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In April, artists and supporters were galvanised to sign a petition, eventually numbering more than 12,500 signatures, resisting cuts to arts funding in Northern Ireland, writes Equity’s Alice Adams Lemon

Equity members protesting in with banners saying 'Resist the cuts'
Amanda Doherty
Equity members in Belfast campaigning to 'Resist The Cuts to Arts Funding in Northern Ireland'

At the time the cuts were announced in April, government investment in the arts in Northern Ireland was already only a paltry £5.44 per head compared to £7 in England, £10.35 in Wales and, in the Republic of Ireland, £25.90 – nearly five times more.

Performers’ Union Equity set up a petition to ‘Resist The Cuts’, which gathered a huge number of signatures during the one week it ran, and delivered it to the Permanent Secretary for the Department of Communities in Belfast.

There was standing room only for our campaign meeting at The Black Box in Belfast. We also included virtual attendees from across the Northern Ireland arts community and beyond.

Arts Council NI (ACNI) was there, Derry Playhouse was there, Lyric Belfast, the MAC, the Musicians’ Union, BETCU and the Society of Authors were all there. Even members of the Legislative Assembly (MLAs) came along. We were all there with the same message: invest more - not less - in the arts in Northern Ireland.

Actors voice support

The accompanying rally was supported by actor Adrian Dunbar who said: “It hardly seems credible that we’re having to fight once again for the civilising influence that the arts have had on Northern Ireland over the last 50 years.”

Actor Ian McElhinney commented too: “The arts are vital but government here in Northern Ireland unfortunately does not seem to understand that”. 

Rachel Tucker added: “At the age of nine, during the Troubles, I joined Equity. The money was flowing from one community to the other to bring us together. That’s why the money was there, to try to bring kids out of fighting each other. 

“I was fortunate to see the benefits of arts funding at the time, it was in abundance. In 50 years, we’ll look back at the cuts that have happened. The generation below me will not get what I took for granted as a child, being taught by the best in our business for singing, acting, dancing. We cannot let them down, it’s so important.” 

There’s the rub

You would be forgiven for asking a couple of questions. Why are the arts in Northern Ireland the responsibility of the Department for Communities? A department that holds the brief for a lot besides including equality, anti-poverty, sports, languages, historic environment, housing, regeneration, benefits and pensions, finding employment, community and voluntary sector development, social legislation and child support.

And secondly, why was our petition delivered to a Permanent Secretary rather than the minister responsible for that department? The answer to the second question is easy. There is no minister responsible for the department. As Stormont is not sitting, and has not sat since February 2022, there is no minister in post to take decisions as mandated by the people of Northern Ireland.  

Equity members attend the campaign meeting at The Black Box in Belfast. Photo: Amanda Doherty

In the absence of a minister, how can the Permanent Secretary take decisions? He (in this case Colum Boyle) is not elected to do so. And there’s the rub. In the absence of a functioning Assembly, the department can only advise what budgets might look like once a departmental minister is in place to make those decisions. The civil service can only run the administration; Westminster sets the budgets.

So ACNI was told to expect a 10% cut in funding for 2023-24, and it passed this information on to its funded organisations. The cut was not a cut, it was a possible cut. But the possible cut had to be implemented because arts organisations funded by ACNI need to create their budgets and plan for the year ahead.

The arts matter

As Equity, we were facing a huge impact on the available pay and opportunities for employees and freelancers and the potential crashing of the system. A cut to the already derisory £5.44 per head of population could destroy the industry and the invaluable gifts it gives to communities along with it.

We examined both the financial benefits the arts brings to GDP and the benefits to communities. They include work in areas such as mental health; cross-community collaboration; as well as community arts which support people with disabilities, educate on LGBTQI+ issues, and provide people with an outlet. 

And that’s both for arts practitioners themselves and audience members. It is precisely this that has led to such a groundswell of support – because arts matter to everyone.

Hoping for mitigations

The potential 10% cut has reduced to an actual 5% cut since the petition and rally, and we think ACNI has maintained the same level of funding as previous years for some organisations, which is still a real-terms cut. We do not know the big picture as, to date, the list of funding to arts organisations from ACNI remains unpublished.

Equity members have sent more than a 100 letters to the department, contributing to its recently ended consultation on how arts funding cuts could impact those with protected characteristics working in, enjoying or volunteering for the arts. Now we are hoping for mitigations to the cuts and more funding to be delivered down the line if and when the Assembly is restored. 

The announcement that the budget has been determined without a sitting minister has garnered little attention. For the sake of our democracy, Stormont must resume and, as the Secretary of State is “very hopeful” of a return in the autumn, we too must remain hopeful that we will have an elected minister to lobby and achieve the arts funding our communities need.

Alice Adams Lemon is a National Official for Equity Northern Ireland.
@EquityUK | @EquityNIBranch

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Alice Adams Lemon