Official Report (Hansard)

Session: 2008/2009

Date: 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 Conrad Clarke ) Mid-Armagh Community Network
Mrs Hilary Singleton )

The Deputy Chairperson (Mr McNarry):

I need to leave the meeting for about 10 minutes. The protocol is that the Committee Clerk calls on members to nominate someone to stand in for me while I am away.

The Committee Clerk:

Are there any nominations?

Mr K Robinson:

Pat Ramsey.

Mr Shannon:

Pat Ramsey; it will keep him quiet. [Laughter.]

The Deputy Chairperson:

Pat Ramsey is the Committee’s unanimous choice.

(The Acting Chairperson [Mr P Ramsey] in the Chair)

The Acting Chairperson (Mr P Ramsey):

I welcome the representatives of the Mid-Armagh Community Network. Mr Conrad Clarke is the director of the organisation, and Mrs Hilary Singleton is the co-ordinator of the organisation and is a member of its committee. We are continuing our inquiry into arts funding in Northern Ireland. We have received your written submission, but we are keen to listen to what you have to say. Members have indicated that they wish to ask questions after your 10-minute presentation.

Mr Conrad Clarke (Mid-Armagh Community Network):

Thank you for inviting us here today. The Mid-Armagh Community Network is an Ulster-Scots group that is based in Markethill in County Armagh. It was established in 1998 and has built up over time. We are a volunteer organisation; all our committee members are volunteers, and many of the folk who assist our music and dance productions are volunteers. We have a few paid members who work on a part-time basis.

We are essentially a school. We teach fiddle, bluegrass guitar, Scottish dancing, pipe-band drumming and Lambeg drumming. The original idea that we started out with has developed to the point at which approximately 150 people come through our doors every week. We operate during the academic year of September to June, and at the end of each year our fiddle students take examinations and our dance students, who Hilary will talk about shortly, perform in competition.

Towards the end of the year we hold a parents’ night, which for the past few years has been moved from Markethill courthouse to the Market Place Theatre and Arts Centre in Armagh. We put on a performance based on what the students have learned throughout the year. Hilary will pass around one of our programmes for members to look at.

We are mainly funded by the Arts Council and the Ulster-Scots Agency. From time to time, depending on what we are doing, other funders come into play. That is our organisation in a nutshell.

Mrs Hilary Singleton (Mid-Armagh Community Network):

I serve as a committee member of the Mid-Armagh Community Network and the co-ordinator of the dance section. We teach Highland dance and Scottish country dance, which is expanding. Some 700 to 800 girls compete in Northern Ireland at provincial level and at competitions in Scotland. Indeed, some of our girls have won gold at the European championships. We are, therefore, progressing well.

We set up the Markethill Ulster-Scots Dancers when the Mid-Armagh Community Network was formed in June 1998. Our aim was to provide dance classes for children in Markethill and the surrounding area in the context of the Ulster-Scots culture. Initially, we targeted children in local primary schools in an area that was hard hit by the Troubles: Markethill was bombed on numerous occasions.

We aimed to provide low-cost classes that were accessible to even the lowest income brackets. We had the occasional boy attend the classes, but the majority are girls. There are 50 to 70 dancers on our books at any given time. We started with country dancing classes, which were, initially, taught by a tutor from Portadown Scottish Country Dance Group. Girls were asked to bring £1 per week to their dance class, which we used to pay the tutor. When she left, I took over the teaching of the country dance classes for no remuneration.

The girls have performed at many high-profile events, including the televised launch at the Odyssey of the Ulster-Scots Agency’s website, and at Windsor Park with a massed group of Highland dancers and other dance schools. We joined the Portadown Festival Association in order to introduce a Scottish dance section, which is now a Highland dance section, in the Portadown festival. That is our latest programme, and I am now secretary of the Highland dance section of the festival.

We started the Highland dance classes approximately five years ago, and that involved a significantly greater outlay, because we had to use qualified Highland dance tutors. There was also a need for costumes, which are very expensive, and for equipment such as swords, CDs and music. In addition, once the dancers become registered and progress through the groups, the number of costumes that they need increases, because they need different types of costumes for different classes.

Our initial dance funding was a small grant from Children in Need. In the main, however, our funding has been from the Ulster-Scots Agency, which is limited to the cost of tuition and the provision of music. We have additional costs that the funding does not cover. Our girls go through examinations and we bring examiners over from Scotland. The United Kingdom Alliance of Professional Teachers of Dancing and Kindred Arts (UKA) provides examiners, and we have to raise money to pay for their flights and transport.

