The arts community of Northern Ireland has launched a major campaign in protest at Government spending proposals for 2005/08, under which the arts budget will be cut from £14.5m this year to £13m in 2006/07. With the consultation period for these proposals now over, the sector is waiting anxiously for final announcements in the next few weeks. Whilst it is widely anticipated that the devolved Northern Ireland Assembly may be reinstated shortly, it is expected that these budget levels will still be introduced in April 2005 and maintained for at least a year.
The Arts Council of Northern Ireland (ACNI) has been at the forefront of protests against the proposed cuts and has taken the unusual step of publicly criticising the spending plans. Although the overall budget for Northern Ireland will increase by more than £1bn annually, the Department for Culture, Art and Leisure (DCAL) is effectively facing standstill funding. Demands for administrative savings and funding priorities for heritage and language initiatives have combined to force DCAL to institute cuts to arts funding of more than 10%. Rosemary Kelly, Chairman of ACNI, said, ?The anticipated financial cuts will cause irreparable damage to the sector, and consequently to the region?s prosperity as a whole? as a direct result of decades of chronic under-funding, the arts infrastructure in Northern Ireland is extremely fragile. Any further tightening of meagre resources will threaten the fabric of our artistic economy.?
This view has been endorsed by arts organisations from across Northern Ireland. Stella Hall, Director of the Belfast Festival at Queens said, ?In a new Northern Ireland, where such emphasis is being placed on entrepreneurship, creativity and innovation, the arts, which offer all this and more, are suffering. This relatively small amount of money could generate so much for Northern Ireland as a whole.? Niall McCaughan, General Manager of the Derry Playhouse, added, ?It throws a spanner in the development of the arts in Northern Ireland. There?s a huge amount of outreach work which will be lost if funding is cut.?
The Community Arts Forum which promotes community arts activity across Northern Ireland, argued that since the devolved Northern Ireland Assembly and Executive is suspended, the cuts were being taken without local accountability: ?The current gap in local government is having an impact at all levels within our society. This loss of £1.5m could mean a cut to the entire community arts sector and all the professional theatre companies in Northern Ireland.?
Announcing the draft budget, Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Ian Pearson MP said, ?The Government?s strong hope is to see an early return to devolution in Northern Ireland, and we are continuing to focus on achieving that outcome as soon as possible, so that future decisions on the allocation and use of resources can be taken by a devolved administration.? A spokesman for the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure said, ?This is a draft budget that has been issued for public consultation. The final budget, due later this year, will take account of public representations made during the consultation period and it would be inappropriate to comment on the outcome at this time.?