Analysing the arts

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Culture, Arts and Leisure Committee Chair Barry McElduff discusses its workings with Peter Cheney, sharing his thoughts on its effectiveness and how to reach consensus.

A strong personal interest in all things culture, arts and leisure means that chairing that Stormont committee is a “natural” job for Barry McElduff, in his own words. “If you could tailor the portfolio to the person, then this is a good fit,” he remarks.

Having studied English, Irish and French for his A-levels, he loves the “richness” of languages. McElduff has also told the House how he was brought up on a diet of nine nights in a row at the theatre through the Mid-Ulster Drama Festival. Gaelic games is his “first love” and he has “great admiration for individuals and teams who achieve excellence through sport.”

Within the system of government, the committee’s role is not just to hold the Minister and his officials to account and scrutinise them – as he puts it, “shining a torch into dark corners of a department’s work.” It is also involved in developing policy, and advising and supporting the Minister.

As its leader, McElduff works closely with the committee’s staff, especially the clerk, Dr Kathryn Bell. He also has to “people manage” its 11 members, coming from different backgrounds, with differing personalities and temperaments, while also making sure that it asks the necessary difficult questions.

Effectiveness

The committee’s effectiveness can be measured in three key ways, he thinks.

Firstly, people must know that it exists. He is keen that its profile, and that of its remit, is raised: “Again, it’s like sport. You want your opponent to know you’re there.”

Secondly, the committee must be able to affect outcomes. One key example is how it worked to amend the Libraries Bill, making sure that the Library Authority’s board had a majority of elected representatives. “And I don’t think that was the original intention at all,” he adds.

“A committee can work constructively, positively, at an early stage of the formulation of a Bill with the department and you’ll get better legislation as a result.”

Thirdly, the committee must be accessible to the relevant groups and people. It has organised events at Stormont, inviting up artists and sportspeople. Brian Kennedy and Gary Lightbody have been two ‘big names’. Other events have included last June’s well-received townland names seminar. It is also keen to get out and about, holding meetings in towns across the province.

McElduff emphasises: “I want to be accessible as a committee chair and one of the compliments that’s been paid to me personally has been: ‘You attend things.’ In other words, I receive an awful lot of invites because of the committee chair role and I try to attend as many events as possible, where I will meet the practitioners. I will meet the real stakeholders, the people who are involved in sport, the people who are involved in arts, so I can hear at first hand what the issues are.”

It was put to him that his committee was more like a ‘cultures committee’ given Northern Ireland’s overall divisions. In response, he sums up: “I believe we’re one community, many traditions. I don’t subscribe personally to the notion that we are many communities.”

As well as being the committee chair, he is also Sinn Féin’s spokesman for the same issue. By comparison, the chair and spokesman roles would be kept separate at Westminster. The Commons Culture, Media and Sport Committee is chaired by a Conservative, John Whittingdale, but the party’s spokesman on the subject is another MP, Jeremy Hunt.

The two roles, he says, should not necessarily be separated but he does find he needs to be careful to clarify them when he speaks in public. His practice is to “preface” remarks by saying the role in which he is speaking e.g. if he is going to criticise the Minister politically, he explains he is speaking for the party.

“Very often you’ve to make that clear, and it might sound pedantic and it might sound repetitive, but you do have to separate out [the positions] … I make absolutely clear the capacity in which I’m speaking and it’s just a thing you must do because [if that is not done] you will be challenged in the committee a week later.”

Again, it was put to him that doing one job rather than two would remove any doubt. “It might,” he replies, pausing, “but what I’ll say to you is: ‘Westminster is not the font of all wisdom’ and it’s not necessarily the role model that everybody should follow.”

He surmises that Parliament does things differently “and in their wisdom, they shall continue to do that and in our wisdom we’ll continue to do things our way.” As a republican, it’s no surprise that McElduff differs from Westminster but he quips that he would borrow some of its better ideas.

The committee’s nearest equivalent in the Dáil – the Joint Committee on Arts, Sport, Tourism, Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs – finds itself in a different position. Its chair and the Minister are both members of Fianna Fáil.

At the start of each Assembly session, the committee asks the department for a list of the main issues that will take up its time over the next three months. This, of course, informs the committee about some relevant topics “but you are not a prisoner to the list provided by the department.”

The committee’s forthcoming inquiry, into participation levels in sport and physical activity among adults, is its own initiative. This will focus on whether enough progress is being made to meet the Programme for Government’s targets.

In its scrutiny work, the committee does have limited resources so its approach is “á la carte”. However, McElduff thinks it is taking a broader view than its predecessor in the first Assembly.

Inquiries must be evidence-based, not just the “musings” of MLAs. The committee “throw the net out” and give people the chance to respond orally or in writing. Members can put their slant on the final report but need to listen to the groups who put their views forward.

Compromise

Making decisions in some Assembly committees can be hard when members come from contrasting points of view. From the chair, he expects members to be mature enough to know that there are differences of opinion and then respect them. Injecting humour can help diffuse tense situations, he finds.

Strong unionists and strong republicans sit side-by-side, and working relationships among members are “quite good”.

The committee tries to make decisions by consensus but this is sometimes not possible. If the debate over an issue has reached its “natural conclusion” and there is no consensus, he prefers to put it to a vote and move on.

At that point, some members sometimes still say that they must “strive for consensus” but his response is: “That is correct, but in the absence of consensus we’re going to take a decision.” McElduff continues: “So it’s important to be decisive when consensus is not forthcoming. Put it to a vote and let the democratic mandate speak for itself, and then respect the outcome.”

As chair, he maintains his own independence by visiting projects from both sides of the community.

Asked whether members always follow party lines or act independently, he points to the word ‘compromise’. In prac
tice, this means that members come at an issue from a different angle, softening their language and emphasis, when they discover that their view of the world “isn’t going to be embraced”.

If someone is not prepared to compromise, it would be better if they did not bring the issue before the committee, he contends. In fact, some party political statements are not repeated in the committee room because MLAs know that they won’t get sufficient support for that view.

“Sometimes people fight every tackle but sometimes they don’t,” he continues. “And I think people choose not to fight certain battles if it’s going to lead to acrimony and people decide, you know, to let it go.”

Since restoration, he concludes, the committee has learnt to scrutinise as many aspects of the department’s work as possible. Over 80 per cent of DCAL’s work is delegated to arm’s length bodies and the way in which they are run can cause problems, as shown by the Northern Ireland Events Company. This convinces the committee that accountability and governance needs to be robust.

“You can devolve work to an arm’s length body but you must keep monitoring whether or not it is being carried out properly or not.”

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