The chief executive of the British Council manages an annual income of £980 million, juggling projects which range from helping Nigerians improve their policing methods to touring the work of Turner prize-winner Grayson Perry in Turkey. Since it was founded in 1934, the UK's cultural relations organisation has expanded to include some 200 offices in 100 countries – and at the helm of this massive "soft-power" behemoth is an Irishman.
“Born in Holles Street, just down the road,” Sir Ciarán Devane confirms, offering a potted CV as he nods towards the window of the council’s modest office on Mount Street. “Grew up in Coolock. Went to Choláiste Mhuire on Parnell Square, so I’m a Gaeilgeoir. Both my parents are from Dingle. My mother’s a Moriarty; Mícheál Ó Muircheartaigh is her brother.”
Devane took up the post of chief executive at the British Council in January 2015. How does he get his head around the vast array of activities under his supervision? “You don’t pretend you know more than the people you’re dealing with,” he says. “We have these amazing people doing amazing things in amazing places. All I can do is help them do their job better – whether it’s art or post-conflict resolution.”
Having studied biochemical engineering in UCD, Devane left Ireland for the UK in 1984. He worked with ICI, then went into management consulting. But he was always, he says, “a person who read the international pages of the newspaper”. After taking a masters in international policy in the US, he spent eight years at the helm of Macmillan Cancer Support, the UK’s equivalent of the Irish Cancer Society, earning himself a knighthood in the process.
Devane is in Ireland for the opening of the exhibition In Sense of Place at Highlanes Gallery in Drogheda. A selection of work from Drogheda's municipal art collection and the British Council collection, the show has been curated by secondary students from Drogheda schools – and this, as he is at pains to emphasise, is not any kind of gimmicky add-on but the central point of the exercise.
Working with the council's Irish director Alf Desire, four galleries in Ireland have been taking part in a project called Perspectives. Each approached the council's massive collection of visual art in its own, quite distinctive, way. Glebe House and Gallery in Letterkenny, Co Donegal, went the quirky route with its Babe Rainbow show, built around such artists as Tracey Emin and Damien Hirst; The Model in Sligo dug deep into Irish history and the history of art practice with Ghosts of Other Stories. Limerick City Gallery will have its turn in February 2017.
For In Sense of Place, Highlanes gave fifth-year art students from St Oliver's Community College and Our Lady's College, Greenhills, the chance to get up close and personal with the work of Turner prize-winners Gillian Wearing, Richard Long, Tony Cragg and Jeremy Deller. Not only did the students select the artworks for the show, they were also involved with the installation, marketing and social media aspects of putting on an exhibition.
“The work of the council is about building relationships,” Devane says. “One of the Drogheda students said it’s the most important thing that has happened in her life – so, down the track, there’s somebody in Drogheda who has a different view of art, of culture, of ‘Britain’ than they would have if we hadn’t done that project.”
If Devane weren’t in Dublin today, he adds, he might be in Hammamet, in Tunisia, where the British Council is bringing together young people from North Africa and the UK to discuss such topics as whether their region needs a free-trade area. His last long trip was to Lebanon and Jordan, where they’re working with about 4,000 young people from Syria to build inter-community understanding. “We’re trying to get ready for the day when peace will arrive. Because one thing we know is that peace will arrive. We don’t know when, but it will.”
The council is at its best, he says, when it operates in a sustained way over a long period of time. “When you have relationships it’s easier to have the next programme or project. That work on police stations in Nigeria, and there’s another project we’re doing in north-eastern Nigeria – which is Boko Haram territory – the reason we can do those is that we’ve been there a long time. People know us. They trust us. We didn’t come in on the last train, and we didn’t come in on the last contract.”
The British Council was set up in 1934 as part of the foreign office. In 1940 it was reconstituted as a charity. “The idea was to use the resources of the country to create ‘friendly knowledge and understanding between people’,” Devane says. “What they were concerned about was ‘the annihilation of distance’ – which, today, we’d probably call globalisation. In the very early days, in Cairo and Bogota just after the war, it was really about countering fascism. For example, the council set up a school in Madrid so the opponents of Franco would have somewhere to send their kids safely.”
Does being Irish give Devane a different perspective on the council’s core principles to that of his colleagues? Not really, he says, because being an immigrant, he’s both Irish and British. And when the British Council talks about “the UK”, it means “the UK as it really is”. “It’s not just the red buses and the Beefeaters and the Tower of London. It’s the four governments. It’s all the communities. There are half a million Irish people in the UK, and we’re part of what makes the UK what it is – as are the Indian diaspora and the Polish diaspora.
“It’s a very mixed society. It hasn’t changed fundamentally. The UK on the 25th of June is broadly is the same as it was on the 24th of June. The UK didn’t really change overnight as the result of a vote.”
Which brings us to the big, B-shaped elephant in the room. Isn’t he depressed by Brexit and its aftermath? “What intrigues and concerns me is not necessarily the vote itself – it’s the causes of the vote,” he says. “The borough that I live in in London voted 80 per cent Remain – but the majority of people my age voted Leave. And for multiple reasons. One person I know voted Leave because they object to the Common Agricultural Policy, and the fact that African farmers can’t access European markets.
“And then there are people who have been left behind by globalisation, whether that’s in the American mid-west or rural England or Austria.” When Devane moved to the UK in 1984, he recalls, there were five flights a day connecting Teeside airport with Heathrow. “Today there are no flights from Teeside airport to Heathrow. The people in Teeside have seen their industries fade away. So if you’re in that community and globalisation hasn’t worked for you, then you’re pushing back. You’re protesting. That’s democracy. But if, out of that, comes tension or conflict between communities – or if respect for other people erodes . . .”
In the unspoken end to that sentence lurks all the negative potential of a world dominated by populist propaganda. There is now, Devane insists, more need than ever for the council’s quiet brand of cultural diplomacy – to speak to the people of Teeside as much as those in the Middle East, China and Africa. “It’s not about projection. It’s not: ‘Let us bring this theatre company in, to show you how wonderful it is’. It’s about opening doors, talking to people, connecting people. If people have a relationship, then propaganda won’t work.”
In Sense of Place is at the Highlanes Gallery, Drogheda, Co Louth, until January 28th. The exhibition at Limerick City Gallery opens February 9th. Items from Limerick and Drogheda's own collections, as well as Glebe House and Gallery, Letterkenny, and The Model, Sligo, will be on display at the British Council, Spring Gardens, London until January 13th.