Prime Time - Humphreys, McNulty and the IMMA

Sunday 19 October 2014 11.59
Prime Time's Political Correspondent Katie Hannon blogs on the relationship between the government and a valued arts institution.
Prime Time's Political Correspondent Katie Hannon blogs on the relationship between the government and a valued arts institution.

There  was much speculation around Leinster House that Arts Minister Heather Humphreys would be rewarded in the Budget  for taking the hit (and full responsibility) for appointing one-time Seanad hopeful John McNulty to the board of IMMA. Ill-informed speculation, as it turned out.  In the event, the beleaguered Minister had to talk up a €4 million allocation for the 1916 commemorations while insisting that she was pleased that spending on arts and culture was to be ‘protected.’  The Department’s website boasted:  ‘the 2015 Budget sends a strong message that this Government values the arts, our heritage and the support of the Irish language.’

Abbey Theatre director Senator Fiach Mac Conghail begged to differ, pointing out that arts funding was effectively cut when inflation was taken into account. The ‘general view across the sector’ was that this was ‘very disappointing’, he said, adding that after years of cuts many of the cultural institutions were “at breaking point”. The relationship between this Government and the arts community can hardly be at a lower ebb.

It is against this backdrop that the complete correspondence between the Irish Museum of Modern Art and the Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht relating to the most recent appointments to the IMMA board has been released to Prime Time under the Freedom of Information Act (see related files below).

It reveals what some might see as a striking lack of respect – not to mention a basic absence of common courtesy - on the part of the Department towards a ‘valued’ arts institution. It clearly shows that the Department failed to inform IMMA about its two new board members until six days after the appointments were made.

An email dated September 23 reads: ‘Several queries had been sent into our press department on that day and subsequent days asking for the list of our Board members and the list of 9 current members was sent out to all queries.  We had not been notified by the Department that our current limit of 9 members had been lifted so we did not know there were vacancies.’

Furthermore, when the chair  of the IMMA board and the director of IMMA met the Minister at a meeting of cultural chiefs on the day news of the appointments was going to break, ‘this matter did not come up.’

The correspondence also shows that while Minister Humphreys has been at pains to state that she decided the IMMA board needed a regional spread after a visit in August, it’s clear this visit was the briefest of affairs where she turned up unannounced and did not meet the director or any member of the board.

The tone of IMMA’s response to all of this veers from stunned to icy. A letter to John McNulty is brief and terse, drawing his attention to Article 21 rule (ix) of the Memo and Arts which precluded Seanad nominees from membership of the board.

A letter from board chairman Eoin McGonigal to the Minister is polite but decidedly frosty: ‘We would like clarity as to whether the 2012 Government decision has now been over-turned and if we can now proceed on the basis that our Board is back to 15 members as laid out in our Memorandum and Articles.  If there are further vacancies on the IMMA Board we would ask if further appointments could be made with consideration of the nature of IMMA’s programme and financial priorities.’ Ouch.

While Enda Kenny’s credibility undoubtedly suffered the greatest damage out of the McNulty-gate fiasco, his newly-minted Minister’s reputation and authority has also been dealt a major blow. She has a great deal of ground to make up with the arts community and very little funds with which to do so. 

Prime Time Political Correspondent Katie Hannon