As Conrad said, we have an annual showcase concert at the Market Place Theatre at which all our performers, not just dancers, perform. We receive Arts Council funding, a portion of which, I believe, comes to the dancers. However, we are in great need of funding to allow our pupils to progress. If they are to progress beyond provincial level to championships in Scotland, we obviously need funds to provide transport to competitions. We even need funding for transport to events and competitions in Northern Ireland.

We also need funding for costumes. An entire Highland dress outfit costs nearly £300, which not everyone can afford.

Highland dancing is an expanding area, about which I am passionate, and my perception is that most of the funding for it is secured by dance schools in the Belfast area. Therefore, schools in outlying areas are largely forgotten, so we want that situation to be addressed.

The Acting Chairperson:

Thank you, Hilary. You do some interesting work; well done. My I suggest that we move some of the chairs so that you can give us an exhibition of your party piece.

Mr McCausland:

Only if the Acting Chairperson takes part. [Laughter.]

Mr McCarthy:

Thank you for your presentation. I commend you for the work that you are doing, and I wish you every success, because it is community work and everyone enjoys it. Have you explored the possibility of obtaining funding from private firms to help you in your work?

Mr C Clarke:

We explored that possibility in our early years. From our fiddle classes, we developed an orchestra, and, to fund various trips for it and to buy musical instruments, we targeted a number of businesses by sending leaflets and a copy of a CD that we produced. However, we had zero response.

Mrs Singleton:

That was in the context of the fiddle orchestra planning a showcase trip to Georgia in the United States, during which it performed in local schools. We relied heavily on Americans, who provided accommodation for orchestra members in their homes. That co-operation was invaluable.

Mr McCarthy:

It is disappointing that you got zero response. The leaflet from the Portadown festival that you handed round details a lot of sponsors. Would they not put some funds in your direction?

Mrs Singleton:

The Portadown festival comprises various sections, including speech, Irish dancing and music. Those elements have been going a lot longer than us — 85 years — so they have a track record of sponsorship. Some local businesses may sponsor a cup for a competition, but, beyond that, we have not had a great response from private sponsors.

Mr McCarthy:

That is disappointing. However, having listened to evidence from other witnesses, a difficulty in obtaining private sponsorship seems to be a theme. I suppose, like the organisers of the Portadown festival, you will simply have to keep at it.

Mrs Singleton:

Also, we are in a credit crunch.

Mr C Clarke:

In the early years, we found that a community group from a Protestant area was viewed with suspicion, because there was no history of community-group organisations in those areas, and that probably hindered us to some degree.

Mr K Robinson:

Thank you for your presentation, which was different to that of the previous group in that it was measured and controlled. However, you highlighted the same points. You already answered my question to some degree. Is there adequate recognition of the groups that work in the unionist community, and, if not, who do you think is best placed to address that issue?

Mr C Clarke:

As I said, in the early days, there was a problem with recognition for community groups. Funding bodies were not set up to deal with Protestant community groups, and they had no history of funding such groups. In the main, they would have funded groups from the Gaelic tradition. We were one of the first groups to force the issue, and we presented many funding bodies with a dilemma. They had to reconsider how they would approach us and modify their systems to take account of our needs.

Mr K Robinson:

That is a very interesting answer. Why do you think that they had that difficulty? It is obvious that they had a track record of funding other groups and were able to accept those groups for what they were, what they were doing and what they hoped to achieve. Why did you have a difficulty? Did you not adequately present your case to them, or were they not able to identify or understand what it was that you were trying to do?

(The Deputy Chairperson [Mr McNarry] in the Chair)

Mr C Clarke:

We pitched our case as best we could, but we felt that in the main, many funding bodies employed people from a nationalist background because of the nature of the situation. Over the years, funding has traditionally come from Europe, and nationalist groups were, in the main, geared towards that funding, whereas we certainly were not. I do not believe that they understood our perspective. That is gradually changing, but that was our perception of the early years.

Mr K Robinson:

I want to pursue that issue, because it is crucial and has been raised on several occasions. Why do you think that those funding bodies were unable to identify with you, apart from coming from a different community? What were the barriers? Was your culture almost dormant, and therefore not recognisable, or was it because another culture was so vibrant that it was easier to attach moneys and expertise and PR to it? I am trying to tease out the reasons for that situation. What has caused that? Why has the unionist community appeared to be so far back? Is it your fault for not pushing yourselves forward and for not saying what you had to offer and insisting that it be accepted, or is it the fault of officialdom — for want of a better term — in not reaching out and recognising that you were applying for funding because you were almost dormant?

