaden the appeal of both the Festival and SGM – drinks all round.
    Now – if only Catriona Ruane’s personal interests could be a moneyspinner too.

  • backstage

    @Reader – don’t be sucked in by the minister’s PR. The man has form and, while he may use convenient cover for his arguments, do you not find it strange that he only promotes those things that he’s on record as being interested in? This is where the abuse of his position lies….and it doesn’t seem bother him!! There’s a difference between being a city councillor and an MLA where you are expected to represent and promote the interests of your constituents but as a minister there is a different obligation – to oversee the development and implementation of policy in the interest of good government. McCausland doesn’t show that he understands the difference.

  • andnowwhat

    Anyone else see the man who is so obsessed by Ulster Scots history promoting a music genré that came from black slaves?

  • While it is clear that a Minister should act for the broader interest of our Three Communities, it should also be appropriate that a Member of the Assembly promotes the issues of the people who actually voted for him.
    If Mr McCausland can achieve a balance….good luck to him.
    I may not ever vote for him but as a Minister he (and his electorate) is entitled to Respect as well as liberal dissident Scrutiny.

  • Reader

    andnowwhat: Anyone else see the man who is so obsessed by Ulster Scots history promoting a music genré that came from black slaves?
    You may prefer to think of it as a tactical ploy by the minister – he would have been able to count on Republicans to express hostility to Southern Gospel Music since the days of John Mitchel. If so, the plan seems to be working.

  • Ross Campbell

    The Green Party’s Clare Bailey slams Nelson McCausland for festival demands: http://bit.ly/fhCIf2