Official Report (Hansard)

Session: 2008/2009

Date: Thursday, 21 May 2009

Inquiry into the Funding of the Arts

21 May 2009

Members present for all or part of the proceedings:

Mr David McNarry (Deputy Chairperson)
Mr Dominic Bradley
Mr Francie Brolly
Lord Browne
Mr Kieran McCarthy
Mr Nelson McCausland
Mr Pat Ramsey
Mr Ken Robinson
Mr Jim Shannon

Witnesses:

Mr Bobby Acheson ) Cairncastle LOL 692 Community and Cultural Group Association
Mr Adrian Rolston )

The Deputy Chairperson (Mr McNarry):

Before I invite in the first set of witnesses, members should declare any relevant interests.

Mr P Ramsey:

I am a member of Derry City Council and the Millennium Forum Theatre and Conference Centre in Derry.

Mr McCarthy:

I am a member of Ards Borough Council.

Lord Browne:

I am a member of Belfast City Council.

Mr K Robinson:

I am a member of Newtownabbey Borough Council.

Mr McCausland:

I am a member of Belfast City Council.

Mr Shannon:

I am a member of Ards Borough Council.

The Deputy Chairperson:

I welcome the representatives of Cairncastle LOL 692 Community and Cultural Group Association, and thank them for attending. Mr Bobby Acheson is the chairman and Mr Adrian Rolston is the group’s public relations officer. I understand that Bobby will make a brief opening statement — in our language that means 10 minutes — after which members will have an opportunity to ask questions.

Mr Bobby Acheson (Cairncastle LOL 692 Community and Cultural Group Association):

It is a pleasure to be here. I am simply a country guy who has never been in a place like this before, but I will do my best. I am sure that you will not put too much pressure on me.

The Cairncastle LOL 692 Community and Cultural Group Association was formed in 2000, when our Lodge was celebrating 175 years in existence. As well as being chairman of the group, I am the master of the Lodge. The members of the Lodge felt that they had missed the 150-year anniversary, which was important. Some 25 years later, we discovered that the Lodge was indeed 175 years old. We decided that we would have a small festival to celebrate the lives of members of the Lodge who had passed on to a higher place. We had six musicians, and 100 people came along to hear them. It turned out to be a terrific event, and it was attended by members of Larne Borough Council. They said that the event was really good and asked us to consider running it again the following year. We did so, and ran a two-day event that attracted more than 200 people. It developed over the next three years, and has now grown into a five-day festival. The festival has seen great growth over the five years, and I know that a couple of Committee members here have attended it.

Most people may not know where Cairncastle is. It is a small rural village four miles north of Larne. Members will know where the Ballygally Castle Hotel is; Cairncastle is one mile up from there. It is simply a wee village with three or four houses, one or two churches and a pub. We wanted to offer something to our community. Most of the people who live in our area come from an Ulster-Scots background. It is mostly a farming community — my ancestors came from Ayrshire and they were Church of Scotland ministers and United Irishmen who settled in Cairncastle and started to farm there.

We live right on the east Antrim coast. In 2005, we started to explore the feasibility of building east-west links with the west coast of Scotland. In the first year, we went to Stranraer and took part in a small music session. We have been paying for the east-west links out of our own pockets. P&O Irish Sea Ferries was the only company to come on board to help us, as it feels that east-west links are important. We found that there was a great lack of interest in the Stranraer area for the Ulster-Scots tradition.

We thought that we should look further into Ayrshire, so the following year we went to Ayr. We started slowly to build up links with the west coast of Scotland. The first time we went, 100 people came to the event that we held in a local hotel. We negotiated with the hotel, and it gave us the room free of charge. P&O also helped us. Again, however, we funded the event ourselves.

We were in Scotland two weeks ago to promote our festival and, again, we paid for that out of our own pockets. We could not get any funding for it, other than from P&O Irish Sea Ferries, which sees the potential in the east-west links for tourism.

