#LightsOutNI Campaign Launches

Thomas Greene reports from a galvanising public meeting in the wake of arts funding cuts in Northern Ireland

On a Wednesday evening in Belfast's Cathedral Quarter – the artistic heartland of Northern Ireland's capital city – a healthy number of arts sector workers, festival directors, local councillors and concerned members of the public meet in the Oh Yeah Music Centre to discuss the recently announced cuts to the Northern Ireland Tourist Board's annual events fund.

Following an informal gathering on Saturday afternoon in the Black Box – mainly attended by representatives of the festivals and projects most affected, including Culture Night Belfast, the Belfast Children's Festival, Out To Lunch and more – a larger, more formal congregation is arranged as a first step towards finding a solution to the heavily incapacitating withdrawal of public arts funding.

The sectoral backlash to the announcement made by NITB on Friday, October 3 has thus far been strong both online and off, and the organisers of this public meeting aim to maintain momentum and shape an organised, coherent plan of action in order to combat the measures ultimately resulting from political deadlock in Stormont.

To get the ball rolling, Chris McCreery (Chairperson at Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival) – who more or less chairs the collective discussion – begins by reiterating some fairly essential rudimentary contextual information, listing those organisations who have seen their events funding slashed by tens of thousands of pounds, in some cases – debilitating sums that may ultimately force boards to cancel large scale events altogether.

The first to speak from the several-hundred-strong audience is Adam Turkington, Culture Night Belfast manager and vocal advocate for the arts. His brief input essentially underlines the need to 'make a mark, showing that the arts [sector] is not a pushover'. He urges organisations to lobby their political representatives and follow the movement online using #LoveTheArtsNI and #LightsOutNI.

Second speaker, Kieran Gilmore, director of the Open House Festival, focusses on the wider economic impact that the withdrawal of 'this very small investment' is likely to have, going on to discuss the extensive, across-the-board ramifications of the cuts. 'This is not just an arts issue,' he argues. 'It affects all aspects of tourism in Northern Ireland.'

Mary Trainor-Nagele, chief executive of Arts & Business Northern Ireland, highlights the 'vulnerability of the arts sector' and warns that 'private businesses won’t plug the gap left by these cuts', stating that the private and public sectors must, nevertheless, collaborate to alleviate the damage caused by the cuts.

Trainor-Nagele's concerns are echoed by a number of individuals over the course of the evening. One commenter later calls for more lobbying of the DETI for a redistribution of funds to the ailing arts and culture sector in Northern Ireland, following the announcement that Invest NI, Northern Ireland's regional economic development agency, spent over £2 million over the last year on hospitality expenses alone.

Susie McCullough, director of marketing and events at NITB makes a plea for a 'permanent, proper, dedicated budget' for the arts, as opposed to a Tourism Events Fund to be secured and applied to year on year, in order to provide stability to a sector that operates on very little yet continually generates millions of pounds towards the Northern Irish economy.

The value of the arts in bringing people together 'without even trying', according to Claire Hanna, SDLP councillor for Balmoral, is an issue not neglected. Hanna points out that all of the events affected by the cuts are, by their very nature, 'shared events', and therefore vital components in the continuing fight for social unity in a country historically blighted by cultural division.

Many and various perspectives find their way into the discussion, and pragmatic strategic blueprints are prised from the hour-long session. One speaker suggests that arts sector organisations might learn from the organised Trade Union demonstrations set to take place in Belfast's Writers’ Square on October 12.

That demonstration has been organised as a response to the job losses resulting from recent governmental cuts to healthcare and public services, and there is an agreed call for unity, with a number of speakers rightly noting that the NITB cut is part of a 'wider agenda of [public services] cuts' across government.

There is a repeated urge to keep the momentum going. As suggested, collating opinions and experience of local business owners who enjoy residual benefits from arts festivals and events might prove an effective way of helping to push the campaign forward, though there remains a sense of realism throughout. There is no doubting that it will take more than protests, petitions and strong economic arguments to ensure that the situation is properly rectified.

At the end of what has been a disheartening few days for those working within the arts sector, and the many thousands of people who regularly attend arts events in Belfast, Derry~Londonderry and elsewhere across Northern Ireland, this meeting has a galvanising effect on an emerging movement that has spoken and spoken loudly. Yet there is still much to be done. As Gilmore concludes: 'This is not the end. This is only the beginning.'