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a panel of speakers to discuss the Middle East conflict at the Belfast Festival at Queen’s. However, the invitation was withdrawn days before the academic was due to fly in to the province.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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