This year we went to the Ayr County Show, which was a great success. We have formed our own local folk band, the Grouse Beaters, which is a 10-piece band made up of local lads. We played there over two days and promoted our festival. We have negotiated a deal with local hotels there for this year. However, unfortunately, some of the local hotels here do not seem interested in giving us a decent price. The Halfway House Hotel at Ballygally was prepared to do a deal with us, so we have fully booked the hotel for the Scottish visitors who will attend our festival.

We are absolutely disgusted with Larne Borough Council. Adrian, myself and two or three others have met council members over the past two or three years to ask them for some help. The council has certainly helped us with the festival, but it is not interested in the east-west links or tourism.

We are trying to develop a cross-community aspect to our festival. Thirty years ago, before the Troubles, we had great community relations with all our Catholic friends in the village where I lived. We now live in a better country, and members and musicians from both traditions come to our Orange Hall. Scotland has a different tradition to ours, and we have built up a great relationship with the people there. The guy who hosts our festival is a Celtic supporter — [Interruption.]

The Deputy Chairperson:

Do not be distracted. You have three minutes to go.

Mr Acheson:

We have built up a relationship with the people who work on the BBC programme ‘A Kist O’ Wurds’. The BBC went with us to Scotland and spent three days there. The programme will be on Radio Ulster this Sunday afternoon at 4.00 pm should members want to listen to it.

Our biggest problem is that we give up all our time voluntarily, and we are only a small group. We have been fighting for funding for a part-time worker to help us, and we have met representatives of various bodies, but we find that we cannot get any help. The Ulster-Scots Agency has been helpful. We talked to the Arts Council this year, which was the first time. We never realised that the Arts Council could fund us. Nobody seems to be able to tell us about anything that may be available. A lack of help is the main problem. Damian Smyth of the Arts Council has been helpful, and there is the possibility of a small grant from the Arts Council this year.

As I said, Larne Borough Council could be doing a lot more. That is all I have to say.

The Deputy Chairperson:

You have done very well for a wee boy from the country who is not used to this sort of thing. A number of members wish to ask questions. We are pressed for time, but that is not to say that we will neglect you in any way.

Mr McCarthy:

Thank you for attending. Comin fae tha countra masel, Ah’m sairie at ye hinnae get ocht fae onie is eens for tae eik yeez.

Did you understand that? [Laughter.]

Mr Acheson:

Yes.

Mr McCarthy:

In the area that I come from, a group of volunteers put on a week-long festival that the community is delighted with.

For some time, there was an issue with the arts establishment recognising groups that work in the unionist community. That situation must be addressed positively. How can that issue be addressed, and, bearing in mind that extra funding would be required, who is best placed to do so? You criticised Larne Borough Council, but, presumably, it has an arts officer who may be able to direct you to a source of funding.

Mr Adrian Rolston (Cairncastle LOL 692 Community and Cultural Group Association):

They have an arts officer, but funds are limited, and it was only through luck that I got on to the Arts Council for Northern Ireland, which does not seem to sell itself. We attended a number of roadshows for funding bodies, but the Arts Council has never been represented.

Mr Acheson:

From the unionist community’s perspective, finding help has been a major problem. We have developed our festival ourselves. The Ulster-Scots Agency has development workers, including a development officer for County Antrim; however, because he has been tied up with so many other projects, he has never been able to help us.

Mr McCarthy:

I am surprised to hear that, because, as I understand it, the Ulster-Scots Agency has loads of money, and, in some instances, it has been unable to spend its allocation.

Mr Rolston:

It is very hard to get money out of it.

The Deputy Chairperson:

Do you have a business plan, a vision for the future, a mission statement and a strategy?

Mr Rolston:

We have a business plan, but we have never had an opportunity to pass it on to the agency. According to its guidance, if people wish to run and event or a festival, they should complete and submit an application form.

The Deputy Chairperson:

Do members agree that it may be useful for us to look at the witnesses’ business plan if they were to forward it to us?

Members indicated assent.

Mr Shannon:

For a country boy, you have done all right today. By the way, you are among country boys, so you are in good company. There is the odd townie or two, but we will not worry about those guys.

