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With the return of devolved government to Northern Ireland, Roisín McDonough, Chief Executive of Arts Council Northern Ireland, reflects on what it might mean for the arts and cultural sector. 

Production shot from Agreement by Owen McCafferty
Agreement by Owen McCafferty, a Lyric Theatre Belfast production in 2023 dramatising the Good Friday Agreement

Carrie Davenport

The Arts Council of Northern Ireland welcomes the restoration of devolved government in Northern Ireland - with a mix of optimism and realism. 

Optimism that there is now the opportunity, with elected politicians taking charge of local issues, for the country to move forward again. Realism that there are impossible competing pressures on public spending, not least in health and education. 

Even in the best of times the arts have rarely fared well in the carve up of public money. But we remain positive.

So, my first request to the new Minister for the Department for Communities, our sponsor body, is for an equitable and fair package of investment in the arts from the overall £3.3bn allocation offered to the NI Executive, so we can deliver a society where all people can experience a thriving arts sector that is essential to creativity and personal wellbeing, as well as economic prosperity.

Legacy of long-term underinvestment

We have wasted no time in requesting to meet the Minister to ensure he is fully briefed on the significance and value of the arts within his overall portfolio and of the enormous benefits our sector brings to Northern Ireland for a disproportionately small amount of public investment. And of how much more we could achieve given sufficient resources.

We are urging him to address the enormous pressures on our artists and arts organisations, most of which stem from a legacy of long-term underinvestment and an historic funding imbalance between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK and the Republic of Ireland. 

For far too long Northern Ireland has been poorly served by public funding for the arts, with the Arts Council receiving just £5.07 per capita. Wales receives twice as much. Our neighbours in the Republic of Ireland recognise the fundamental value of arts and culture to their economic prosperity and their sense of identity with £21.90 per capita. If, in Northern Ireland, funding from government had kept pace even with inflation, the Arts Council’s £14.1m budget from a decade ago would now stand at £20m. Instead, it is £9.7m. 

As a result of a shortfall in the Department for Communities’ resource and capital budget, a five percent cut was imposed on arm’s length bodies - including us – which has put further pressure on artists and arts organisations in the midst of an ongoing cost-of-living crisis. Just imagine the lost opportunities for artists who choose to remain here.

Cross-government support for the arts

The question I am putting to our new Minister - and others serving in the NI Executive - is this: do the people of Northern Ireland not deserve their fair share when it comes to public spending on the arts? 

We would ask that the arts, as part of the mainstream cultural life of this place, moreover one which brings us international acclaim, are properly considered as an essential part of any resource distribution made by the Executive. 

Appreciating the increasing contribution arts organisations are being asked to make, and indeed are making - in education, health and wellbeing, tourism, the creative industries and in bridging our well-known community divides - we want our Minister not just to increase baseline funding for the arts from his own budget, but to seek cross-government support for an arts and cultural package that fits the sector’s needs.

With the restoration of Stormont and the return of responsibility for decision making at a local level, all of this becomes a possibility. Despite the vacuum left by the collapse of power sharing in recent years, civil servants at the Department for Communities have taken forward work started in 2021 by the previous Minister and her Culture, Arts and Heritage Taskforce. 

New 10-year strategy

Their Investing in Creative Delivery report in July 2023 set out recommendations for a sectoral development and investment strategy for the Department. With the return of Stormont, there is now the opportunity for a Minister to own this report and drive it forward.  

Similarly, the Arts Council NI has been busy developing our own 10-year strategy for 2024-34, with ambitions complementing those of the Taskforce report. The public consultation on the strategy closes in April, and we very much look forward to the Minister’s endorsement and support in fully resourcing our plans. 

With a new government in place and a new Minister to argue our corner, the power and the authority has been restored to change direction and begin a process of reinvestment in the arts. 

If the NI Assembly truly has equity at its heart and wants our people and our economy to thrive, as I believe it does, then they will exercise this power and help us to create an environment in which our arts can flourish. 

Roisín McDonough is Chief Executive of Arts Council Northern Ireland.

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Headshot of Roisin McDonough