SD Minister, Nelson McCausland
DSD Minister, Nelson McCausland

You couldn’t make it up.

Page 17 of today’s Irish News has a picture whose caption reads – “Busy Year Ahead: The Arts Council of Northern Ireland and Audiences NI are hosting a master class today at the Ulster Hall to inspire arts organisations to take advantage of the benefits that cultural tourism can offer in the busy year ahead.”

This master class is happening the day after the Minister for Social Development, Nelson McCausland, announced the ending of the Laganside Events Fund which helped fund such wonderful festivals and events such as Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival, Open House Festival, Out To Lunch, Festival of Fools, Belfast Childrens’ Festival, Summer Sundays and Culture Night.

The fund is thought to be around £250,000 which isn’t a huge amount given the positive impact it has on the life of the city.

Let’s get one thing straight. These great events are not arty-farty luxuries for the rich and idle. You only have to look at the faces to see their universal appeal, as one small example, the Open House festival: everyone from hairy-faced hicks from Louisiana to working-class kids from Belfast being introduced to Cajun, folk and all kinds of Americana – including the enduring Ulster-Scots contribution that is Bluegrass music.

The Cathedral Quarter’s Festival in all their variety are open to all, as anyone who has experienced the glory of Culture Night will know. Prices are kept as low as possible so that as many people as possible can have a good night out, a psychological necessity in these financially straitened times.

I don’t need to spell out the benefits the arts give to society – psychologically, financially, in terms of job creation and regeneration, in terms of our self-image and how others see us, in attracting tourist income and in making it a city you are proud to live in.

A lot of us remember when Belfast was a ghost town during the dark days of the Troubles when people were afraid to come into town. It is going to become like that again?

Yes, the Cathedral Quarter is not and would never want to be, the be-all and end-all of arts provision in the city, and we have the new Metropolitan Arts Centre (the MAC), but it is contemptible that some people are attempting to take a divide and conquer approach, turning arts organisations against each other in the scramble for adequate funding.

The Cathedral Quarter has created a shared space where every citizen of Belfast, from outside and from abroad is welcome – you just can’t put a price on that.

But it seems to me that Nelson McCausland is not someone who understands the importance of the arts, unlike, strangely enough, his party leader, Peter Robinson.

I wonder how many plays he has been to? Would he know the difference between David Mamet and David Lynch? Aisling Ghéar and Aisling O’Beirn? Planxty and Slipknot? Is James Young still “stickin’ out”?

Nelson comes across as a man of little vision and even less curiosity.

The decision to cut the Laganside Events Fund is shortsighted and will end, at a stroke, the glowing praise Belfast has been garnering from respected travel publications. For the sake of Belfast now and for future generations, the fund must be re-instated.

Even if you’ve never been to an arts festival before, it’s time for everyone to oppose these shortsighted, naysaying cuts by making their voice heard.

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