Mr C Clarke:

You are essentially correct as far as being dormant is concerned. In the early years, people from a Protestant background did not understand community development. They associated it with nationalism and left-wing politics, without realising what it was essentially about. Regardless of persuasion, it is about empowering the community that you belong to. In the early years, Protestant groups, mainly in rural areas, kept themselves to themselves. They did not put their heads above the parapet; they were happy to go about their business and not seek recognition. A lot of community work was done on an underground basis. People did it voluntarily and did not want any recognition at all, and the situation developed from that.

Mr K Robinson:

Please indulge me, Deputy Chairperson; I know that my colleagues want to ask questions about this matter. Is there a reservoir of latent talent that we could tap into and which would regenerate your communities? We heard from a previous group of witnesses about how tourism in their area has taken off as a result of their efforts. Can we lance the boil?

Mr C Clarke:

We think that we have been very successful in what we do. We put that down to attitude and commitment. There is great support for what we do in the area that we come from. In the new and enlightened millennium, parents want their children to reap the educational benefits that are available. I cannot speak for other areas, but there is talent, and a groundswell of support for that could produce results.

Mrs Singleton:

You asked about the problems that we encounter. One major problem is that funding bodies are uncomfortable with single-identity organisations such as ours. They mention again and again the necessity for an organisation’s work to have a cross-community aspect. When we say that we are an Ulster-Scots group with a single-identity that promotes Ulster Scots as its culture, many funding bodies try to wash their hands of us.

You asked whether we feel that our culture is dormant. There has been an Ulster-Scots revival, which is mirrored by the creation of the Ulster-Scots Agency. There is an element of us feeling our way as we go. Moreover, a lack of familiarity with how to complete forms for funding is a problem. The more forms that a group completes, the more expertise it develops and the more it realises what to include in order to obtain the necessary funding. That is how the system works.

Mr K Robinson:

You gain that expertise through experience.

Mrs Singleton:

Absolutely; groups gain that through the years. We are developing in that regard.

The Deputy Chairperson:

Ken has to leave at 12.30 pm, so I will not allow him to ask another question. I advise members that we are well behind on our schedule. I know that the subjects are important, but we need to condense the questions.

Lord Browne:

I admired the bravery of your dancers who performed at Windsor Park on an exceptionally cold evening. It is not always easy to engage the spectators at Windsor Park, particularly at half time. However, they appreciated the talent that was on show that evening.

Funding is the main problem. Have you approached any Departments other than DCAL, particularly the Department for Social Development or the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister? How could the Committee help you to access funding?

Mr C Clarke:

We probably could make applications to other bodies. However, we are a voluntary group; we all have day jobs and do that work in the evening. Therefore, we do not have much time. The applications forms are considerable, and an excessive amount of information is required.

The Deputy Chairperson:

Does that response suggest that you have not approached anyone else?

Mr C Clarke:

No; that is not the case. We have not approached any groups for funding for our Ulster-Scots activities. However, another group that we work with has approached DCAL, and we have worked with the International Fund for Ireland. Therefore, we have a history of working with those groups. We find that, because of our organisational structure, it is easier to work with bodies such as the Arts Council, which provides money up front that enables us to begin programmes. With other groups, such as the Ulster-Scots Agency, we have to pay the money first and claim it retrospectively. That is exceptionally difficult.

Mrs Singleton:

The bulk of our money comes from the Arts Council’s Annual Support for Organisations Programme (ASOP). The figures from 2002 to the present show that funding for the Protestant community amounts to approximately 25%, whereas the Catholic community receives approximately 78%. That balance must be redressed.

In the programme in which we are involved, the Andersonstown Traditional and Contemporary Music School, the Armagh Pipers Club, the Belfast and District Set Dancing and Traditional Music Society, the Irish Traditional Music Archive and the Armagh Rhymers received £127,000 in 2002-03. However, the Mid-Armagh Community Network and the Northern Ireland Piping and Drumming School received £35,000. That is a percentage of 76·4% against 21·6%. Those percentages in the distribution of money are reflected year in, year out.

The Deputy Chairperson:

A trend is developing from Wallace’s question. The Committee is taking widespread evidence sessions, and, soon, we will be examining the elements of reasons for that disparity. It needs to be addressed, for everyone’s sake.

Mr Shannon:

Thank you for your energy and enthusiasm. I am particularly interested in the 150 people who are involved in the weekly fiddle tuition classes. Your paper states that 500 people have been involved in the Highland dance classes. You are reaching out to lots of people.

