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Jane Coyle: Arts are again the fall guy in Northern Ireland’s political vacuum

Bruiser Theatre's production of The Colleen Bawn at the Lyric Theatre, Belfast; cuts may see the company shut down. Photo: Steffan Hill
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After weeks of waiting, the word is out – and it is deeply discouraging. Arts organisations across Northern Ireland have suffered stringent reductions in their core funding from the Arts Council of Northern Ireland, putting jobs in jeopardy and signalling inevitable closures. Almost half the region’s companies will be forced to absorb significant decreases, while seven will be cut altogether.

Northern Irish arts hit by ‘terrifying’ funding cuts

Feelings are running particularly high within the independent theatre sector, the majority of whose members have been hit with reductions of between 5% and 8%. These come in the wake of companies having had to absorb cuts of between 3% and 5% during 2017.

The biggest loser in the sector is the prolific and enterprising Bruiser, which has just celebrated its 20th birthday. It has taken a massive 85% cut and is due to receive just £12,500, which will essentially cause it to shut up shop. Ironically, its founder and artistic director Lisa May is currently directing a successful co-production of The Colleen Bawn at the Lyric Theatre.

The decisions have been made in the context of ACNI suffering a significant decrease in its allocation from the Department of the Communities. While it is fully understood that tough times call for tough decisions, it is especially hard to compare the manner in which the cultural sector is treated in Northern Ireland with the rest of the UK, where the creative industries are identified as a channel for economic growth and employment.

Concern about respect and perception is building among artists, who feel undervalued and under pressure to justify their existence. All they ask is to be accorded similar recognition and work opportunities as any other highly trained professionals.

They look enviously at the way the arts are supported elsewhere in Europe. In France, for example, a freelance performance artist working on irregular short-term contracts may register as an ‘intermittent de spectacle’, entitling them to unemployment benefits and a modest salary. The contrast is hard to swallow.

Over the past 30 years, a constant stream of energy and innovation has flowed from Northern Ireland’s independents. Their small, dedicated teams have battled a succession of creatively draining financial crises, constantly chipping away at their main artistic objectives. Yet the standard of work has never been higher – an achievement that should be supported not exploited.

To take just two examples: in the past year, Prime Cut has won a string of major awards and, in tandem with Tinderbox, has just completed a triple bill of highly acclaimed plays about the pressing issue of male mental health. For their pains, the companies are contemplating respective cuts of 8.3% and 8%.

Individually and under the ArtsMatterNI banner, which has embarked upon a parity of funding campaign, there is a determination to fight back, reiterating the reality that there is a limit to what can be accomplished on a dangerously thinning shoestring.

As the political vacuum in Northern Ireland takes its toll on everyday life, the arts sector is in danger, yet again, of being the sacrificial lamb.

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