The widening gyre

WE talk a lot about culture in Ireland, there are even those who believe we are engaged in a culture war over the future of the place, but the sad reality is that the arts are neglected and abused. They have been a political football since partition when Stormont set out to starve all things Irish of funding forcing the language and the harp into a hidden Ulster. All things British were considered best for an Anglo-Saxon folk. Across the border there was state support only for authorised aspects of Irish culture. All things Gaelic were considered best for a Celtic people.

But things have been changing. In today’s Republic artists enjoy tax privileges which have attracted many talented people from overseas and Aosdána provides a pension for the most gifted Irish artists. There is greater recognition for artists from an Anglo-Irish background and a deeply conservative Catholic Church has lost its moral authority to dictate what is wholesome to a liberal and tolerant people. The days have gone when novelist Elizabeth Bowen complained that she only felt at home on the Liverpool boat – in Ireland she was considered British and in Britain they called her Irish – and writers like James Joyce and John McGahern had their work banned. The Arts Council has a budget of £112 million. It is generous in comparison to the budget for Creative Scotland which is £63 million this year after Holyrood abandoned cuts in the face of protests from actors, musicians and writers.

Things have changed in Northern Ireland too where the concept of parity of esteem demands Gaelic language and culture be given the respect they deserve, though there will always be flag-waving fools who have only contempt for ‘leprechaun language and diddly-dee music.’  The Irish Language Act, finally introduced by Westminster in 2022, remains a difficult pill for loyalists to swallow and the search continues for somebody willing to fill the role of language commissioner. But at least we are moving forward. The difference is Northern Ireland’s cultural scene is facing financial crisis.

The Arts Council has warned it will lose around 10% of its £13 million budget and up to 100 organisations will have to make cut-backs. This comes after a long period of shut-down for performers and while political debate is stifled. It is part of a cynical attempt by a ruthless British government to force the Democratic Unionist Party back into power sharing and end its rejection of the Windsor Protocol which seeks to resolve the difficulties created by a hard Brexit.

The arts scene in Northern Ireland covers a full spectrum from the Ulster Orchestra to punk rock, sculpture to crafts, theatre to film-making, dance, language and literature. Artists tell our story to the world, demonstrate a great diversity of talent and a rich heritage. To starve them of funding is a slap in the face. But it is also economic myopia. The creative sector plays an increasingly important part in generating opportunity, jobs and wealth. As a tour bus guide in Belfast I found the most popular attractions to be the Titanic Centre and Bobby Sands Mural on the Falls but people from all over the world were equally fascinated by the cultural legacy of the Shankill Road and East Belfast – Harry Patterson’s novels and Van Morrison’s music.

But the state of the arts is only one example of a widening gyre. Health, education, infrastructure and economic investment are also facing crisis in the north. By any standard the republic of Ireland is now a more prosperous and progressive society and there is no sign of this trend changing anytime soon. In May, Alan Barrett, director of the independent Economic and Social Research Institute in Dublin gave the Irish parliament a frank outline of how the economies of Ireland, North and south, have performed since the Good Friday Agreement in 1998. He did not miss and hit the wall.

Gross national income per head in the republic is a staggering 51% higher than the equivalent in the north and disposal household income south of the border is some 12% higher despite higher prices in the shops. Productivity in the republic is around 40% higher than the north. The proportion of people at risk of falling into poverty is greater in the north, the number leaving school early is higher and life expectancy is shorter. If partition was an economic experiment designed to run for 100 years there is no question that the people of the south have emerged as clear winners and the people of the north are losers.

If people voted solely on economic prospects then Irish Unity would be a certainty at the next opportunity the question is put to the test. The deepening gulf may worry and influence some who occupy the middle ground in the north but Irish politics is never that simple. Identity matters to thousands of British northerners who will never be swayed by the financial arguments no matter how impoverished they become under a regime at Westminster which promises ‘levelling up’ but delivers budget cuts. The same can be said for the south. Even when the Free State was an economic basket case in the 1950s there was never a chance that the majority would vote to re-join the United Kingdom just to put more money in their pockets. National pride and sense of identity were more important.

The Good Friday Agreement and the Windsor Protocol are designed to provide an alternative solution. Self-government and legal recognition for all identities and cultures, an opportunity for both parts of Ireland to enjoy the economic gains of the Single European Market without the trauma constitutional change would bring to these islands. It is shameful that a minority in the north have a veto over progress and care nothing for the impoverishing of their fellow citizens in a game of bluff with the British government.

They are turning in a widening gyre, playing a game they cannot win.

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