There are few advantages to being on a bit of an island, off the coast of another island, off the coast of a continent with whom our relationship status would read ‘it’s complicated’. One of the very few advantages is the appreciation of nuance of meaning in the words we use to define who we are and what we propose are the important elements of that identity.
I was struck by this at the Theatre 2016 conference when the words ‘national campaign’ were used repeatedly to describe things that would only change policy in England (E-BACC, local government funding, DCMS, Arts Council England, etc.); and Britain and the UK were used interchangeably (they’re not, could we rename the British Theatre Repertoire Report?); and everything outside London was referred to as ‘the regions’; raising the question of whether this was or was not a ‘national conference’. Nuance and understanding the significance of terms is everything.
The removal of words such as ‘arts’ and ‘culture’ from not one but two government departments on this island in the last 12 months, sets off warning bells of much greater significance. When it was first announced in 2015 in Northern Ireland as part of the ‘Fresh Start‘ agreement (again whose fresh start are we talking about?), we were told this was only a name change and that it was more about reducing government than altering the status of arts and culture. Not great as the status of arts and culture was already at an alltime low.
Maybe because of size of the artistic community; maybe because they have not experienced the same deeply depressing disinvestment over such an extended period; the Irish arts sector’s response to a similar absorption of departmental function without departmental name has been loud, swift and has annoyed Minister Humphreys (always a sign of a good campaign). Other people (Emily Mark FitzGerald and John O’Brien) are writing better about this and may this campaign be a success or the consequences will be dire.
Back to 2015 on this bit of the island. When pressed on the lack of a top line inclusion of some element of arts and culture in the name change, the decision to name it the Department of Communities was cited as a policy decision to ‘give all departments single names’. This will no doubt come as some surprise to those of us who thought that ‘Agriculture’, ‘Environment’ and ‘Rural Affairs’ were separate words – we could try to say them really fast so that they become one word. Maybe it is still better than the Department of Social Welfare, Communities and Sport which was originally suggested and would have rendered pretty much all functions of the department in the title except arts and culture. But the reassurance remained – arts and culture would still form an intrinsic part of the new department’s priorities.
Cue 2016 and the new departments of the NI Executive were revealed.
No definition needed. Just lost.