Official Report (Hansard)

Session: 2007/2008

Date: 29 May 2008

Ulster Historical Foundation

29 May 2008

Members present for all or part of the proceedings:
Mr Barry McElduff (Chairperson)
Mr Dominic Bradley
Mr Francie Brolly
The Lord Browne
Mr Kieran McCarthy
Mr Jim Shannon

Witnesses:
Mr Colin Watson Ulster Historical Foundation

The Chairperson (Mr McElduff):
I welcome Mr Colin Watson to the Committee meeting. He is head of museums branch in the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure (DCAL). The discussion will focus on the Ulster Historical Foundation (UHF). I refer members to the email dated 9 May from the foundation, which outlines areas of concern. I remind members that the issues raised by the foundation include the cut in funding by DCAL since 2004, and the re-establishment of links with PRONI (Public Record Office of Northern Ireland).

Mr Colin Watson (Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure):
I will start by outlining where the cut in funding — as the Ulster Historical Foundation puts it — has come from. The Department had a funding relationship with the foundation, which provides a number of genealogical research services and publications. For several years, the Department had assisted the organisation in the funding of publications.

In June 2004, the foundation approached the Department to ask for additional funding, telling us that it was trying to put its house in order and create a future wherein it could live without DCAL funding. It sought transitional funding of an additional £28, 000 a year to enable it to become free-standing. That would have brought the total amount of funding to £38,000 for a three-year period. The Department considered that proposal and decided that it represented a worthwhile opportunity to help an organisation to become free-standing and live within its means.

We, therefore, agreed a three-year funding package, comprising £38,000 a year, ending in March 2007. The Department provided the foundation with further money during that three-year period for the procurement of desktop-publishing software and systems, which would help the organisation to become self-sustaining. The Department also provided some funding for the digitisation of the history of the Irish Parliament, which was a resource that the Department had helped to publish some years before.

That three-year funding agreement came to an end in March 2007, and, therewith, our funding of the organisation. The foundation approached the Department towards the end of the three-year period in the belief that it would be unable to achieve self-sustainability. Having examined the foundation’s accounts, we discovered that its publications had been profitable over the two years, and it had a substantial reserve. On that basis, and on the evidence of the profitability of the foundation’s publications, the Department could not see why the organisation was not self-sustaining. That funding agreement, which the foundation had signed up to, came to an end in March 2007.

The Chairperson:
Thank you for your clarification of the Department’s position, Colin.

Mr Shannon:
I will cut to the chase. The Committee received an email concerning funding for the foundation. Have you seen that email?

Mr Watson:
No.

Mr Shannon:
It might be helpful. In that email, the chairman of the foundation outlines the sort of funding that the organisation is seeking. I will quote from it:

“Following the meeting yesterday between the Committee and my colleagues and myself from the Ulster Historical Foundation, I should like to ask you to convey the message below to the Chairman and members.”

The main paragraph of the email refers to a possible course of action should funding be made available. The chairman asks that that assistance:

“should issue from the Department via a SLA type of arrangement which would be specifically tied to the achievement of certain outputs and targets.”

Would the Department be prepared to help the Ulster Historical Foundation along those lines? If I am reading it correctly, it seems to be asking for funding that is conditional upon achievements and targets being set, which is something that the Department might want to do.

Mr Watson:
The foundation provides two types of service. Its genealogical research service is a commercial venture, which is provided by a number of commercial organisations and individuals. If people go into PRONI, but cannot find what they are looking for, they are given a leaflet with 15 different organisations listed on it. Obviously, the Government cannot fund an organisation to provide a service that can be provided commercially. That would result in displacement issues and state-aid issues. The Department would not fund such a service. The foundation’s publications, however, are showing a profit. One then has to ask, why should the organisation receive funding? Would it be on the basis of need?

Mr Shannon:
I agree with what the foundation seems to be saying. Its publications are never going to be best-sellers. Those publications are targeted at specific groups of people who are going to buy them. No matter what type of book, publication is a costly exercise. I was interested to hear Colin say that the foundation was making money from its books. I thought that it told us that it was not making a profit.

The Chairperson:
Do any other members wish to comment on this issue while Colin reflects on what Jim has said?

Mr McCarthy:
I wish to reiterate something that I said in a meeting a while ago. It seems that the Department pulled its funding from the foundation because it was in receipt of a dowry from a person who died and left it £200,000, putting the organisation into the black.

Mr Watson:
That had to be taken into consideration. The foundation had approximately £300,000 in reserves sitting in the bank. From its own 2005-06 accounts, however, we discovered that in 2005, although its income from publications was £56,000, the cost of publications was £43,000, so there was a profit. In 2005-06, expenditure was £77,000, income was £89,000. Therefore, the publications are — from the foundation’s own accounts — profitable.

Mr Shannon:
Yes, but there are other factors that would impact on the running costs. Although the book- publication sector of the foundation has made money; keeping the organisation running overall shows a loss. As Colin mentioned in his figures, and from what I understand — again from what we have heard in this Committee — the flow of money from the Department has reduced dramatically. Therefore, I am keen to see how this Committee can help.

Indeed, the Committee is very eager to help the foundation. We believe that it does great work in relation to its publications. Furthermore, it does great work in highlighting minority subjects and in retaining history, historical impact and historical content. Is there anything that we, as a Committee, could ask the Department to do to further help the foundation?

Mr Molloy:
Eamon Phoenix made the point that, with the proper funding, the foundation could do a lot more. However, because it is working on a shoestring, it is not able to carry out the sort of work that it would like to. That applies not only to the production of books but to research.

Mr Watson:
It is a slightly more difficult proposition for the Department in trying to help a commercial organisation such as UHF. The Department has always funded the publication element of the foundation, but it could not fund the other elements of its business as it is commercial. Assisting the organisation in any way, other than for its publications, would cause the Department difficulties with displacement.

I accept that, with more money, UHF could do more, but, with more money, we could all do more. The Department must work within the allocated budgets and make the best use of these. We have left it open for the foundation to come back to us — even after the three-year funding agreement — if there were specialist projects on the publication side for which it required extra funding. We have not closed the door completely. However, rather than having ongoing, almost core funding, the Department decided that funding would be allocated on the basis of need and affordability.

Mr McCarthy:
Had it not been for that dowry, the foundation’s bank balance would not be what it is. Without that dowry, would the foundation have done what it said it would do within the three years?

Mr Watson:
Again, we return to what we fund the organisation for — the publication of books. I believe that the Department would still find it difficult to provide funding to a commercial organisation. There are 14 other organisations on PRONI’s list that would ask why we were providing funding to one organisation and not the rest.

The Chairperson:
The Committee Clerk would like to remind the Committee of a point that the foundation made when it was before the Committee.

The Committee Clerk:
Members will recall that the Ulster Historical Foundation was also concerned to see whether it could re-establish the link with PRONI that it had until sometime in the 1990s.

Mr Watson:
I cannot speak for PRONI. I know that the Ulster Historical Foundation do make quite extensive use of PRONI. It carries out a great deal of research in the organisation and utilises the information that it gets from there — again, for its commercial purposes.

PRONI, I understand, would be happy to work with any organisation that would help it to deliver on its objectives. If UHF were to contact PRONI, I am sure that they could come to some arrangement.

The Chairperson:
Thank you, Colin.

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