Playing politics with the RTÉ orchestra cutbacks controversy

Taoiseach weighs in, Minister for Arts kicks to touch, Fianna Fáil comes late to the cause

Just in case you missed it, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has weighed in on the controversy about cutbacks at RTÉ's orchestras. He was put on the spot by a Dáil question from the Labour TD Joan Burton on November 21st, and in his reply he stated that "I would share the Deputy's concern about any diminution of the RTÉ orchestra or any other orchestras in the State".

This is in spite of the fact that RTÉ has been downsizing for a number of years, and RTÉ executives have already predicted that the total number of posts lost will exceed 30 by the middle of next year.

Burton had already taken the matter up with Minister for Culture Heather Humphreys. She had asked the Minister about "the steps her department is taking to support orchestras; if her attention has been drawn to the publicity regarding the shortages in the RTÉ Concert Orchestra and the review RTÉ is carrying out into the provision of orchestra services; if her department will be making a submission or has an input into this review; and if she will make a statement on the matter".

Any cultural issue is also a constituency matter for the Fianna Fáil TD Niamh Smyth. She was elected in Cavan-Monaghan, where Humphreys topped the poll last year

The Minister kicked to touch in a written reply on November 15th. “My colleague, the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and the Environment, has statutory responsibility for broadcasting including RTÉ. I am not aware that submissions have been sought in relation to this matter.” Sir Humphrey would have been proud.


The Taoiseach took a much broader approach. He restated his commitment to arts funding. “I was very specific and said we would double funding for the arts over a period of seven years. That, of course, refers to the arts in total and not just to the Arts Council.” He also stated unequivocally that “the commitment to double total funding over seven years stands”.

Fianna Fáil came late to the party. Two days after the Taoiseach's Dáil statement Fianna Fáil's arts and culture spokeswoman, Niamh Smyth, targeted the Minister for Culture "to reaffirm Government support for the retention of RTÉ's two orchestras". Why would Smyth choose to call on Heather Humphreys to restate a commitment on which the Minister had already been outflanked by the Taoiseach? Why, because any cultural issue is also a constituency matter for the Fianna Fáil TD. She was elected in the Cavan-Monaghan constituency, where Humphreys comfortably topped the poll last year and Smyth had to wait for the 10th count to be elected without reaching the quota. All politics is local.

It stands to reason that the matter was first raised in the Dáil by a Labour Deputy. The players in RTÉ’s two orchestras are all union members – the Musicians’ Union of Ireland is an affiliate of Siput – and are a core part of the community the Labour Party represents.

Crash Ensemble at 20

Two of last week’s musical celebrations had me thinking about the sense of community – or lack of it – in the musical world in Ireland.

Crash Ensemble celebrated its 20th birthday with 20 commissions which, through its CrashLands project, it brought to rural locations that it has identified as both “unusual “ and “iconic”, from Long Island and Spike Island in Cork, Aistear Park in Mountshannon and Arranmore Lighthouse in Donegal, to Inishbofin, St Patrick’s Well, Clonmel, and Cahergall Stone Fort.

With them Crash brought the poet Doireann Ní Ghríofa and the cinematographer Brendan Canty. The commissions went to composers from Ireland, north and south, the US, England, the Netherlands and Australia.

All 20 pieces, with poems and video, were heard over two nights at the National Concert Hall’s Studio. The musical community that Crash Ensemble identifies itself as being part of is international, and its broader community embraces the written/spoken word and cinematography. Oh, and 40 per cent of the new pieces were by women.

Crash is an NCH ensemble-in-residence, part of the way the hall's chief executive, Simon Taylor, has been redefining the venue's sense of community

Videos of all the first performances will be available on next year, and studio recordings will be issued on limited-edition vinyl and as free digital downloads.

Crash is one of the National Concert Hall's ensembles-in-residence, the whole notion of ensemble-in-residence being one of the ways the hall's chief executive, Simon Taylor, has been redefining the venue's sense of community.

Another way was the creation in 2012 of the National Concert Hall Lifetime Achievement Award, which has gone to Paddy Moloney and The Chieftains, James Galway, Veronica Dunne, Paul Brady, the Vanbrugh Quartet and, this year, John O'Conor.

In terms of community, note the embrace of nonclassical musicians in what was designed and opened as a classical-music venue (the only State institution of its kind in the country), and the reaching out to performers not actually born in the State.

John O'Conor, pianist, teacher, administrator, has been a mover and shaker for most of his professional life. I remember speaking to Maurice Foley of GPA back when GPA was sponsor of the Dublin International Piano Competition, where O'Conor is artistic director. O'Conor's initial proposal to GPA had been so impressive, he told me, that he would have given O'Conor not just sponsorship but a job on the basis of it.

At the NCH on Sunday O’Conor showed his canniness in a story about seeking to get more Department of Education money for the Royal Irish Academy of Music, where he was director from 1994 to 2010. All his proposals and questions came up with no as the answer. So he changed tack. What proposals were there, he asked, that could come up with a yes?

The evening, hosted by Olivia O'Leary, with Veronica McSwiney, Suzanne Murphy, Philippe Cassard, Tara Erraught, Finghin Collins, Joe O'Grady, John Finucane, Dearbhla Brosnan, Orla McDonagh, Fionnuala Moynihan, Ray Keary and the RIAM Chamber Ensemble, had an air of jolly familial celebration about it.

Sadly, though, the family community it so jauntily defined had no room for Irish composers, male or female, living or dead.