Hugh Linehan: Government foot-dragging on live entertainment is part of a long story

More people can mix in a pub than are permitted to sit distanced in large venues

Limerick fans celebrates at the GAA Hurling All-Ireland Senior Championship Final Photograph: Tom Honan

Limerick fans celebrates at the GAA Hurling All-Ireland Senior Championship Final Photograph: Tom Honan

 

In a long-running crisis, not every decision will make complete sense. When a society switches entire sectors and activities off and on and off again over a two-year period, there are bound to be contradictions and injustices. At the start of the summer, for example, some complained bitterly that indoor dining was permitted in hotels but not in restaurants.

That friction was eased by the introduction of vaccine passes a month later, but, whatever about fairness, there was a certain logic in allowing hotels to open indoor dining first.

The lesson from this and other controversies is that the authorities can count on being given a certain amount of space and time to get the competing balances right. But there comes a point where the absurdities become too glaring, the injustices too flagrant and the rationale too shaky to be tenable any longer. That point has now been reached with the continuing effective ban on even medium-sized audiences for live arts and entertainment.

Signals being sent by senior health officials suggest further relaxation of the rules after more than 85 per cent of adults are fully vaccinated and the Delta variant has peaked

It crystallised around photographs of Taoiseach Micheál Martin at the All-Ireland hurling final last Sunday, an event attended by 40,000 people who didn’t need to show proof of vaccination and most of whom seemed disinclined to follow the requested mask protocols.

On Tuesday the Government will announce its roadmap for reopening the rest of the economy. At time of going to press, it is not yet clear what might be in the plan (although experience suggests the whole thing will be leaked in advance). But there’s no prospect of the entertainment industry’s call for reopening to begin on September 1st being met.

Optimistically, for September, an increase in the numbers allowed in indoor and outdoor venues based on the use of vaccination passes seems the best that can be hoped for. Signals being sent by senior health officials suggest further relaxation of the rules after more than 85 per cent of adults are fully vaccinated and the Delta variant has peaked. They expect to reach these milestones by early October.

Taoiseach Micheál Martin with wife Mary at the All-Ireland hurling final. Photograph: Morgan Treacy/INPHO
Taoiseach Micheál Martin with wife Mary at the All-Ireland hurling final. Photograph: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

But, when it comes to the treatment of arts and entertainment, it’s hard to see the Government foot-dragging of the last two months as anything other than a humiliation for Minister for Tourism, Culture, Arts, Gaeltacht, Sport and Media Catherine Martin. She admitted to entertainment industry representatives at a meeting last week that she was refused permission to attend a Cabinet Covid committee on the issue, despite the fact that she is responsible for the sector, which is now more restricted than any other.

Martin also told the representatives that she had tried to get the Covid committee to agree to dates for reopening of the sector at a meeting on August 6th but her efforts had failed. Insult was added to injury by the fact that sport – technically part of Martin’s brief but effectively farmed out to Fianna Fáil junior Minister Jack Chambers – appears to be able to make its own rules, with tens of thousands permitted in Croke Park every weekend.

As it stands, far more people are allowed to mix in your local pub than are permitted to sit, ticketed and socially distanced, in large venues like the Gaiety or Abbey theatres

How those numbers were arrived at remains opaque. The Government claims to follow the science, but after last Sunday’s match, Chief Medical Officer Tony Holohan said similar fixtures in future should require vaccination passes, which sounds more like the science following the politics. Holohan also caused some surprise by saying he’d have no problem with Electric Picnic going ahead in September once everyone attending was vaccinated – the exact basis on which the festival had requested and been refused permission by Laois County Council. The county council pointed out correctly that it was constrained by the current law of the land, as laid out by the same Government that had opened Croke Park.

On Wednesday, Government sources suggested to this newspaper that the festival should reapply for different dates, but also said there was no prospect of bringing back the Dáil to extend the use of vaccine passports to outdoor events.

It’s a mess. As it stands, far more people are allowed to mix in your local pub than are permitted to sit, ticketed and socially distanced, in large venues like the Gaiety or Abbey theatres. Tens of thousands of spectators may mingle boozily at matches while open-air concerts can only be attended by a few hundred, separated from each other by grim lines of metal barriers.

More important than Catherine Martin’s political embarrassment is the unmistakable signal sent by the most powerful members of this Government, including the Taoiseach, that culture, entertainment and live performance are not really that significant in the greater scheme of things. There’s always a bigger lobby or constituency that must be served first.

None of this will come as a surprise to anyone who has watched for decades as Irish politicians failed to match their rhetorical commitment to culture with practical action. It’s just the latest chapter in a long, sad story.

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