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Una Mullally: A plan for the arts? Sure that would be a huge job...

Government’s inaction that is actively damaging the industry is unacceptable

It’s clear that Catherine Martin is trying, and there are obviously other political forces at play that see Green Party Ministers disregarded. Photograph: Tom Honan

A few years ago, I was living in a part of Dublin city centre where new cafes, bars and restaurants were opening every other week. Unfortunately, this boom in hospitality openings posed some infrastructural issues, especially with electricity supply.

If you’ve never experienced the tedium of rolling blackouts in Ireland, don’t worry, there may be plenty of opportunities this winter, when power shortages are threatened as a consequence of the Government’s mysterious love affair with energy-sucking data centres.

Anyway, on the second or third day of a particularly bad week when the electricity was going for hours at a time throughout the day, making it very difficult for me to work from home, I rang the helpline for some answers. The woman I got through to understood the issue. She was hearing about it often and was aware of these rolling power cuts. Excellent, I thought, someone who knows what’s happening and can therefore address it.

The electricity supply constantly failing, she said, was because the system in the area was overwhelmed with all the new demands from restaurants and all the new connections and so on. The infrastructure was very old in this part of town, she said, and therefore, it just couldn’t cope with the demand. There were too many faults, too many creaking parts, too many points where things were breaking down, too many repairs needed. Right, I said, and has anyone considered actually addressing that? There was a pause on the line.


“Sure that’d be a huge job,” she said.

I found myself thinking about this exchange last week, when Catherine Martin found herself rebuffed by her Cabinet colleagues, who not only won’t make a decision on when Ireland’s huge arts and culture sectors will get back to work in a real way, but will even pass the buck into the ether on a decision about a proposed plan for the future. Just a plan! Sure that’d be a huge job.

The paralysis from Government about the lives, purpose, income, livelihoods and futures of tens of thousands of people who work directly in these sectors loosely characterised as “live events” is unacceptable. And added to those employed directly are the vast array of people who work indirectly with or alongside these sectors, from food and drink entrepreneurs, to journalists, to transport companies, to security, to artists at the core of all of it, to the hundreds of thousands of audience members waiting for their social lives and the things that enrich their lives to return. And yet, given the opportunity to plot a path forward, the Government has dawdled, bundled, shrugged, spoofed, and faffed around. Big job. Too hard. No ideas.

Will we see some more clarity in the latest reopening plan coming shortly? That remains to be seen. One can only deduce, given the disrespect shown to Martin, given how she is presented with roadblocks instead of agreements on roadmaps, that the Government simply does not care about the cultural, creative, and artistic industries and sectors on this island. If it did, we wouldn’t be here. Ministers would have done something tangible, and people would be planning for the future. But no. Other industries and sectors got answers and plans, and live events didn’t. It’s not a priority for the Government. They don’t care.

There was, to be fair, a welcome and substantial increase in arts funding that has allowed people to make work and plan subsidised socially distanced events. But continuing to keep people in a futureless holding pattern will cost careers. The Government’s inaction is actively damaging the industry. The aura of hostility towards live art and people’s social lives is bizarre.

The Government, it seems doesn’t think this stuff matters. And that’s a point of view we need to accept as one that exists, rather than one that is acceptable in any way. The Government’s lack of appreciation for what is many people’s life’s purpose – for how valuable things are like community, gathering, carving out creative lives, experiences, socialising, the intangible value of engaging with live art, the inspiration, the therapeutic release, the point of living itself – is not a once-off brush-off.

It all comes on the back of a post-crash society being designed where amenities are sidelined, cultural venues are demolished, and where artists and others have been trying to navigate a collective mental health crisis created by the relentless pressure caused by the housing and rental disaster caused by Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil. What people are feeling is the accumulated effect of a sentiment that their work is not important, that their livelihoods don’t matter and that this isn’t a country in which they can thrive. So go somewhere else, or get a “real job”. That’s the sentiment. That’s the feeling.

At the start of the summer, I don’t think anyone expected a big-bang return to live events and live art. But people just wanted a plan. Now the summer is over. So many opportunities have been lost. It’s clear that the Minister herself is trying, and there are obviously other political forces at play that see Green Party Ministers disregarded. But whatever happens next, this appalling phase will not be forgotten by the sector and those who orbit it. The thing is, the top brass in Government would act, if they believed the sectors were politically relevant to them. The only thing for the sectors to do now, is to organise, and make the Government regret that assumption.