A recurring theme runs through the whole process. Therefore, the questions are repetitive, but my question has not been asked before. How have you reached out to those people in the community who are in social need? Have the Arts Council or the funding bodies in Northern Ireland helped you to target those areas of social need and to address the regeneration of communities.

I commend you for what you are doing; your work is great. One can see the benefits. Are we getting to the right people? If you are getting to the people who are in social need, are you receiving the funding to back it?

Mrs Singleton:

We keep fees for the dance classes and the other classes to an absolute minimum so as to encourage everyone — even the underprivileged — to come on board. Short of doing that, I wonder how else we can target people. We go to local schools, and we publicise our classes. Before we start our classes for the year, we publish registration forms in the local press, in which we provide details of class starting times and tutors. We open our classes to the entire community.

Mr Shannon:

I know that you listened to the evidence from the previous set of witnesses, and you heard about sources from which they receive funding. Have you asked for help from the Arts Council? Has it been supportive of what you are doing? Or, does it go back to the single-identity issue that you mentioned at the beginning?

Mr C Clarke:

Although we are a single-identity group, we are more than happy to reach out to other parts of the community. We also do that through our employment practices. We do not know how other groups that apply to the Arts Council fulfil their cross-community requirements. We have made approaches to other groups, but no one has ever approached us to form any sort of alliance or partnership to that end.

Mr D Bradley:

I congratulate you on the good work that you are doing. I am a County Armagh man, and I am interested in many of the activities in which you are involved, especially the music and dance aspects. I commend you for your work.

You mentioned that you sent out letters seeking private funding. I suggest that face-to-face approaches are sometimes more successful. One organisation that gave evidence to the Committee has expertise in helping arts groups get money from private businesses and so on. We will furnish you with the details of that organisation and it may be able to help you with that.

You said that one reason you were not successful in receiving funding is that funding bodies employed people from a nationalist background. Will you expand on that?

Mr C Clarke:

We found that to be the case. Obviously, we do not deal with every individual in any organisation. However, we all live in Northern Ireland, and, through a reasonably quick assessment, one can establish who is who, and who is not who. We found that in dealing with the Ulster-Scots Agency, we met people of a similar background who noted the problems that we have. However, with the Arts Council, not one of the caseworkers who dealt with us was from a unionist background. We found it difficult to get across what we needed and what our perspective was. We also found it difficult to make them understand why we needed the funding, what it was for, how it empowered on our community and how we could develop our community through receiving the funding.

Mr D Bradley:

Funding organisations have certain criteria and it is up to any group, no matter what its background, to meet those criteria. If your organisation meets the criteria, it should get grant aid. If it does not meet the criteria, it will probably be turned down.

Mr C Clarke:

Perception is also a big issue.

Mrs Singleton:

It is important for the organisation that funds any group to keep an eye on what that group is doing. A relationship should grow up between the two and there needs to be familiarity. We have extended invitations for various events at which we performed, including our annual concert. The response of the Arts Council in attending those showcase events was pretty poor. Therefore, we felt that they were not responding to us or making an effort to come and see what we were doing, as others did.

Mr C Clarke:

We have been in operation for 10 years. We hold an average of one committee meeting a month, which equates to 120 meetings during those 10 years. No one from the Arts Council has ever attended any of those meetings.

Mr McCarthy:

Have they been invited?

Mr C Clarke:

They have been invited on every occasion.

Mrs Singleton:

They have a standing invitation to our meetings.

Mr C Clarke:

We have held 10 concerts, and we had a positive response from the Arts Council on only one occasion.

Mr D Bradley:

That conflicts with the evidence given by the previous witnesses. They praised one of the Arts Council officers who, they said, was very positive towards them and provided them with great help in developing their project.

I must ask about the of single-identity issue that you mentioned. Do you believe that Ulster-Scots culture is for the unionist/Protestant people only, or is it a shared tradition throughout all Northern Ireland?

Mrs Singleton:

It is predominantly of interest to those in the Protestant community. However, I know that in the Markethill area, people from the other tradition attend our historical and other lectures. Those are of interest to them, and our local priest has attended some of the lectures that we organised. I would not say that it is purely of interest to one side of the community.

Mr D Bradley:

Why, then, do you describe yourselves as a single-identity group?

Mrs Singleton:

That is because we are focused on the Ulster-Scots culture. I focus on the nature of the group, which is an Ulster-Scots group.

