The sharp-eyed among you will have noticed that what most people think of as the Department of Arts has changed its name again. The Department of Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht had been so named since 2017, three years being an exceptionally long time in politics. Now the word “Arts” is back, keeping company with Culture and the Gaeltacht, together with newcomers Media, Tourism and Sport. So the monster new department is now called Media, Tourism, Arts, Culture, Sport and the Gaeltacht.
What a cluster: the type that makes you think of the word that often follows “cluster”. It starts with “f”. The arts are in crisis. So too are media, tourism, sport. Is the idea to throw them all in together, add in the Gaeltacht and see what bubbles up in the stew?
Then take the word order. Back in 2016 – when the department was reconfigured as Regional Development, Rural Affairs, Arts and the Gaeltacht – uproar, and a petition, ensued about the perceived demotion of the arts. The word order was changed, and it became Arts, Heritage, Regional, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs. These things matter, both at Cabinet, and in terms of public perception. So have arts and culture been demoted again?
We don’t need to rehearse the arguments about the importance of the arts; we also know they’re severely underfunded, and, as a result of Covid, the culture sector is facing an existential threat.
We also know culture is pushed front and centre when Ministers are extolling the virtues of this country. So why the impossible mouthful of the new department, with Arts and Culture sandwiched in the middle of the now-sprawling portfolio?
Tourism and Sport aren’t actually new bedfellows. Like the characters in a long-running soap opera, swapping partners and story lines, they were last seen bedding down with culture in 2002, a relationship that survived the dropping of the word “Arts” from the department’s title in 2010, and culminating in an amicable divorce a year later, when they drove off into the sunset with Transport. We can only presume it was also amicable when Rural Affairs left too (after a brief role 2016-2017), this time to spend more time with Community Development.
And in all this, you may have spotted the Peculiar Case of the Missing Heritage. It has now gone to Housing and Local Government. Heritage takes care of Ireland’s built heritage and monuments, as well as the National Parks and Wildlife Service, and has also been working on Heritage Ireland 2030, a new national heritage plan, although lord alone knows what the world will look like by then.
The regular moving of bits of portfolios around is part of the political horse-trading that takes place at Cabinet-making. I’m picturing a scene where people huddle in some back passage of Government Buildings, muttering “Sure, g’wan, give me Arts, but only if it’s leavened with a dash of Sport.”
Why are the arts, which are such a source of national pride, often seen as a department to try out ministers on their way up or pension them off. No minister has ever seemed to want it for its own sake since the very first, Michael D in 1993.
Perhaps department formation is more like planning the seating for a truly dreadful dinner party: there you go Heritage, you get along with Architecture, so let’s put you with Housing. But that department is then in charge of both rapid building and the saving of endangered spaces and places. (I can’t see a seamless policy in which the past is valued, preserved and maintained, while also creating enough affordable homes for the future; but maybe that’s just the cynic in me.)
The issue only gets more confusing with new Government chief whip Dara Calleary now also becoming Minister of State looking after Sport and the Gaeltacht. And Ministers are also only part of the picture. There are dedicated teams of civil servants working in the background, knitting together strands, and developing (mostly) well-thought-out programmes. These unravel with a major move. There was talk of splitting some Heritage functions, thankfully now shelved. However, with the addition of Tourism, the removal of Heritage from Catherine Martin's new department seems insane. Building tourism, whether domestic or international, involves far more than lashing up visitor centres and relying on Diageo dollars to fund enticing ad campaigns and obligatory pint-sipping stop-offs for international dignitaries.
Our current refocusing on domestic tourism puts the spotlight back on the more meaningful people, places and their stories that go to make up a richer cultural heritage. It calls for more nuanced thought, as well as care and resources. Heritage’s relationship with arts and culture has led to the brokering of relationships that have opened up Ireland’s past to its future. Equally, today’s culture is in an ever-flowing process of becoming tomorrow’s heritage, just as heritage remains part of our living arts and culture. It’s not too late to refocus on the arts, and to bring heritage back home.