The art of politics
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The National Campaign for the Arts event at Project Arts Centre on Valentine's Day.

Left to right: Paul Gogarty for the Greens; Aengus O Snodaigh for Sinn Féin; Jimmy Deenihan for Fine Gael; Chair, Myles Dungan; Minister for Tourism, Culture and Sport, Mary Hanafin for Fianna Fáil; Alex White for the Labour Party. Photo by: Aidan Crawley.

The art of politics

When, on Valentine’s Day, representatives of Ireland’s five political parties spoke about their respective artistic policies at a hustings arranged by the National Campaign for the Arts in Dublin (three more took place in Cork, Galway and Limerick), two red roses sat dreamily on their table. A photo-op, maybe, but the symbols almost begged for deeper consideration. Roses, like the arts, have a unquestioned intrinsic value, yet they also make no small amount of economic impact. On this day in particular, a rose’s investors might hope to see more than a modest return.

With less than a fortnight remaining before the general election, a capacity audience in Project Arts Centre listened to the overture of each potential suitor with a similar guarded interest, checking each rose proffered for its potential thorns. Chaired with the right amount of gruff respect and political scepticism by broadcaster Myles Dungan, the event provided outlines for the arts policies of each party, with Minister for Tourism, Culture and Sport, Mary Hanafin, of Fianna Fáil, Jimmy Deenihan of Fine Gael, Paul Gogarty of the Greens, Aengus O Snodaigh of Sinn Féin and Alex White of the Labour Party (a last-minute substitute for Ruairí Quinn), quickly establishing common territory.

Once each candidate had set out their stalls in two-minute orations, they were asked directly if, in government, their party would keep the Arts as a full ministerial portfolio at the cabinet table. Hanafin: “Yes.” Deenihan: “Yes.” O Snodaigh: “Yes.” Gogarty: “Yes.” White: “Certainly.” This was some reassurance to NCFA, which had reminded followers that no such guarantee was in place before the election.

On whether they would maintain the current level of funding to the Arts Council, Film Board and Culture Ireland – in reality, an economic imponderable – Deenihan, whose party is by a considerable distance the frontrunner in the polls, was broadly amenable, with the usual caveats. “Well, we’ll certainly try to do so… obviously it will depend on the finance of the country.” Sinn Féin’s O Snodaigh hoped to increase it, the silver-tongued devil, “if at all possible.” Paul Gogarty broadened his response (“I would work to maintain them”) to address maintaining local authority funding, the success of the Percent for Arts Scheme, and the Greens’ policy for an Arts Education fund through the Department of Education.

Labour’s Alex White, committing to maintaining those funding levels “at the minimum” was less romantic, highlighting the difficulty of domestic investment if another three budgets were set to take close to €10bn from the economy. “We need to find the resources. We can sit up here and say ‘yes’ to those questions, but we have to be conscious of the fact that there’s a limitation to the resources available.” Hanafin took the recent austerity budget and the relatively low cut to the arts as her party’s “bona fides and commitment to the arts” while pointing out that capital expenditure had been reduced. Any cuts, she said, would be proportionate.

One contentious policy, announced specifically in Labour’s policy on Enterprise Innovation and Growth, proposed merging Culture Ireland with the Arts Council, a point that now only Sinn Féin seemed to support unequivocally. “I don’t see the need for Culture Ireland as a separate entity,” said O Snodaigh, but he commended the organisation’s work and said it should have a separate budget. White, keen to emphasise his support for Culture Ireland’s work promoting Irish culture abroad, insisted the policy was not intended to undermine its work, merely “an administrative, bureaucratic move”. But, he counselled, perhaps detecting a cooling in the room, “we’re listeners in the Labour Party as well.” The proposal seemed dead in the water.

Various candidates spoke about making vacant spaces and NAMA-owned properties available to arts organisations, with Gogarty, Deenihan and O Snodaigh most vocal on the subject. But when it came to a question on the funding of two national institutions, the Abbey and the National Concert Hall, Gogarty moved the question to the quicksand of relocating the Abbey to the GPO. White wasn’t sure about the idea. “I haven’t seen sufficient public debate on the rationale for it before the costings issue.”

Hanafin affirmed that the Abbey needed investment, adding that the question of disability access in the whole complex must be addressed “in the next couple of years”. Coming just a few weeks after the Peacock has been rendered accessible thanks to a grant she approved last year, she seemed to require an updated briefing.

The feasibility study on moving the Abbey to the GPO site was just about completed, Hanafin said. “I don’t need to make a decision about that yet, until I’m reappointed.”

“I don’t know why you’re laughing,” she added.

Hanafin demonstrated experience, seniority and pugnacity, with a Minister’s understanding fluently applied to questions of buildings, product, touring and politics. “Opera is very complicated and political,” she told White at one point. “Keep out of it.” But the indication of the polls give their own dismal feasibility study on Fianna Fáil’s chances of returning to power while bringing particular attention to Fine Gael’s policies.

Deenihan understood that the GPO may be a suitable venue, but that there were compelling reasons for leaving the Abbey where it is, “where the theatre has been going on there for the last 200 years”. (Deenihan’s brief may have required proofreading.) He also proposed to expand the theatre to adjoining buildings on its Abbey Street address, but thought there were more pressing needs to invest money in its human resources than infrastructure. O Snodaigh speculated that there may be better-suited venues on O’Connell Street than the GPO: “One of the major properties there is in NAMA at the moment, which means it’s in Government control”.

Between audience questions and general remarks, a certain character for each party’s arts policy emerged. Every speaker was proficient at delivering standard encomiums to the value of the arts, paying particular attention to their benefit to the economy and the nation’s reputational capital (“cultural tourism”, “heritage tourism”, “international reputation” and “financial dividends” were all frequently invoked terms). But the Greens stressed their record (the retention of Section 481 tax relief for film and the continuation of the Irish Film Board), while focussing on arts-worker practicalities: a better Social Welfare system for artists on short-term contracts, for instance, that takes into account multi-annual income. Like the Greens, Fine Gael and Sinn Féin spoke about arts programmes in education (Deenihan took Norway’s Cultural Rucksack programme for schools as a model; Gogarty combined his forte as spokesman on education and arts) and whoever gains power, the relationship between professional arts and the classroom seems to be on the agenda for the benefit of knowledge, appreciation, participation and employment.

Fine Gael’s policy document points out that, of the government’s €76m funding to the Arts Council, €54m returns to their coffers in the form of taxes and Deenihan was asked if this, in addition other economic benefits, made a compelling case for increased investment in the area. Deenihan understood the “multiplier effect” and said he would have to review the financial circumstances Fine Gael found themselves in if elected, while repeating that Enda Kenny, the man who would be Taoiseach, had “very strong commitment to the arts”, which he hoped would maintain the arts budget. Also among his propositions was the conversion of Anglo Irish Bank’s premises on St Stephen’s Green into a cultural centre. “After the exorcism, I presume,” quipped Dungan.

All policies, prior to an election, are bound to seem as aspirational and inoffensive as a love song. Nonetheless, Independent candidate and artist Mannix Flynn left the auditorium during questions in a noisy huff trailing muttered words about boredom rather than choosing to participate in the discussion. Assurances were given that artists would be consulted by all parties, if elected. Whatever happens on February 25th, then, when the petals of promise reveal the stem of policy, the National Campaign for the Arts has its work set to continue.


For more details on the National Campaign for the Arts, links to each political party's published arts policies and a podcast of the Dublin hustings, visit


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