In your submission, you said that the Ulster-Scots Agency has helped you with funding. Interestingly, you also mentioned east-west funding. I am keen to inquire into why the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure (DCAL) told you that regulations do not permit you to seek east-west funding. Have you had discussions with the Arts Council about whether it can fund east-west projects? I understand that it can, so I am interested to find out from where you got your information. You said that you had had discussions with the Arts Council, but, that sometimes you were unsure about what was available. I am interested, therefore, in whether the Arts Council’s help has been forthcoming.

You indicated that although the Ulster-Scots Agency has been helpful, there have been a number of shortfalls, one of which you mentioned when replying to the previous question. You also said that obtaining funds is a bureaucratic and difficult exercise that involves a paper mountain. Can you suggest a method whereby the application process, or the funding criteria, may be simplified in order to make funds easier to access?

Mr Acheson:

Speaking as ordinary country guys, we see great economic potential for east Antrim as a result of the east-west connection, particularly through tourism. When we came to Stormont a year ago, Edwin Poots, who was then the Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure, told us that the problem is that although the Ulster-Scots Agency can fund North/South projects, it cannot fund east-west projects.

As politicians, youse would know more, but it is related to the Belfast Agreement. It is sad that we have to pay for trips to Scotland every year out of our own pockets.

The Deputy Chairperson:

I do not want to get bogged down in ifs, buts and whys, because members want to ask questions. Although I do not want to distract the discussion from your comments, Nelson will clarify that position.

Mr McCausland:

Bobby is absolutely right. When established, the cross-border language body was given an island remit. Foras na Gaeilge was able to spend money on projects outside the island of Ireland. However, certain limits were placed on the agency, one of which was about travel. The Minister is working on that issue and is on the verge of resolving the matter.

The Deputy Chairperson:

Therefore, Bobby’s point is valid.

Mr McCausland:

Yes; it is valid.

The Deputy Chairperson:

We will underscore that point, Bobby.

Mr McCausland:

It is one of several differences between the bodies.

The Deputy Chairperson:

It is a well-made point that the Committee needs to develop and understand.

Mr Shannon:

I asked about the Arts Council, because I understand that it can provide east-west funding. I was involved in an Arts Council project that received east-west funding.

Mr Acheson:

The problem that we have as a wee group is that, truthfully, we have never known who to approach for funding. It is sad that no one has been able to advise us. One day, I suggested to Adrian that we approach the Arts Council for help, because we were getting down about the situation. I can only praise Damian Smyth; he has been absolutely fantastic. However, I am unsure whether we discussed east-west funding.

Mr Rolston:

We discussed that matter in December, and Damian was helpful and receptive to our needs. We forwarded costings for our operation to him. However, he did not communicate with us again for two months. When he did contact us again, he told us that, unfortunately, the pot from which he had planned to draw funding was no longer available. He advised us to apply to the Lottery’s Awards for All scheme for up to £10,000.

The Deputy Chairperson:

I want to ask a question about a matter that the Committee has discussed previously. It is not a planted question; it has just come into my head. We unionist members of Committee — members are respectful to each other — recently made the point that unionists seem to need to catch up as regards their position on the funding ladder, and so on. Your comments suggest that that is your experience. Do you still have difficulties? Do you still have much to discover?

Mr Acheson:

Absolutely.

Mr Rolston:

We are now on the ladder in the Arts Council. However, other similar groups have not identified that funding opportunity. The Arts Council does not sell itself; it should attend roadshows or publicise in newspapers.

The Deputy Chairperson:

That is an opinion, and I am grateful for it.

Mr Acheson:

We thought that groups such as ours could not apply to the Arts Council. Nobody told us it was possible.

Mr McCarthy:

Surely, the first point of call should be your local council, because councillors could advise you. For instance, councils have arts officers or events officers who can direct you. That is my experience with Ards Borough Council.

The Deputy Chairperson:

I want to establish the reasons for the problem that Bobby and Adrian mentioned. Several ways to address the problem exist, but the Committee should not apportion blame. The evidence is very forceful.

Mr Rolston:

To be fair, Larne Borough Council appointed a new arts officer this year, by which time we were already on the ladder.

Mr McCarthy:

Could you approach the council’s good relations officer?

Mr Acheson:

The council in our area is unionist-controlled, and I do not want to say too much. However, such bodies do not want to help wee folks on the ground.

