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Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees

Tuesday, 30 September 2014

Joint Oireachtas Committee on Environment, Culture and the Gaeltacht

National Cultural Institutions (National Concert Hall) Bill 2014: Discussion

3:25 pm

Photo of Fiach MacConghailFiach MacConghail (Independent) | Oireachtas source

I thank all the witnesses who have attended. I wish to note at the outset and put on the record that I was appointed Senator as a nominee of the Taoiseach, I presume on the basis that I have some interest in and experience of the arts world. I also want to put on record that I am director of the Abbey Theatre, which is a national cultural institution, and I am a member of the council of national cultural institutions. I am familiar, therefore, with the work of many of my colleagues in the national cultural institutions. My questions come from the experience of having worked in both the commercial and subsidised sectors. I welcome the pre-legislative scrutiny because it is a non-combative way of trying to unpick the various issues. I see certain polite conflicts between the National Concert Hall and the Department on key areas.

It is stated in head 9, section 3 that the Minister may give general policy direction in writing to the hall board in the performance of its functions with the exception of functions relating to artistic and curatorial matters. It is an extraordinary power to give to any Minister. While artistic and curatorial matters are disassociated, I would like to hear from the chairman and Mr. Ó Donnchú as assistant secretary on this matter because in the running of a national cultural institution, there is very little to differentiate between putting on a play or a concert and the business of putting on that play or concert. A particular head would be required to define when an issue is not artistic and when it is not business. It is fairly predominant throughout the proposed scheme that the Minister has a huge amount of power in terms of managing and interfering, with no arm's-length principle, and that he or she can find many different ways to influence the board, from appointments to the board, the necessary qualifications for which are very vague and while some are listed, there is no mention of artists or composers being on the board, to the issue of gender balance, which is dealt with by requiring it to the greatest extent practical, whereas the Bill should be very clear about gender balance, to issues around the submission of the statement of strategy. My cynical reading of this is to see it as a way for the Minister to have day-to-day involvement in the running of the National Concert Hall. I would like to hear whether that is true and whether it is the intention. It is only a scheme and there might be a way we can unpick that. That is one broad question.

I welcome Mr. Ó Donnchú's statement that this is enabling rather than prescriptive legislation and that he has looked at similar types of legislation. What are the other examples of legislation, particularly in Ireland? The National Concert Hall is a quasi-commercial organisation which depends on punters buying tickets at a show, performance or concert and on how good that production is.

Its activity is fairly commercial so it has to be nimble and be able to turn on a sixpence. The general scheme of the Bill does not reflect the need to be nimble about staffing, notwithstanding the rights of the staff. Could Mr. Ó Donnchú and Mr. Taylor explain how they would manage the National Concert Hall’s business in this environment?
My third question is for Mr. Kearney and the Department. Was the code of practice for the governance of State bodies considered an appropriate mechanism? What are its advantages? The only advantage I see is that the Minister has significant power over everything the National Concert Hall is doing. That is the only big difference because at the moment there is an arm’s-length relationship between them. We should get some reassurance on that. I am concerned about the fit-for-purpose legislation.
Mr. Kearney has mentioned staffing, financial matters and what I call the nimbleness. He said too that there should be some discretion and responsibility appropriate to the commercial environment in which the work is undertaken. I do not see that reflected here. He has had various discussions with the Department. I do not see any of the board’s suggestions in the general scheme of the Bill. Where does he think this committee might support the board?
This point might appear in other legislation but under head 23, section 9 relates to the fact that the director, who is the Accounting Officer has to go before committees and the Comptroller and Auditor General to give account of the board. Section 9, however, states:

In the performance of the duties of Director under subsection (8), the Director shall not question or express an opinion on the merits of any policy of the Government or a Minister of the Government or on the merits of the objectives of such a policy.
Not only will the Minister control absolutely everything the National Concert Hall will do – in fact the Minister might as well be running the National Concert Hall – but this will emasculate the independence of the director general’s view of policy. I might have misread this and I am happy to be corrected on that. Those are my broad concerns, that the Minister is increasing her power, which does not bode well in light of the recent issues around the Irish Museum of Modern Art. I could have misread all of this and I look forward to Mr. Ó Donnchú’s reply.

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