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Jennifer O’Connell: The scramble to save Electric Picnic is embarrassing

Arts sector has been ignored by cowardly Government afraid to make tough decisions

Music fans at the Electric Picnic festival in 2017: It is clear that, as far as many in the Government are concerned, Irish culture begins and ends at Croke Park. Photograph: Niall Carson/PA

Here's your 2021 Electric Picnic checklist. One tent, one portable phone charger, multipack of baby wipes, one statutory instrument extending the Covid pass requirements to outdoor events, two ministerial orders designating the festival a pilot event and bypassing the mandatory 13-week notice period to Laois County Council, a consultation with the Attorney General, and a modicum of ambition by the Government.

Or as a few wags on Twitter suggested, you could just have put the Laois senior hurling team on the main stage, called it a GAA event, and thrown the gates open to 40,000 people. Vaccines optional.

GAA exceptionalism – visible again last Sunday as fans jammed the stands in Croke Park while the live events industry was left languishing at home with platitudes about how everyone “sees the urgency” of allowing the sector to restart – is nothing new. Cast your mind back to last summer and the insistence that the inter-county championships must go ahead to “lift the spirits of the nation”. Or the repeated inferences that breaches of guidelines and outbreaks linked to GAA celebrations were not proper breaches or outbreaks – not like the breaches or outbreaks caused by teenagers or the office workers filling Dublin car parks despite being told to work from home, or any of the other regular targets of National Public Health Emergency Team (Nphet) ire.

It is now clear that, as far as many in Government are concerned, Irish culture begins and ends at Croke Park. As the summer winds to a close with no plan in place for the reopening of the arts and live events sector, it was inevitable that the Electric Picnic fiasco would offer a lightning rod for the frustrations of those who have been left without employment or a roadmap, not to mention the frustrations of those of us who prefer cavorting in a field to watching 30 adults chase a ball around one.


Nphet back seat

But it was also interesting for what it revealed about the paralysis in the Government when it comes to making hard decisions. Sources have been briefing journalists about how the intention is for Nphet to take a back seat now that we’re entering a new phase of the pandemic, which would be all very well if the Government didn’t seem to have forgotten how to drive.

It was inevitable the Electric Picnic fiasco would offer a lightning rod for the frustrations of those who have been left without employment or a roadmap

The 11th-hour scramble to save the picnic – which was really an 11th-hour scramble to be seen to be making a last-ditch attempt at a final gasp to save it, ideally hoping to salvage a noble failure out of the shambles – was disingenuous and embarrassing. The Government blamed Laois County Council. Laois County Council blamed the Government. As Ministers prepared to meet on Friday to look at easing restrictions, the person with the power to amend the regulations without Oireachtas approval, Minister for Housing Darragh O'Brien, offered a non-committal "it would arguably be difficult to justify amending the regulations and to vary the current timeline provisions for the purpose of one specific event". This, presumably, is the policymaker's equivalent of "computer says no".

The truth is there was no real appetite in Government or Laois County Council for the event to go ahead. But nobody wanted to be responsible for tolling its death knell either and, for once, Nphet wasn't willing to take this one for the team. Earlier in the week, chief medical officer Dr Tony Holohan said he would not have concerns about an outdoor event on that scale for the fully vaccinated. That should have been a cue to Government that its strategy of winding down the clock wasn't going to work, and it better start looking at ways to make the festival happen, or coming up with good reasons why it couldn't. But the Government is still scarred and risk-averse after the experience of last Christmas, and Laois County Council is understandably worried about the possibility of a local surge. Fair enough – this isn't Garth Brooks 2.0. Every decision about reopening while the virus still rages has real consequences and requires careful deliberation.

Passing the buck

But is our government so out of practice at governing that it couldn't foresee how the juxtaposition of the All-Ireland going ahead while the fate of Electric Picnic still hung in the balance would look? Or have our policymakers become so used to passing the buck to Holohan they've forgotten how to make decisions by themselves? Denied the opportunity to blame Nphet for this one, Tanáiste Leo Varadkar tellingly reached for the next best thing – he said he'd ask the Attorney General.

Have our policymakers become so used to passing the buck to Holohan they've forgotten how to make decisions by themselves?

Meanwhile, the one Minister who appears genuinely invested in the survival of arts and live entertainment, Minister for Arts Catherine Martin, was excluded from key meetings about easing restrictions. On Thursday, she told Government figures that waiting for vaccination levels among the over-16s to reach 90 per cent, as Nphet has advised, would lead to an unacceptable delay to the reopening of the sector. The optics of her exclusion confirmed what those radio ads have been saying all week: the sector has been forgotten – and so have all the jobs, careers, incomes, livelihoods and individuals' sense of purpose and mental wellbeing wrapped up in it. The Government is refusing to grasp the most basic facts about how the events industry operates. You can't pull a large-scale music festival or even a modest play in a local theatre out of your hat in six months, let alone in less than a month. In this case, of course, that's probably what Ministers were banking on.

Whether or not you were invested in this particular festival – the future of which was still unclear at the time of writing – the fiasco revealed the Government might want to be seen to have wrested back control from Nphet, but many would really still prefer someone else was making the tough decisions.