Arts world reacts angrily to ‘ministerial meddling’ in Belfast Festival

By Lesley-Anne Henry
Friday, 25 March 2011
Nelson McCausland
Nelson McCausland
Artists have lambasted Culture Minister Nelson McCausland for what they see as his attempts to influence the programming of one of Northern Ireland’s most popular arts festivals.
The DUP man has called for pro-Israeli views and Christian music to be included as part of the programme.
The request was made in an email to Belfast Festival at Queen’s director Graeme Farrow, which has been made public following a Freedom of Information request.
Yesterday Mr Farrow declined to comment publicly on the controversy. However, other artists, actors and directors have rounded on the minister and slammed his intervention.
“You couldn’t write it,” said Peter Quigley, a director of the Belfast Fringe Festival.
“He’s not an artist, he’s a politician. It highlights the provinciality that exists here with our Assembly.
“You would not get that statement coming from the minister for culture in Britain. But here they seem to think that they know better. There is a small-mindedness.”
The Belfast Festival at Queen’s is supported by a number of funders including the Ulster Bank which announced a three-year sponsorship deal of £1m in 2008.
It has also received £300,000 in funding from DCAL over the past three years.
Last year Mr McCausland criticised a Belfast Festival debate on the Middle East for not being balanced because pro-Israeli academic Professor Geoffrey Alderman had his invitation to the event withdrawn.
And the minister also criticised what he described as excessive swearing in the play Black Watch.
Will Chamberlain, artistic director of Belfast Festival of Fools, said: “The minister has a right to express what he would like to see on a programme, but to demand from an independent organisation that they start channelling funding is, in my view, an abuse of power.”
Belfast Telegraph arts critic Grania McFadden said: “Festival organisers are very skilled in the programming of their events and it is always worrying if any other side parties try to influence them.”
The minister was unavailable for interview yesterday.

However a spokesman said: “The minister wrote to the Belfast Festival organisers in order to try and encourage more openness and inclusiveness.

“In relation to the issue of Israel, Mr McCausland wrote to the festival organisers after they cancelled the invitation of a Jewish academic to participate in a panel discussion and apologised for inviting him in the first place.

“With regard to the issue of music, it is a fact that gospel singers have taken part in the festival before and met with enthusiastic support.
“Mr McCausland merely expressed a view that the festival should build on that success with more of a popular musical genre.”
”Only through wilful misinterpretation of his comments could anyone justify the claims that have been made.”
Background
Last year Professor Geoffrey Alderman, the lead columnist on the Jewish Chronicle, was invited to join a panel of speakers to discuss the Middle East conflict at the Belfast Festival at Queen’s. However, the invitation was withdrawn days before the academic was due to fly in to the province. Professor Alderman was invited to join the planned discussion after the Northern Ireland Friends of Israel group complained that the speakers on the panel, Avi Shlaim and QUB professor Beverly Milton-Edwards, were both critics of Israel, so the event would be unbalanced.

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