Greetings from the North – Maria McManus on the NI art cuts

Here’s ‘the bars’ as we say up here. It’s a funny old time, in an absurd and cranky corner of the island.

Let me attempt to explain what is going on.

Yesterday on the BBC website we had the news that our Arts Council were angry and frustrated at having to pass on £1.38 Million pounds of cuts to the arts sector in the North. We knew we had it coming. In spite of the campaign and petitions against cuts being 23, 000 strong, we might as well have been whistling Dixie.

With two weeks notice, we learned what this means for us in real terms. Choke on this – it means 100% cuts in funding for several organisations, 44% cuts for others. There is a hefty slant in the cuts against literature. To illustrate further, we lose our only cross-sector theatre dramaturg. Her job disappears and with it the infrastructure which has supported new writers, new writing and all that feisty stuff we have been seeing on the stage up here, also disappears. Two theatre companies lose 44% funding and another has lost 100% of its grant. Guildhall Press lost its grant, as did Blackstaff Press. The jobs of those at Culture NI go too…. the whole organisation will obliterated at the end of this financial year (31 March for us Nordies), as absolutely and efficiently as Scotland playing Ireland’s women in the rubgy Six Nations.

Bizarrely for such drastic times, there were announcements of new funding and increases for a chosen few – Opera Northern Ireland and organisations working in east Belfast for example…. but let’s not get too distracted by that. What we need in the arts up here is that all ships float. I don’t begrudge any of them their funding.

In other news, the next story up on the BBC website (Cheek by jowl, I tell you. No kidding.) was that our current Chief Constable of the PSNI was defending a £14M underspend in policing. YES! That’s more than 10 X TIMES the amount cut from the arts…….underspent in policing. The money we are told go back to the ‘Executive’ at Stormont.

In case you are wondering who the Executive are, it is a pity you weren’t at the
Ulster Hall on Tuesday night. Michael Longley was given freedom of Belfast, by Belfast City Council. Politicians from both local government and the Executive were, according to my source, hoovering up canapés and drinks and remarking that Michael D was a poet too, don’t you know…. as well as a president. Fancy that.

Today the news on the BBC is all about letters and amnesty for ‘On the runs’, Shinner’s taking the Queen’s pardon and it is the quotidian feeding frenzy of everyday bigotry. It is much too boring for me to explain that. Look that bit up for yourself if you must. I tell you this so you know what the politicians have to compete for their attention. There has also been a massive seizure of Skunk weed. I am saying nothing more about that.

Last night the Belfast City Council rented the Waterfront Hall (a public space) to 2000 Christians so they could show their solidarity to a bakery. Asher’s bakery refused to bake and supply a cake for a gay rights campaign group Queerspace on the grounds that it is against their morals to do so. The City Council (there to represent us all) gets a snippy £6.5k + VAT for that rental, I am told.

Cake-Gate rumbles on. 148000 people signed a petition against the ‘Conscience Clause Bill’ which the DUP is pushing to enshrine such bigotry and prejudice in our legislation (yes….. at the Executive). The legal challenge against the bakery, led by the Equality Commission is due in court later this week.

This is the face of plurality, inclusion, diversity and equality in the North just now. This is the sober, drug-free, head-wrecking mess of priorities and political choices. The Arts are a being silenced, and annihilated. What passes for democracy and austerity is killing off the very things are alive, healthy, progressive. This is what we are up against.

Christoff Gillen hasn’t yet made it onto the BBC website, but any minute now he just might. Christoff, a performance artist, is being fined by the Belfast City Council, for writing the word LOVE in chalk, over and over again, on the footpath outside City Hall. The on the spot fine was for £80. He is refusing to pay. The fine might escalate to £2500 for non-payment. He won’t pay that either. He wants his day in court.

Maybe what we need is a minimum of 23,000 of us out on the streets with chalk in our hands, writing LOVE, LOVE, LOVE LOVE……..Maybe artists could help the PSNI out of a hole with the £14M underspend before the end of the financial year…… and give the Belfast City Council something else to do for income generation….. Let’s see 23000 people at a minimum of £80 per fine, plus the £6.5k or so income from the objecting group hiring out the Waterfront…. Or can we make Christoff Gillen the new Chief Constable before next Tuesday and then he’d be able to spend that fourteen million quid on love and art and gay cakes?

It’s absurd up here. It’s cranky. It’s happening for us. It’s real. It’s present. It’s now. It’s a bad sick joke for April 1st and it’s just not funny.

It might be infectious. The border is porous.

Watch it.