The Deputy Chairperson:

Bobby, I assure you that there are enough people around this table who will talk to councillors in Larne Borough Council. You made the point strongly.

Lord Browne:

For a relatively small group, you have achieved a lot in delivering arts to the community. However, the clear message that is coming through is that you have found it difficult to access funding and that you need help. Has the Arts Council been helpful to your organisation? Is it difficult to work with it? Have you been successful in obtaining a grant from the Arts Council in this financial year?

Mr Rolston:

We have not been successful. We submitted an application form, and we will be advised of the outcome in July. That application form is for the Lottery’s Awards for All scheme, not the Arts Council.

The Arts Council has been more than helpful. I could not say a bad word about it.

Lord Browne:

Do you receive funding from any other agencies? If so, how does it compare?

Mr Rolston:

We receive funding from the Ulster-Scots Agency and Larne Borough Council, and we received a capital grant from the Awards for All scheme.

Lord Browne:

How does that funding compare with funding that other organisations receive, such as the Ancient Order of Hibernians? What do you think of the distribution of funding to the unionist community?

Mr Rolston:

It comes from the Ulster-Scots Agency. Therefore, I presume that it is for the Ulster-Scots groups. We do not know of any other funding that DCAL, for instance, gives to other groups.

The Deputy Chairperson:

Is it correct to say that you are cross community in what you do?

Mr Acheson:

We run soirées once a month in our Orange Hall. Any of youse are more than welcome to come and bring an instrument. We started off with three or four people. People now come from County Down, County Londonderry and all over the place. We now have 24 musicians, and they come from both traditions, which is fantastic to see.

The Deputy Chairperson:

Do you charge an entrance fee?

Mr Acheson:

No. A whole spirit is developing; there is an opening for what we do. We are rekindling things, and people are looking for something different. Tradition music —

The Deputy Chairperson:

Ken?

Mr K Robinson:

Thank you for calling me, Deputy Chairperson, but I am sorry that you stopped Bobby when he was in full flow. I have written down that he has naive enthusiasm. For me, he has encapsulated what it is all about. He is enthusiastic; he has achieved; he wants to take action. However, for some reason, the bodies that we think should be helping him — and which, presumably, think that they should be providing help — are not clicking; it is not interlocking.

The one mistake that you have made so far is to issue an open invitation to certain people to turn up. You have reduced your audience by half.

Your submission addresses the allocation of public funding to the arts. You made the case that you are, first, finding it difficult to know whether funding and help are available and, secondly, how to access that help. You have made contact with the Arts Council, and you have been supportive of the gentleman from the Arts Council who came to see you. However, funding and help are not coming through. That is what the Committee needs to be aware of.

I looked at your achievements, and, for amateurs, you are not doing badly. I attended only one of your meetings; I went to a meeting in the Halfway House Hotel, and, because the car park was so crammed, I almost parked in the tide. I have not enjoyed myself so much in years. All the talent was local. However, there was one recognisable name: Willie Drennan; I have seen him in other places. I watched from the back of the hall; I do not know whether you knew I was there. A former MLA sat with me, and we both remarked on how enjoyable the evening was and that there should be more of such entertainment.

You have brought a naive enthusiasm. You talked about the talent and entertainment that is in the unionist community. We know that it exists, but we cannot get it out; we cannot get it recognised, and we cannot help it to develop.

Rural unionist communities have been suspicious of the arts establishment, and there is a perception that they would not be accepted for what they are. What can DCAL, the Committee or the Arts Council do to change that perception?

Mr Acheson:

We had not realised that the Arts Council could fund us. We thought that the Arts Council awarded grants of £50,000, £60,000 or £100,000 and that it was interested only in the more upmarket projects, not the grass roots. We want to develop because there is great potential. Between 10 and 12 people sit on our committee, and we are farmers and ordinary guys. Some of the young guys are unemployed having lost their jobs at FG Wilson.

