Culture shock: ‘Cruel’ and unusual? The facts of the Abbey story

Just what form of public accountability will the National Theatre tolerate?

Imagine for a moment that the headline on the Irish Times news story about the Abbey had been "Panel endorses Abbey Theatre's 'world-class' status". Would the director of the Abbey, Fiach Mac Conghail, have suggested that the publication of these glowing assessments from an independent expert panel was wrong? To suggest that he would is to demand suspension of disbelief far beyond even the most absurdist piece of theatre.

So let's be clear: Mac Conghail's problem is not that The Irish Times has published internal reports obtained under the Freedom of Information Act. It is that those reports are, in some cases, sharply negative. The attempt to turn this story into a 19th-century melodrama by repeatedly accusing The Irish Times of being "cruel" is an effort to distract from the simple truth of this affair: that a process which Mac Conghail, in his own word, "initiated" has produced some bad news for the Abbey.

A few facts might not go astray. The first is that Mac Conghail was a prime mover in setting up the international review panel. The documents we have obtained from the Arts Council show very clearly that he was involved at every stage in the process: in insisting on the review process; in agreeing – in some detail – the criteria the assessors should use; in agreeing that Roy Foster, Nick Kent and Mike Griffiths were suitable assessors; and in jointly funding their visits. He received each report shortly after it was written and, presumably, discussed it with his board and with the artists involved.

This is important because some people who have commented on the affair seem to believe that they are defending the Abbey when they attack the review process as ill conceived. If it is ill conceived, those who were involved in its conception are the Arts Council and Mac Conghail himself. It is not The Irish Times's evaluation of Abbey productions; it is the Abbey's. If people have complaints about that process, they should address them to the man who initiated and oversaw it.


The second point concerns the timing of The Irish Times story. This has two aspects. One is the hysterical accusation that The Irish Times arranged to hold the story so that its publication would undermine the three-day Theatre of Memory symposium that concluded at the theatre last Saturday. Niall MacMonagle, in a letter to the Editor, alleged that "The Irish Times deliberately attempted to throw a hand grenade" at the event. Apart from showing complete ignorance of the way newspapers work, this also makes me a suicide bomber, as I was myself an enthusiastic participant in the symposium. One can but despair that serious questions about a major Irish public institution are reduced to this level of wild conspiracy-hunting.

Much more substantially, Mac Conghail maintains that it was wrong of The Irish Times to publish the reports "halfway through a private evaluation process". We'll come back to the "private" bit, but is the evaluation process halfway through? In fact the time frame for the process is completely unclear. Mac Conghail said on Arena, on RTÉ Radio 1 on Monday night, that it was to take "a year, two years". He also said that it was envisaged that it would take in 10 or 12 productions. The material published by The Irish Times meets both criteria: it covers 12 productions over a period of more than 18 months.

A crucial point here is that Mac Conghail maintains that the process is radically incomplete because the Abbey has not yet had a chance to engage with the Arts Council in relation to the evaluation reports. The truth is that the Abbey has had the opportunity to engage with the Arts Council and the three panel members but has failed to do so. My understanding is that the Arts Council attempted to arrange a meeting through much of last year, that the meeting was finally set up for September, that the assessors flew to Dublin, but that Mac Conghail then declined to attend.

Which brings us to the third point: that the whole process was "private" and that The Irish Times maliciously poked its nose into this private business. At the heart of this contention is the extraordinary claim by Mac Conghail that he did not know FoI would apply to the evaluation reports. Mac Conghail is not a naive beginner: he has been running the Abbey for almost nine years. He is also a public representative: notably, he signed his statement on this affair "Senator Fiach MacConghail". Did he really not know that the Arts Council came under FoI in October 2000?

Even more extraordinary is his statement on Arena that he "pleaded" with the Arts Council to refuse to release the documents to The Irish Times. Mac Conghail is, among other things, the chairman of We the Citizens, the democratic reform initiative that highlighted the need for FoI to be deepened: "There should be total transparency from everyone who gets public money." Apparently, this "total transparency" is not to apply to the Abbey. Mac Conghail's statement suggests that FoI for the Abbey should exclude both "commercially sensitive information" and "artistic sensitivities". As everything the Abbey (and all other arts bodies) does is either commercial or artistic, what's left to be transparent about?

Which leaves us with a final question from this whole affair: if it is not legitimate for newspapers to publish reports commissioned with public money about a publicly funded body, what form of public accountability will the Abbey tolerate?