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MU Lobbies Department for Communities for Increased Arts Funding in Northern Ireland

We have written to the newly appointed minister for the Department for Communities to ask that he consider using some of the money for a restored Assembly to ensure that the arts and culture sector of Northern Ireland is supported to grow.

Published: 26 February 2024 | 4:31 PM
Silhouette of audience watching musicians on stage at a theatre.
The MU will continue to lobby for increased funding for arts and culture in Northern Ireland and to work with MLAs from all parties to achieve that aim. Image credit: Shutterstock.

The MU welcomes the return of a Northern Ireland Assembly and the formation of an Executive for the first time since 2022. It is important that decisions are made by the elected representatives of the Northern Irish people, and for too long that has not been possible.

Sam Dunkley, MU Acting Regional Organiser for Scotland and Northern Ireland wrote to the leaders of the Stormont parties in the week before the Assembly returned, and has since written to Gordon Lyons MLA in his new capacity as Minister for Communities.

His role includes arts and culture in a broad portfolio and we felt it important to raise the issue of funding for the arts early in the life of this Executive. View the letter below.

Increased Funding for the Arts and Culture from a Restored Executive

I am the Acting Regional Organiser for Scotland and Northern Ireland at the Musicians’ Union. As the trade union for professional musicians, we represent over 34,000 working musicians in the UK who work across all areas of the music industry. Our members are instrumental music teachers, orchestral players, composers, session musicians and everything in between.

I write to you as the newly appointed Minister for the Department of Communities to congratulate you on your appointment and to urge you to consider the urgent need for investment in the arts and culture sector. I appreciate that there will be many pressing and competing priorities for the Executive and the Assembly as it returns, but I write on behalf of our members to stress that reversing years of under investment in music and musicians should be high up your agenda.

Northern Ireland is poorly served by public funding for the arts, with the ACNI receiving just £5.07 per capita in comparison to £10.51 in Wales and £21.58 per capita in the Republic of Ireland. The 5% cut imposed on ACNI last year was damaging and put further pressure on artists and arts organisations in the midst of an ongoing cost of living crisis.

ACNI Chair Liam Hannaway wrote last year ‘Government investment in the arts here has fallen since 2011 to £9.7m in 2023. In real terms, this equates to a reduction of almost £10 million in that time. As a bare minimum, the Arts Council needs this latest cut reversed and an additional £10.51 million, if we are to achieve our ambitions.’

We are concerned that the cuts that have been made fall disproportionately on the most vulnerable in our sector; the freelance and self-employed workforce on which many organisations and artforms rely, and work being created by, for and with those with disabilities and other marginalised groups.

In 2019 the music sector contributed almost £345m to the local economy in Northern Ireland and accounted for almost 6,500 jobs. UK Music report 234,000 music tourists visited Northern Ireland in 2019 generating £81m in tourist spend. We also know that public investment in the arts has a very strong return on investment.

Music is a crucial part of the creative economy of Northern Ireland, contributing to the wider night time economy in restaurants, bars, hotels and so on. The quality and vibrancy of the Northern Irish music scene is world renowned, constantly punching well above its weight, at the heart of the cultural identity of Northern Ireland.

As well as the cultural and economic importance of music, there are overwhelmingly positive impacts on the mental health and wellbeing of participants in community music projects and the audiences of performances.

I write on behalf of our members to urge you to address the funding needs of ACNI, cultural organisations across the nation, and the Education Authority Music Service to ensure that the people of Northern Ireland can access arts and culture. We ask that you choose to use some of the money for a restored Assembly to ensure the culture sector, which makes such a vital contribution to the economy of Northern Ireland, is supported to grow and thrive in coming years.

Whilst we understand that difficult decisions need to be taken in allocating funding, the arts sector has suffered whilst the Executive has not been sitting, and the funding need is now urgent.

I look forward to receiving a response in due course.

Department for Communities reply 

On behalf of the Minister, a representative of the Department for Communities said: “The Minister has asked me to thank you for your good wishes on his appointment and for the points you make in relation to the arts budget. He recognises the importance of the arts and the contribution that the people and organisations involved across the arts make in a wide range of areas in the public service and to the wellbeing and quality of life here.

“In relation to your specific point around the future funding position it is important to note that the Budget process for 2024-25 has not started yet. It is in that context that the Minister will seek to support, to the greatest extent possible, all sectors within his portfolio, including arts and culture.”

Alliance Party reply 

Naomi Long MLA, Alliance Party said: “As you will be aware, Alliance has previously pledged its support to the campaign for both an overturning of the most recent cuts to the sector’s budget but also for greater long-term and strategic investment.

“We fully recognise the role that the Arts has to play, particularly in a post-conflict society, in bringing people together through shared experiences and the sharing of cultures. We also recognise the enormous contribution of the arts to our economic growth and tourism potential, not to mention the importance of a vibrant arts scene to attracting people to stay in or relocate to Northern Ireland.

“We support investment in the Arts at all levels and recognise the impact the chronic underfunding of this valuable sector is having on grassroots arts initiatives and practitioners, in particular those with insecure employment opportunities, such as freelancers and musicians. We have noted with concern, the real term manifestation of cuts to the Arts sector as being 30% over the last decade with a 5% cut in this financial year alone.”

SDLP reply 

SDLP Leader, Matthew O’Toole MLA said:

“It is deeply frustrating that we have seen such cuts to the Arts sector, and one of the first actions that we took was to submit a question to the new communities Minister to ask if he was willing to reverse the cuts that we have seen.”

The MU will continue to lobby for increased funding for arts and culture in Northern Ireland and to work with MLAs from all parties to achieve that aim.

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