Are parties’ promises music to our ears or just empty noises?

Arts funding is an issue in the general election, but some figures seem unrealistic

It’s a sad fact of modern life that when general elections are under way, a lot more attention gets paid to the results of opinion polls than to actual policies. The polling phenomenon of the 2020 election is currently the rise in reported support for Sinn Féin, which, given the number of candidates it has fielded, is a surprise to the party itself, and is forcing rivals to deal with the prospect of Sinn Féin in government.

Sinn Féin has of course shared power in the Northern Ireland Assembly, and has a good track record when it comes to policy or spending on culture and the arts. It seems slightly surrealistic now, but there was a time when Northern Ireland had a greater per capita spend on the arts than the Republic. The comparisons currently go decidedly in the opposite direction.

So what has Sinn Féin to say about culture and the arts in its manifesto for the 2020 general election?

It says it wants to be in government “to deliver for ordinary, working people. But we don’t want to be part of the system. We want to change the system.”

Its manifesto declares that “our culture, arts and heritage are used to support the inward investment and tourism”. And then, in a comma-free statement, adds, “But our current cultural and creative sector is built on the work of underpaid and poorly supported artists and heritage workers and the sector is crippled by legislation and funding models that are no longer fit for purpose.”

In spite of that assessment, the party proposes an increase of €20 million in Arts Council funding and €3.5 million in Heritage Council funding, with a separate fund of €4 million “to provide living wage employment to artists to be administered through local authorities”.

Internal pressure

What it describes as “small indigenous media production companies” outside of Dublin are to benefit from “a new fund of €40 million, rising to €80 million annually, that is ringfenced for independent productions to be commissioned by RTÉ”. Whether the creation of such a fund would in any way alleviate internal pressure on RTÉ’s music division is hard to predict.

The Labour Party is proposing a redrawing of government departments. Today’s Department of Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht (known as the department of arts, heritage, regional, rural and Gaeltacht affairs until 2017 and formerly known in various configurations involving tourism and sport) would become the department of communities, arts and tourism, “to include arts, community development, culture, Gaeltacht, heritage, rural development, sport and tourism”.

People Before Profit's manifesto has only one number in its arts and culture proposals

The party’s main cultural vision is to publish “Ireland’s first comprehensive Irish language strategy covering all aspects of learning and use of the language, with an emphasis on spoken Irish.” It follows that with the promise that “the department will also enhance its work to ensure that everyone working in arts and culture can attain the equivalent of a living wage”.

No cost is attached to this, or to proposals concerning outreach initiatives, the cultural embrace of “Ireland’s new communities”, extending the opening hours of cultural institutions and libraries, or a fund through which local government “will support artists and makers” through the creation of “secure and affordable” studio spaces.

People Before Profit’s manifesto has only one number in its arts and culture proposals, when it says it will “create a national cultural fund to increase State funding of the arts to the European average of 0.6 per cent of GDP”.

Mangling of data

Unfortunately, there seems to be a serious mangling of data behind this extraordinarily generous promise of nearly €1.9 billion of public expenditure. The state funding it references has to be a percentage of government expenditure, not a percentage of government GDP.

The Social Democrats’ manifesto expresses similar good intentions, more successfully worded, with its main thrust being to “develop a roadmap for progressive increases in total arts funding to bring it in line with average EU spending over five years, with a focus on current expenditure to practicing artists through the Arts Council and Culture Ireland”.

Neither party has an unblemished track record when it comes to cultural promises

It proposes “mandatory requirements for local authority arts spending” and says the party will “ensure planning legislation takes cultural and creative spaces into account for all public developments”.

From a musical perspective, all this leaves Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael as the only two parties to reference the future of either or both RTÉ orchestras in their manifesto pledges. In doing this they are only reiterating positions they have already declared in public.

Neither party has an unblemished track record when it comes to cultural promises. When he was minister for education, Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin allocated funding for an Irish academy of the performing arts that never came into existence. When Fianna Fáil's Bertie Ahern was taoiseach he announced the never-to-be achieved move of the RTÉ Concert Orchestra to a new home in the Helix on the campus of Dublin City University. When Fine Gael's Jimmy Deenihan became minister for arts, heritage and the Gaeltacht, he terminated the project to develop a new concert hall on the Earslfort Terrace site of the National Concert Hall. This project would have added two new performing spaces, one larger, one smaller than the current hall.

Manifestos effectively die once governments are formed, and coalitions provide a perfect excuse to explain away any specifics that have or might become politically embarrassing.

So, what should we expect? Probably nothing beyond the usual mish-mash in a slightly different wrapping.