When Catherine Martin was appointed Minister for Media, Tourism, Arts, Culture, Sport and the Gaeltacht seven weeks ago, scepticism was expressed in some quarters about the unwieldiness not just of her job title but of the newly created portfolio it represented. Others thought it made sense to bring all these responsibilities finally together under one brief, which is the case in many other countries.
Whether or not that proves true in the long term, the shorter-term reality is that, for the foreseeable future, Martin, more than any of her Cabinet colleagues, is the Minister for Shutting Things Down. Culture, sport, entertainment and hospitality top the list of sectors affected by Covid-19 restrictions and are likely to be among the last to return to normal business. Given that self-evident fact, it seems baffling that she and her staff appear not to have been fully involved in agreeing and communicating the new restrictions on public gatherings announced by the Government this week.
In the hours that followed that press conference on Tuesday evening, confusion reigned about what the new regulations would mean for live performance. Would it no longer be possible to proceed with indoor productions such as the recently completed run of Solar Bones at the Kilkenny Arts Festival (which rigorously followed social distancing guidelines and kept numbers at the permitted level of 50) or the upcoming DruidGregory tour of outdoor venues in September? What about the live elements of the Dublin Fringe and Dublin Theatre Festival, both of which recently announced their programmes? Or the tentative attempts to mount small-scale live music events?
It was left to Fianna Fáil Senator Malcolm Byrne to surgically extract some clarity late on Tuesday evening. Apparently the rules for theatres, cinemas and other cultural venues would remain unchanged, he tweeted.
After a very long pause, that position was officially confirmed the following afternoon by the Department of Arts, which added that outdoor arts events “which take place in venues which allow for a controlled environment where social distancing can be ensured” could also proceed on the basis of existing limits.
A few minutes later, in an unusual but thinly veiled implicit criticism of how the whole matter was being handled, the Arts Council said it was "essential" that "explicit guidelines for arts activity are provided in all future communications" about restrictions, "to avoid confusion for the public and for those working in the arts".
That statement had hardly been released before the Department of Health confirmed to RTÉ that yes, cinemas, galleries and museums (but no mention of theatres) would be unaffected by the new measures, and that, in addition, "a small number of exemptions may be made on a case-by-case basis". All outdoor events, though, would be restricted to 15 people, it said, contradicting the earlier statement by the Department of Arts, and effectively making it impossible to stage a range of planned events, including the Abbey Theatre's promenade production of The Great Hunger at the Royal Hospital Kilmainham.
Did Martin's department get the opportunity to sanity-check the rules? Or was it left scrambling to clean up a mess not of its own making?
In yet another clarification on Thursday morning, the Department of the Taoiseach added theatres to the list of venues that could proceed. By a process of elimination, one could also deduce that live music performance, because it was not mentioned anywhere, was effectively now shut down. And the 15-person outdoor limit remained. That's the situation as it stands at time of publication, although who knows what further clarification of a clarification may have landed by the time you read this.
Nobody disputes the gravity of the challenge the Government faces with the resurgence of Covid-19 in recent weeks. If it becomes necessary to shut down parts of society again, then so be it. But it also has a duty of care to the performers, artists and production people who have been working towards a tentative reopening of live culture in controlled, safe environments, and whose plans were thrown into unnecessary confusion this week. That responsibility lies specifically with the Department of Media, Tourism, Arts, Culture, Sport and the Gaeltacht. It would be instructive to know what input, if any, that comprehensively titled department had into the Government’s decisions. Did it get the opportunity to sanity-check them? Or was it left scrambling to clean up a mess not of its own making?
It doesn’t really come as a surprise that the Minister for Health doesn’t know what a theatre is. But either Catherine Martin and her officials didn’t see the glaring problems and the potential for confusion in the changes, or nobody thought it was worth consulting them in the first place, despite the fact that culture and sports are the areas most directly affected. Neither option is particularly heartening.