Miriam Lord: Varadkar and Martin in harmony over RTÉ orchestras

Fianna Fáil leader urges Taoiseach to strike supportive note about ‘national treasure’

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar said he would not like to see any of Creative Ireland’s money going on the RTÉ orchestras. Photograph: Dáil/PA Wire

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar said he would not like to see any of Creative Ireland’s money going on the RTÉ orchestras. Photograph: Dáil/PA Wire


It was questions on defence yesterday.

Opposition TDs missed a sitter when Paul Kehoe wandered into range to take them.

It’s not that the super-junior Minister of State with responsibility for defence (he’s really in charge of the Department, even though the Taoiseach is the titular Minister) intended putting himself up for target practice.

His boss did that for him.

But, in the event, Paul’s opponents fluffed the opportunity. They failed to notice that Leo had just killed off the Army band. In fact, he bumped off all three Army bands without as much as an apology. The news will come as a surprise to the proud men and women of the Army No 1 band, the Band of the 1st Brigade and the Band of the 2nd Brigade as they tune up their instruments this morning, but thank you for the music anyway.

It was great while it lasted.

Events took a musical turn during Leaders’ Questions when the Fianna Fáil leader raised the fraught question of the fate of Ireland’s two publicly-funded orchestras – RTÉ’s National Symphony Orchestra and Concert Orchestra. They are “a national treasure” said Micheál Martin, pleading with the Taoiseach to ensure they would not “become a victim in the ongoing tug of war between RTÉ and Government vis-a-vis the licence fee”.

Leo assured Micheál that they are both in tempo on this issue. He too knows the score. The two men are pootering along nicely again after the whistleblower email eruptions threatened to bring down their government arrangement. Things have settled down now following a thrilling week spent swapping green jerseys and facing down the worst of Britain’s Brexit posturers.

Supply and Confidence, Leo?

You play it, Micheál, and I’ll hum it.

In tune

In tune, yesterday, but not totally.

“I very much share your sentiments in relation to the orchestras and I, for one, would not like to see one of them being lost or the two of them being merged,” Varadkar assured Martin.

If only he were Taoiseach, he could really do something to make sure this doesn’t happen.

But Leo is very much across this whole issue.

“I read a letter in the newspaper the other day – I cannot remember who wrote it – but it pointed out that Finland, a similar sized country to ours, has many orchestras. We only have two.”

We can help Leo out there. The letter in question was printed in The Irish Times last month. It was from John Kinsella, former head of music in RTÉ, and began with this captivating opening paragraph:

“Sir – Being 85½ years of age gives one a certain perspective and I am not yet totally gaga, thank God, having recently completed my 11th symphony.”

Our Taoiseach, meanwhile, is still at the overture stage. But he could turn out to be a wonderful performer – a national treasure, even, if he hits the right notes in his career.

Here’s how John, definitely not gaga, finished his message: “There are currently 30 professional symphony orchestras in Finland.

“Shame on us for fumbling around about two orchestras! Will we never, as a nation, loosen up and celebrate the glories and wonder and joy and healing powers of great art music?

“Isn’t it about time that we grew up when it comes to classical music?”

Micheál Martin was singing John’s song. To be fair, Labour’s Joan Burton has been singing it for some time now, repeatedly asking in the Dáil about the future of the orchestras. She will be pleased that Micheál has now joined in the chorus.

The Taoiseach is not unaware of the precarious situation facing musicians.

“People would know in the past that the Army had bands and orchestras – it doesn’t any more. So we have only two [orchestras] at the moment and I, for one, would certainly like to see the both retained and I want to see both prospering.”

The calls for something to be done to ensure these institutions are not further weakened has reached a crescendo with RTÉ’s intention to “review” the two orchestras in light of its dire financial circumstances. They are already short 30 musicians and more are set to go.

Micheál insisted the Government should ring-fence funding for the orchestras, even if this required money from outside licence fee revenue. They are “the jewel in the crown of Irish cultural life”.

The Taoiseach was proving himself adept at playing more than one tune. While he truly wants to see the two orchestras in full harmonious flight, he also does not want to see the licence fee increased to pay for it.

RTÉ gets enough money as it is, was Leo’s view. They should pay for the upkeep of the orchestras from existing funds.

Is that fair? Why, wondered the Fianna Fáil leader, should the musicians be penalised because of “RTÉ’s genuine financial difficulties?” That’s an issue for discussion on another day, he told the Taoiseach, as they felt a chill in the upper echelons of Montrose.

Leo said he would most definitely instruct his two Ministers who have “some” responsibility for the orchestras to get together and have a duet on how they might secure proper funding for the symphony and chamber orchestras.

But it all seemed a bit up in the air.

Creative Ireland

Micheál Martin had sound idea. What about this “Creative Ireland” project that the Taoiseach and his Ministers are showcasing at a terrific rate wherever a photo op presents itself?

Look at its budget, he marvelled. His own party ascertained through freedom-of-information requests that “of the € 5 million allocated to Creative Ireland last year, almost a million was allocated to citizen engagement”.

“What is that about?” he asked, not unreasonably.

He said € 1.5 million was spent on newspaper supplements and digital campaigns in what seemed “a very determined effort to keep the media on side by doshing out lots of advertising.”

We’re not complaining.

“The orchestra could have done with that € 1.5 million. Let us at least support that which has depth, solidity and tradition.”

Steady on, Micheál.

Leo let him have his little rant. But said he would not like to see any of Creative Ireland’s money going on the orchestras.

According to its website, the “Creative Ireland Programme is an invitation to the entire country to get involved in something truly inspirational.”

It has five pillars.

String, woodwind, brass, percussion and, er, spin. (Actually, the first four aren’t that important.)

The marketing dynamo behind Creative Ireland was John Concannon, who has since been headhunted to lead Leo’s new strategic communications unit (SCU).

“It is a high-level, high-ambition, all-of-government initiative to mainstream creativity in the life of the nation so that individually and collectively, in our personal lives and in our institutions, we can realise our full creative potential.”

Or in the case of the SCU, Fine Gael’s full political potential.