Tuesday, 10 February 2015

Some more equal than others

Here in Norn Iron, we are all too familiar with the constant tensions and clamour of whataboutery and us’n’s and them’n’s to-ing and fro-ing. I suppose it is the nature of all interaction, it is the constant dialogue of our lives as people with our variety of ambitions and allegiances, our impulses and desires.  But of course, here, we wear our allegiances proudly, pointedly and even aggressively. Why wouldn’t we? Everything here has had to be contested but at least now, the battle is of words and ideas, sometimes emotional and pain-filled but not because of arms or fists! We are used to the abrasive nature of politics here. With language that sails so close to the moral or ethical wind, that it is remarkable that so many don’t capsize. And over recent weeks, we have seen the various sectors of Northern Ireland pitted against themselves in battle over resources.  And we have seen who the biggest losers are too – The Arts. Where the government spend on the arts was 13p, per head, per week, it’s now 11p – and due to fall further.

So, as the dust settles on this turmoil its worth perhaps analysing just what has happened and give a thought to new consequences.

For a start, after all the plámás about the role of the arts in supporting inclusion and targeting equality, turns out instead the arts are to receive an unequal cut – a cut greater than the level of cut to the governing department.  Bear in mind the arts have shifted their focus over the years to proactively supporting all PETPSE (promoting equality and tackling poverty and social exclusion) initiatives. We have probably seen the high water mark of funding to assist the most marginalised in general, and more particularly in the arts. 
Next year, and for the foreseeable future, that support will dwindle. There will be a cut of over £1,300,000 to core arts funding. That will immediately impact on that proportion of support available to the most marginalised, the most disenfranchised, the poor, ill and vulnerable, the most in need. There is no other way to look at it. And, while we hear of reprieves, to an orchestra and a film industry, we don’t automatically equate both these areas of work with promoting equality of opportunity or targeting social need, do we? Perhaps we should?

So too, as Welfare Reform starts to bite, what will the support for the most marginalised look like then? A hardship fund may alleviate some of the worst impacts, but it is limited, in time and in funding too.  And, once reforms really begin to bite and 20,000 more unemployed are created through redundancies in public services, what will the support for the most marginalised look like after that? And after the redundancy money runs out, what then? And as more become marginalised through the impact of reforms (we need only look to England and the growth of “foodbanks” etc) where next? And when a further £350M, over a third of a billion pounds, is taken out of the NI budget every year so that businesses can get 8% tax cut, what will the support for the most marginalised look like then? And how much investment in the arts will remain? 

At this point, a sense of the depth of despair becomes apparent. A simultaneous cut to the arts will not be felt just by arts professionals. It will be felt by our whole community. The impact will be felt most acutely in so-called working class areas, in schools, in residential homes, in rural community centres, in youth clubs on the edge of estates across Northern Ireland where prospects were already few. It will be felt by young creative students and graduates, who will have less opportunity to develop a career locally and therefore, less chance to support the community creatively or intellectually.

But, let’s re-visit Corporation Tax for a moment. Looked at positively, it is a huge investment in business – an annual investment of £350,000,000. That will be well over 30 times the annual investment the NI Assembly makes to the arts. If some re-balancing to the Northern Ireland economy would seem practical, is it practical to undermine a sector that already produces huge social and cultural dividends, double and triple bottom lines, for a fraction of that cost? Remember too, that this Corporation Tax investment is on top of the £90M pa that is already budgeted to assist business through grant aid.

If it’s accepted that business needs structured investment, why not the business of making celebration, of making music, dance, songs, poetry, fashion, of celebrating our children’s imaginations, and the memories of our older folk, of making our tourists welcome, making our walls beautiful, making our communities unite in hope, making new traditions together, making our towns and cities more attractive to residents and visitors alike, making new migrants welcomed, making the dreams of our young people valued, making our lives better, making us feel, express, reflect and create?

But, let’s keep looking (positively) at Corporation Tax. If we are investing all this money annually and reducing the investment everywhere else, particularly the arts, then when will we feel the collective dividend of this spending?? One year? 5 years? 10 years? More??? Now, even if we see a huge influx of business into NI, the only cash NI gets back is the reduced corporation tax from them. All that greater income tax cash, national insurance and money from more VAT from consumer spend, that all goes to London. So, when do we break-even?  Last year, an economist told me that they had calculated that at 14 years – and that was based on calculations based on pre-2008 levels!! And what will the arts infrastructure look like then?

So, while this massive upheaval in public-funding begins to be felt, and a huge ground-swell of support for the arts goes completely unheard, perhaps we should start to realise that the ‘level playing field’, so often the quoted ambition of business leaders and politicians, doesn’t extend to all.  If we are harmonising Corporation Tax north and south of the border, why not harmonise Tax Exemptions for the Arts north and south too. This year, €50,000 can be earned before tax through the exemptions scheme in the Republic. Imagine we had that opportunity here! Or even better, to attract artists from around the globe, allow artists and arts practitioners to live in N Ireland completely tax-free! Imagine the creativity of the people. Imagine the celebrity! We would become an incredible destination for so many overnight. The impact on all facets of life could be huge.

We need to imagine, we need to create and we need to sustain. The arts are integral to the human condition and symptomatic of the health of any society. Let’s imagine a better place for the arts and our appreciation of all that they represent – before it’s too late.

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