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Plea for ‘artistic freedom in a post-conflict society’ at Arts Council’s first annual conference

Friday 10th June 2005 at 1pm 0 Comments

(L to R) Niall McCaughan, General Manager of the Derry Playhouse; Fintan O’Toole, drama critic and political journalist; Rosemary Kelly, Chairman of the Arts Council of Northern Ireland; Paul Collard, Director of Creative Partnerships Image: (L to R) Niall McCaughan, General Manager of the Derry Playhouse; Fintan O’Toole, drama critic and political journalist; Rosemary Kelly, Chairman of the Arts Council of Northern Ireland; Paul Collard, Director of Creative Partnerships

The maintenance of an independent Arts Council in Northern Ireland is critically important for the maintenance of an independent artistic culture, and an independent artistic culture is critically important to the progress of politics and culture in Northern Ireland. This was the message that Fintan O’Toole, respected drama critic and political journalist delivered to 250 delegates in his keynote speech at the Arts Council’s first annual arts conference in the Millennium Forum in Derry City on Wednesday 1 st June 2005.


He argued that the past 35 years of conflict in Northern Ireland have clearly demonstrated the vital role that the arts play in helping society to imagine a better future. But in order to fulfil the purpose that society demands of it, the arts must be allowed space in which to operate, free from political interference.

 “The Conflict was partly the cause and partly the effect of static and sterile notions of Protestant and Catholic cultures, from each of which all the contradictions, ambiguities and complexities had been drained,” said Mr O’Toole. “If a cliché is a once-lively phrase that has been deadened by repetition, the conflict arose out of, and in turn, sustained a politics of cliché. But its in-built resistance to cliché is what makes art art.”

 Our culture, according to Fintan O’Toole, is determined by the inherited, deeply-engrained viewpoints that shape our collective identities and influence the way we habitually see things. The arts, on the other hand, exist to question these assumptions and preconceptions. “When certainty allows someone to put a bullet in someone else’s head,” said Mr O’Toole, “confusion may indeed attain a nobility.”

 In a final warning about the consequences of axing the Arts Council and devolving its policy-making and funding authority to central government and district council level, as proposed under the terms of the current Review of Public Administration consultancy report, Fintan spoke of the “danger that the practice of segregated politics will prevail and the funding of arts will follow a politically-driven agenda. To subsume arts policy into either a divided local government or directly into the apparatus of a government department is to reduce art’s power to do what it does best: challenging the assumptions of the other spheres.”

Fintan O’Toole is one of Ireland’s leading political and cultural commentators. Born in Dublin in 1958, he has been drama critic of In Dublin magazine, The Sunday Tribune, the New York Daily News, and The Irish Timesand Literary Adviser to the Abbey Theatre. He edited Magill magazine and since 1988 has been a columnist with the Irish Times. His work has appeared in many international newspapers and magazines, including The New Yorker, the New York Review of BooksGrantaThe Guardian, the New York Times and the Washington Post. Awards include the AT Cross Award for Supreme Contribution to Irish Journalism (1993), the Justice Award of the Incorporated Law Society (1994) and the Millennium Social Inclusion Award (2000). He has also broadcast extensively in Ireland and the UK, including a period as presenter of BBC’s The Late Show.

 Books include White Savage: William Johnson and the Invention of America (2005), After the Ball (2003); Shakespeare is Hard but so is Life (2002); The Irish Times Book of the Century (1999); A Traitor’s Kiss: The Life of Richard Brinsley Sheridan (1997); The Lie of the Land: Selected Essays (1997); The Ex-Isle of Erin (1996); Black Hole, Green Card (1994); Meanwhile Back at the Ranch (1995); A Mass for Jesse James (1990) and The Politics of Magic (1987).


  • The Arts Council of Northern Ireland is the lead development agency for the arts in Northern Ireland and the main support for artists and arts organisations throughout the region in a wide variety of artistic disciplines.
  •  The inaugural Arts Council of Northern Ireland conference took place on Wednesday 1 st June 2005 at the Millennium Forum Theatre and Conference Centre, Derry City. In previous years, the Arts Council has co-ordinated an annual arts conference in partnership with the Forum for Local Government and the Arts (FLGA).
  •  The Review of Public Administration public consultation document was launched on 22 March 2005 by the Parliamentary Under Secretary of State with responsibility for Finance, Ian Pearson, MP. The public consultation period is open until 30 September 2005. The Review is available on
  •  Confirmed Arts Council budgets across the British Isles for the financial year 2005-06:
  • Arts Council England will receive £412,155,000 grant-in-aid (£8.32 per capita spend);
  • the Scottish Arts Council will receive £54,196,000 grant-in-aid (£10.72 per capita spend);
  • the Arts Council of Wales will receive £26,615,000 grant-in-aid (£9.12 per capita spend);
  • An Chomhairle Ealaíon/Arts Council of Ireland will receive a 16% uplift, bringing its grant-in-aid to €61 million (equivalent to £41,911,000 [£10.70 per capita spend]);
  • the Arts Council of Northern Ireland will receive £10,780,000 grant-in-aid from CentralGovernment (£6.33 per capita spend [drop from £6.49 in 2004-05]).


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