A Damning Indictment of Arts Council

Apartheid Policy Towards Native Arts Exposed

By Brian Prior

In a stunning public indictment, the Government Minister responsible for the arts has told the Arts Council that after 50 years they still have no coherent policy on Irish Traditional Arts! Furthermore, he accused the Arts Council of not giving adequate funding to the native artforms (less than 1% of the euro48m went to traditional arts)!

This position by Minsiter John O’Donoghue, TD, is a landmark vindication of Comhaltas and others who for decades have campaigned to expose the apartheid policy of the Arts Council in relation to traditional music, song, dance, storytelling and the Irish language. Comhaltas has argued that this was a calculated policy designed to ghettoise and downgrade the cultural heritage of Ireland. The policy had its roots in an infamous decision by the Arts council not to over-emphasise “folk arts” to the detriment of “the higher arts”!

The Minister’s blunt and unequivocal pronouncement underlines the fact that for years public money was used in an unfair and inequitable manner. Who will now be held responsible for this national scandal? What action will be taken to ensure that it can never happen again? In any other area of public accountability, there would be calls for a full public inquiry.

Over the years, the Arts Council have circumvented and fudged the charges against them. They are now out in the open. The Minister’s position is also underpinned by the findings of the Consultants Price, Waterhouse, Coopers (following one of the most exhaustive consultative processes in the history of the State). They came down firmly on the side of the need for a broad based policy framework for the traditonal arts; substantial resources for same; and a statutory based structure to cater for the effective and efficient application of new resources.

What has been the Arts Councils’s response to the unprecedented revelations? In a peevish and retaliatory decision (not becoming a statutory body with responsibility for a huge public budget) they have now barred all Comhaltas brances from access to Arts Council funds! The inference being that if the branches secede from the cultural movement they will be eligible. This in effect means that taxpayers’ money is being used in a subversive way to undermine the very movement, which spearheaded the renaissance in the traditional arts. (Comhaltas was founded in 1951, the same year as the Arts Council). This incredible interference in the affairs of a cultural institution has an echo in widely circulating reports in the 1970s and 1980s that Comhaltas branches were promised funding by Arts Council agents if they severed their connection with the parent body.

For some time it has been clear that the extraordinary revelations, which are now being analysed and assessed in several quarters, were imminent. The very orchestrated nature of the campaign conducted by the Arts Council and some of its client-groups suggested a panic reaction. The vitriolic and personalised campaign of the opposition shocked even the most uncommitted observers. The contradictions and incoherent arguments against the proposals to undo a national scandal of 50 years standing were obviously intended to fudge and confuse in a last ditch effort to cover tracks.

One of the abiding and most pathetic images of the opposition campaign was that of Paddy Moloney and a handful of commercial musicians protesting at the gates of Leinster House (the seat of the Oireachtas) in favour of the status quo of the last 50 years. Who organised this spectacle?

Is it not highly unusual and unethical for a statutory body to play a proactive role in the legislative process (when the review is completed and the Bill published)?

Did the Arts Council play such a role? Why did the Irish Times display such a partisan role in the process and to what extent did it interact with the Arts Council?

There is one certainty at this stage: things will never be the same again. As one observer noted, “a sleeping giant has been awakened”. Never have the traditional arts received such prominence. The Minsiter is reported as saying that the Arts Bill attracted more attention than the Criminal Assets Legislation!

Many people at home and abroad have now engaged in this cultural crusade on behalf of our nation’s heritage. They are determined to see this to a successful conclusion. They will contest the position with those who seek to deny the very community roots of our tradition; those who seem ashamed of acknowledging our national cultural characteristics; those who mistakenly think that “multi-cultural” means betraying one’s own culture; those who lecture the Irish Diaspora (who have been so loyal to our cultural traditions) that the cultural debate is “none of their business”; those who promote and condone the apartheid policies directed against our indigenous culture; those who resort to personalised and vitriolic attacks not becoming a cultural debate.