We are trying to help the entire community, and our strategy is to develop the group because it has unbelievable cross-community potential. You mentioned the musical evening that you attended. Some of our musicians had previously never in public, they played only at home. As you heard that evening, we have been able to develop their musical skills and form a folk band. Our strategy is one of development, but we need help on the ground, because our daily lives are tied up with work. I am strongly committed to the work of the group, but I have to look after the small business that I run at the same time.

The Deputy Chairperson:

OK, Bobby. Members, we still have a number of questions to get through. I am not putting pressure on anyone, but time is running away from us a bit.

Mr D Bradley:

Good morning. I congratulate you on the good work that you are doing under what are extremely difficult circumstances. I am interested in the east-west link. You are probably aware that down through the centuries, there has been a close link between Gaelic Ireland and Gaelic Scotland, particularly in County Antrim. Have you considered developing your project to include an element of Gaelic culture, both Irish and Scottish? If so, an organisation called the Columba Project promotes Gaelic culture and may be helpful to you.

I note that you bring tourists from Scotland to Northern Ireland. Have you approached the Northern Ireland Tourist Board to see whether it could help or support you in any way?

Mr Acheson:

I appreciate what you said about the Gaelic culture, and we have absolutely no problem with that. However, to be truthful, only a couple of us work on the east-west link. I have taken much from that link, but it is slow to develop. We need to creep before we walk, and we are still at the early stages.

The group has been going for five years now, and this year we got the big break. Until this year, we did not have a website. Adrian has some wee leaflets about the site that he can give you. If you go to the website, you will see the wee bits of work that we did in Scotland. I agree with you about the economic aspect of our work. We are considering all cross-community options, but it will take time to develop those because we are a small group. We have not closed the door to any option.

Mr D Bradley:

I suggest that you contact Malcolm Scott, who is the officer who runs the Columba Project. He may lead you in a direction that could be fruitful from a funding perspective.

Mr McCausland:

Rather than asking questions, I will save time by making only a couple of points to supplement what has been said. An important point was made about the Arts Council. Damian Smyth is, in many ways, a breath of fresh air in the council. As I said before, in the past, some officers in the Arts Council virtually denied the existence of Ulster Scots. From their perspective, as people involved in Ulster Scots did not exist, they could not deal with us.

As for the support that is available to groups, the Ulster-Scots Agency has four development workers, as has the Ulster-Scots Community Network. There are now, therefore, a total of eight, which was reached only in the past couple of months. However, those eight development workers cover the nine counties of Ulster. The small number of workers explains why they are stretched to the limit.

The point about east-west travel has already been addressed. To pick up on Dominic’s point about the east-west links, the Columba Project is, as he said, a Gaelic programme. A tenuous proposal has been put forward for an equivalent Ulster-Scots body that would facilitate east-west relationships. However, at the time that the Columba Project was established, there was no equivalent. The difficulty is that Governments set up initiatives that are for one community, but not necessarily for the other.

The Deputy Chairperson:

Thank you for those points and that information. I remind our guests that this session is recorded by Hansard, so everything that you say will be used in evidence against you. [Laughter.]

You may request a copy of the Hansard report, and I recommend that you do so to enable you to read what you have said and the comments of the members.

Mr P Ramsey:

You are both very welcome this morning. For such a “naive” organisation, as Ken described you, you present a good, substantial document. I thank and commend you for it.

The Committee is considering the funding of the arts, how it can best be used and the contribution that arts can make to communities. I take the point that the Deputy Chairperson made about the method and distribution of money not reaching unionist communities. If that is the case, this Committee, which scrutinises the Department, should be examining that issue. As a Catholic nationalist, I am saying that if that is the case, it is wrong and we should be doing something about it. Having said that, you are doing tremendous work and you have the passion and enthusiasm that so many others have.

We are trying to get quantitative evidence that demonstrates that putting more money into the arts can be beneficial for social cohesion and bringing communities together. It can also help the economy, and you referred to the fact that tourists are coming across from Scotland. What difference would it make to your organisation if you had someone on board specifically to manage your project, and what additional outreach work could you do?

Mr Acheson:

We want to develop a lot of projects and go into all the local schools with musical projects. As members know, we live on the periphery of Larne, a town that has had a difficult time during the Troubles with loyalist paramilitaries. We are trying to address that. We feel that music unites everyone.

