The NCI merger debate is brought out in the open
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Read the Dáil report on the National Cultural Institutions: Motion June 26

Read the Dáil report on the National Cultural Institutions: Motion June 27

Read the full remarks of the Seanad motion on the National Cultural Institutions on the Oireachtas website

Photo: L-R Anne Enright, Pauline McLynn, Senator Fiach MacConghail and Colm Tóibín outside Leinster House on June 26th. They were among about 160 visual artists, writers and theatre practitioners who came to watch the debate on arts & culture in the public gallery of the Dáil on the evenings of June 26 and June 27, 2012


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The NCI merger debate is brought out in the open

A debate in Dáil Eireann and the Seanad on the implications of the Public Service Reform Plan had been a long time coming. The plan’s proposals to merge the National Archives, the Irish Manuscripts Commission and the National Library, and to combine the “backroom” administration of the National Gallery, the Irish Museum of Modern Art and the Crawford Art Gallery, as well as a critical review of Culture Ireland, had been announced in November of last year. But similar amalgamation plans had been drafted – and abandoned – by previous Governments in 2008 and 1974. This time, the issues had acquired sufficient heat.

On 24th May, following the resignation of Professor Diarmuid Ferriter from the Board of the National Library in protest, Senator Fiach Mac Conghail urged the Arts Minister Jimmy Deenihan to attend an urgent debate in the Seanad that day, stating, “This is not about money but about the lack of vision and public consultation in the way our national cultural institutions are being treated in a profoundly secretive and cavalier way.” The motion found much sympathy in the Seanad but was not carried. Instead, it helped to build up a head of steam.

Last week, following trenchant letters from writers Colm Tóibín and Joseph O’Connor in The Irish Times which added to increasingly critical media coverage and some defensive commentary from Minister Deenihan, two debates were held on the value of the arts in Ireland and the proposed mergers of NCIs, one in the Dáil, over two nights, and one in the Seanad. In both the considerable public attendance for these debates and the quality of their content, it was not difficult to see the influence of the National Campaign for the Arts.

Tabled by Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin, the debate featured several encomiums to the intrinsic value of the arts, the economic value of the arts, the specific arts activity of various constituencies, and at least one brief discussion of a subplot in the Abbey’s current production of The House by Tom Murphy. But the keener details of the debate involved a call for a cost benefit analysis of the proposed mergers to be published, for consultation to be moved into the public domain, to bolster good governance of NCIs and to safeguard their statutory independence, as enshrined in Michael D. Higgins’s The National Cultural Institutions Act 1997.

Many of these points are pre-emptive; the Minister cannot make public the merger options which Department officials will present to him as they are currently bound by Cabinet confidentiality. But one outcome of these debates has delivered certain guarantees: the Government will remain committed to the “Arm’s Length principle”, for instance, stating that “in bringing forward any governance reforms that may be required to realise the goals of the Public Service Reform Plan, it will support the programming and curatorial independence of the National Cultural Institutions”. The National Cultural Institutions Act 1997 will not be revisited.

The retention of statutory boards is a key point being advocated by the NCFA, although the National Archives, which is in direct control of the Department, operates with an advisory board, while Culture Ireland never attained statutory status. This could leave Culture Ireland especially vulnerable to complete Departmental absorption, having recently made an internal appointment of Christine Sisk as its acting CEO following the end of Eugene Downes’s five-year contract. Sisk’s contract, however, is for 15 months and it is believed the position will then be readvertised externally.

Speaking about the impact of these debates, Theatre Forum chairman and a member of NCFA’s Steering Committee, Loughlin Deegan, said, “The Campaign felt there had been a lack of communication, that there was insufficient consultation with the arts sector and, crucially, it was not in the public domain. As an effect of the debates in the Seanad and Dáil Eireann, that consultation has been widened.” Indeed, representatives from NCFA had a subsequent meeting with Minister Deenihan, in which they welcomed the review posed by the Public Service Reform Plan into the efficient running of NCIs (the Minister has asserted, “No organisation is above examination for reform”) while strongly advising him that any amalgamation should retain their boards and independent identities. Minister Deenihan, who earlier expected to publish the proposals in late June, and may now delay until mid July, appears to be listening.

Peter Crawley is News Editor of Irish Theatre Magazine


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