Cultural Policy In Northern Ireland: A Driver For Change?

Northern Ireland has long been plagued by its turbulent history, entrenched in sectarian conflict.  The roots of this strife can be traced back centuries, but it was in the late 20th century that the situation reached a boiling point. The conflict, often referred to as “The Troubles” erupted between the nationalist Catholic community seeking Irish unification and the unionist Protestant community seeking to keep its ties with the United Kingdom. The conflict claimed the lives of 3,500 people and injured 50,000. The first important step towards peace was taken in 1998 with the signing of the “Good Friday Agreement”. Under this agreement, a new decentralized government was established in which trade unionists and nationalists would share power. Nevertheless, occasional violence persists in Northern Ireland and sectarianism and segregation remain major social problems.

In comparison to other aspects of politics and governance, cultural policy is not something that can be copied and pasted from one country to another. Each country’s culture is unique and, therefore, its cultural policy must also be unique. However, in regions where culture is not homogeneous (such is the case in Northern Ireland), the creation of cultural policies can be rather difficult. For example, in Northern Ireland, we can see the existence of two national cultures and two citizens side by side.  Since the seventeenth century, these two cultural clashes have caused conflict and tension.

Due to this ethnic and cultural diversity, it has been very difficult to set up a national cultural policy in Northern Ireland, because you don’t want to alienate half the population. Moreover, in a society where religion, politics, nationality, and culture are so closely linked, you want to find and promote policies that transcend these divisions. These pressures have created a tendency to hesitate in creating new cultural policies and to apply only short-term solutions to problems. In addition, in 2016, the Ministry of Culture, Arts and Recreation (responsible for cultural policies) was dissolved and merged with other ministries to reduce the size of the Northern Ireland executive. Now, its functions are transferred to the Committee for Communities. These factors have led to very few cultural policies in recent years.

So, in a country where cultural identity can have various negative connotations, how can cultural policy transcend these historical grievances and be used to make an economic and social difference?  In many countries, the focus has been on the economic potential of the arts and culture sector. Cultural policy leads to innovation, growth and structural economic change, and employment in cities (especially those affected by industrial decline, such as Northern Ireland). The conflict in Northern Ireland has affected many structures, including the economy, making it one of the most disadvantaged regions in the United Kingdom. This can be seen from a myriad of economic and socio-economic perspectives. For example, according to the Economic Observatory, 25% of employees in Northern Ireland have incomes below the decent wage, the wage needed to achieve an acceptable minimum standard of living. After the 2008 financial crisis, which affected Europe and the United Kingdom, Northern Ireland was one of the most affected regions, with a 10% drop in GVA (Gross Value Added) between 2008 and 2011. This means that there was a significant decline in productivity over this period. In addition, the child poverty rate was 20.5% (2012-2013), and it has risen to 26% (2015-2016), which means that one in five children in Northern Ireland lives in poverty. There are also problems of unemployment and underemployment.

In Northern Ireland, the two main decision-making bodies on cultural policy, DCAL (Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure) and ACNI (Arts Council of Northern Ireland), have implemented a number of cultural policies aimed at mitigating socio-economical effects. The European Council adopted a resolution on the economic and social situation in Northern Ireland. One such policy, the Northern Irish Screen, shows the potential of cultural policy to reshape the economy of Northern Ireland. The Northern Irish Screen is a DCAL policy, which aims to create a policy of equality and social inclusion, underpinned by economic development. In terms of specific economic objectives, it wants to use cultural policy to “rebalance” the economy away from the public sector. The implementation of cultural policy as a driver of economic development closely follows the broader British model, which establishes the importance of the creative industries in the economy. In Northern Ireland, the creative industries represented 3.9% of GVA in 2014, up 11.7% from the previous year, according to a report by Ulster University. The Northern Irish Screen is at the forefront of this development. According to the InvestNI evaluation, the increase in expenditure in the film and television sector indicates that progress has been made in developing its infrastructure and production capacity in Northern Ireland. The evaluation also indicates that infrastructure gaps have been filled and appropriate skills of this industry has been offered. This has obviously increased employment opportunities in this area.

In terms of broader economic benefits, the Northern Ireland Screen has been very successful in attracting and maintaining foreign direct investment to Northern Ireland. For example, through the implementation of targeted NISF, skills development and marketing activities. The Northern Ireland Screen has managed to retain the production of HBO/ Fire and Blood, ‘Game of Thrones’ since its pilot phase. Of course, the increase in tourism has another impact, which has contributed to the increase in GVA. This increase in tourism has led to an increase in the local industry and the hotel industry.

In conclusion, the ‘Northern Ireland Screen’ illustrates the potential of cultural policy in relation to society and the economy. In the context of Northern Ireland, this policy is significant, considering the struggle and cultural conflict in Northern Ireland. This conflict has made cultural policy difficult to implement in the past, but the ‘Northern Ireland Screen’ explicitly shows the benefits of this type of policy. It has the capacity to increase tourism, with productions like Game of Thrones, which generates a lot of revenue for Northern Ireland. In addition, this policy area has a very positive effect on the economy. It has increased production and corrected the imbalance in the economy towards the public sector, as well as creating more job opportunities. In addition, such a cultural policy could create a more integrated society in Northern Ireland.  Should this policy area be developed more it would lead to better infrastructure, employment, and a more integrated society.  In other words, a focus on cultural policy may mean a decrease in tensions between ethnic groups in Northern Ireland


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