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The Arts and Universities should get budget uplift

2nd December 2014

This article appeared in the Irish News 2 December 2014 

Two particular sectors in Northern Ireland have organised themselves since the publication of the draft budget, seeking to improve their lot during the consultation phase and improve their financial standing when the budget is finalised and published in January. The arts sector have rolled out a ‘13p’ campaign while our two universities have been very vocal about about the damaging impact the proposed cuts would have on student numbers. 

Of course there have also been protests from local communities around health cutbacks and the suggested closure of some minor injury units but it seems that protests around health issues are a permanent fixture now. Besides the announcement by George Osborne that the UK Government is to dig out an additional £2bn for the NHS should alleviate some pressure locally as Northern Ireland will be in line for a ‘Barnett consequential’ of about £60m and Jim Wells will have a pretty solid argument that the bulk of that should go to his Department. 

Both of the aforementioned sectors have pretty strong arguments in their favour. When it comes to student places at Queens and Ulster University, the inter relationship between education outputs and the economy are compelling. In the week that it seems likely that the Assembly will be granted power over Corporation Tax - assuming that our politicians have the will and the ability to take the necessary steps to agree on a reduced tax - then it really does mean we will be playing in a higher division when it comes to attracting inward investment. 

Invest NI have done a sterling job in recent months and years in attracting investment and potential investors. A reduced Corporation tax will only help but a ready supply of skilled staff will be as much of an incentive to potential investors. Reducing undergraduate numbers at the same time we reduce corporation tax would be short term politics at its worst. It is a bizarre scenario which should not play out. Put simply this is not the time to be reducing the number of graduates coming from our universitites. The two vice Chancellors have made that point well and surely if Stephen Farry channels that message to Executive colleagues the DEL allocation will receive an uplift in the revised and finalised budget. 

The amount of money invested in the arts in Northern Ireland is significantly below that invested by our nearest neighbours and it has been reduced in each of the last 6 years - the draft budget allows for a further 10% reduction, a figure significant enough to threaten the existence of some arts and cultural organisations and some of our festivals. There may be a case for a strategic overhaul of our arts spending, and indeed the means by which it is allocated. It would take a politically brave Minister to say ‘No more funds’ to specific festivals and organisations but it may be the case that the limited funds available go to the organisations with the biggest impact and outreach. There is also a decent case to be made for annual time bound arts festivals - which are undoubtedly a positive force in Belfast and elsewhere - to share their administrative functions ad even personnel. There should be a broad minded approach to that discussion. 

However there is a body of opinion that says the arts should not receive public support, that if an event cannot stand on its own two feet commercially then we should let it go. Fools. What kind of society would deprive its people of the inspiration and the joy associated with the arts sector, with a visit to the Ulster Museum, to the MAC galleries and exhibitions, or to the community festivals staged by Feile and East Belfast Arts? Who could argue against investment in sports facilities and programmes which get our young (and not so young) people active and interested in their communities? 

Yes there are economic arguments, social inclusion arguments, outreach and community relations arguments, all of which back up the important role played by the arts organisations, and they all stack up. It is another basic quality of life argument, another way of declaring Northern Ireland to be a society where people want to come and live, and where those born here are encouraged to stay. 

Caral Ni Chuilain too has a solid argument to take to Simon Hamilton and colleagues when it comes to settling on a final budget. 

This is an important week and we need some hope around the place. The imminent transfer of important fiscal powers is a chance for our politicians to show some maturity, a collective leadership and willingness to take hard decisions together for the benefit of all in Northern Ireland. In the week after the DUP and Sinn Fein have traded juvenile, pathetic insults, pubic engagement in politics is probably at an all-time low. We need a game changer. 


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