Mr D Bradley:

Surely it is a shared tradition? Mr McCarthy comes from the Catholic tradition but is an Ulster-Scots speaker. He is extremely interested in the Ulster-Scots tradition, and he promotes it.

Mr C Clarke:

As I said earlier, we do reach out. We advertise regularly in the local press, and we moved to Market Place Theatre not only to accommodate the growing numbers of people who wanted to attend the concerts, but to reach out to a wider audience. We are more than happy to reach out, and there is no doubt that it is a shared culture.

Mr D Bradley:

My point is that you should not necessarily define yourself as a single-identity group, because you deal with a culture that is shared by the entire community.

Mr C Clarke:

The phrase “single identity” did not come from us, but from funding bodies in the early years when groups had to identify themselves as belonging to a particular strand of culture.

Mr D Bradley:

Do you find that the criteria in many of the application processes demand a cross-community element to your work?

Mr C Clarke:

Yes, many do. Not all processes demand that, but it is implied in the application forms that include, for example, questions on how an applicant proposes to achieve a cross-cultural understanding.

Mr D Bradley:

How can the Ulster-Scots community increase its familiarity to funding agencies, so that future groups do not encounter the same problems of confusion, suspicion and lack of awareness of the work that you did at the beginning?

Mr C Clarke:

The Ulster-Scots Agency was established to reflect those problems.

Mr D Bradley:

That is only one funding agency; there are many others with which promoters of Ulster-Scots have to deal.

Mr C Clarke:

We cannot access many funding streams because we are primarily a cultural and music group. Were we a different type of community group, we could approach more grant bodies.

Mr D Bradley:

At the same time, multitudes of funding sources exist.

Mr C Clarke:

Yes, but they all have different criteria.

Mr D Bradley:

You said that, in the beginning, you encountered problems of people being suspicious of you or not understanding what you were about. How can we get across to other funding bodies an awareness of what is being done to promote Ulster Scots, so that new groups will not come across the same difficulty in the future?

Mrs Singleton:

We hope that meetings such as this one today will publicise the difficulties that such groups experience. Surely, giving evidence to a Committee creates a profile that helps to address any problems that we have encountered or will encounter.

Mr McCausland:

Both groups highlighted funding difficulties and the disparity and differentials, which exist for a range of reasons. My main concern is that those issues have been identified over a number of years, yet funding bodies have not addressed them. They have tended to put those issues in a box marked “too difficult”. I was about to suggest —

The Deputy Chairperson:

We want to send out the message to all our guests that the inquiry has a wide remit and is open-ended. We are not here simply to hear your evidence and then say goodbye. We will carefully consider the evidence from you and all the communities. I want to assure you that we are listening to you. Our questioning, which may be forensic at times, is for the purpose of obtaining information.

Mr McCausland:

If we are moving into a shared and better future in Northern Ireland, I suggest that one possible way to address the issue would be to persuade the Arts Council, other funding bodies and bodies dealing with cultural issues to provide their staff with training in cultural awareness. Perhaps people from the Ulster-Scots community could explain to those workers face to face who they are and what they do.

That should apply not just to the workers, but to the people who sit on the boards and the senior staff of those organisations. Would that be useful in trying to make those organisations more aware of the work that you do and the validity of it?

Mr C Clarke:

We try to do that when we apply for funding. I do not want to pick on the Arts Council, but it would be of great benefit to us, because there is an onus on the Arts Council to be proactive in how it promotes the funding that it can make available, especially to Ulster-Scots groups. Perhaps it is down to a lack of awareness; groups may think that they cannot apply for funding because they do not realise what is there to be attained.

As Hilary said earlier, there has been a consistent 75% to 25% balance in Arts Council funding to the ASOP over the past 10 years. The Arts Council’s money comes from somewhere else, so it has its own budget to work with, but we find that even trying to get a percentage increase on that each year to allow us to grow any programme is exceptionally difficult.

The Deputy Chairperson:

Thank you very much. I am sorry that I missed the earlier part of your presentation. I assure you that this Committee has a wide remit. The evidence that we heard today may be news to our nationalist and republican colleagues on the Committee, but, as unionists, we should admit that it is also news to some of us, and we should know better. We are listening to you, and I am grateful to you — as are all members of the Committee — for the evidence that you presented. If you have left anything out that you wish to elaborate on, please feel free to submit that in writing to the Committee Clerk.

Members, we are pursuing what is at times, perhaps, a sensitive line of enquiry. We are doing well in addressing the job at hand, and I ask that we continue in that vein.

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