Highland dancing has recently started in our Orange Hall, and people from both traditions attend, which is fantastic. Young mothers come on Saturday mornings to the Orange Hall, and they can have a cup of tea upstairs and meet each other. That area has no facilities, and we are offering a facility for our community. As our main project, we want to bring music into the local schools. We feel that that would be good for the Larne area, because there is nothing for young people in our area to get involved in. Young people have such skills.

Mr P Ramsey:

Are you referring to young people who do not have access to musical instruments or the opportunity to participate in music projects?

Mr Acheson:

Yes. They need to be able to improve their skills.

Mr Rolston:

From an economic perspective, we want to establish an Ulster-Scots music centre that will create employment and encourage tourism.

Mr Brolly:

For me, asking a question would be inadequate. I want to sit down with the witnesses and have a good chat. It rings so many bells with me.

The Deputy Chairperson:

You can arrange that after the meeting.

Mr Brolly:

You said that, until recently, the Arts Council was fundamentally away up there in the ether and that you did not think that you had access to it. I have complained about that. The Arts Council should be coming to you. There is a huge lack of interest in cultural projects that take place at grass-roots level.

The Deputy Chairperson:

OK. We need a question now, Francie.

Mr Brolly:

I would nearly have a million questions, David.

Now that you have attended the Committee meeting, how do you think that we could help you through all those difficulties? How can the Committee help you to get to the Arts Council?

Like so many other organisations, you work on a cross-community basis. However, you will have the devil’s job trying to persuade funders that you are a cross-community organisation. Indeed, funders often use that issue as an easy way to get an organisation off the list and they then give the funding to another group. Some funders require organisations to be cross-community. As an Orange Lodge, they may say that you are not considered to be cross-community — end of story. You need to push very hard to bring it to people’s attention that you are a cross-community organisation.

That happens on both sides of the divide, and it would be useful for your organisation and other community groups to make it known that you operate on a cross-community basis. That would also have an effect on society in general and impact on the social cohesion that everyone wants. Of all the groups that have attended during this inquiry, you have contributed most to the feelings that I have on the matter. I do not have a question.

Mr Shannon:

He had a million questions and now he has none. [Laughter.]

Mr Acheson:

I thank Francie for making those points. We are Cairncastle LOL 692 Community and Cultural Group Association, and that name is very important. A lot of groups may feel that they cannot use, or have no right, to use such a name. However, in today’s society, it is important that you are what you are. People will respect others for being what they are and for not hiding anything.

The Deputy Chairperson:

That is a good point.

Mr Acheson:

We had success in that regard, perhaps not from funding bodies, but from ordinary people on the ground. What we are doing is unique. Adrian has suggested reconsidering our name, but I refuse; if our name was changed, I would walk away. It is important that everyone has their own tradition and that we are able to air our traditions.

We are just country folk who are trying to find our way. We need an organisation such as the Arts Council to work with us, advise us and point us in the right direction. You are in a job, we are in a job, and we have little spare time. We can either go backwards or forwards, but we want to go forwards.

We have found that what we do brings enjoyment to people’s lives. Ken Robinson came to a soirée that we had to launch the first ever DVD of our festival. The enjoyment that our organisation brings to people could be seen on their faces at that event. Another guy who came to that soirée owns a transport company and is connected to Liam Neeson, the actor from Ballymena. That guy had a major problem and was very concerned mentally, but he finds therapy in the music sessions and says that it is the first thing that has ever helped him.

The Deputy Chairperson:

Thank you very much. We all enjoyed the evidence session and took it seriously. Country boy or not, you have made an impression. You have now done the country boy bit, so we will not wear it the next time. [Laughter.]

Regardless of whether Simon Cowell knows about you or not, Cairncastle has got talent. You must continue to do what you are doing. We might need some further information from you, and the Committee staff will follow that up. Thank you very much indeed

Find Your MLA

Locate your local MLA

Find MLA

News and Media Centre

Read press releases, watch live and archived video.

Find out more

Follow the Assembly

Keep up to date with what's happening at the Assembly.

Find out more

Subscribe

Enter your email address to keep up to date

Sign up