January 11 - Ship steadied but only after an ugly storm

IT was a controversy that nobody centrally involved will ever forget, much as they might wish to. The extraordinary events surrounding the National City of Culture 2014 project propelled Limerick onto the front pages and into the lead slots on the TV news for all the wrong reasons. After a virtual media hurricane over the weekend, triggered by one of the most dramatic meetings to take place in the city for many years, the storm only abated early on Tuesday afternoon with the interim appointment of Mike Fitzpatrick, head of the Limerick School of Art and Design. The arrival of a man widely accepted as the safe pain of hands the foundering project badly needed has persuaded many that the ship has now been steadied. But if it has, what lessons have been learned?

IT was a controversy that nobody centrally involved will ever forget, much as they might wish to. The extraordinary events surrounding the National City of Culture 2014 project propelled Limerick onto the front pages and into the lead slots on the TV news for all the wrong reasons. After a virtual media hurricane over the weekend, triggered by one of the most dramatic meetings to take place in the city for many years, the storm only abated early on Tuesday afternoon with the interim appointment of Mike Fitzpatrick, head of the Limerick School of Art and Design. The arrival of a man widely accepted as the safe pain of hands the foundering project badly needed has persuaded many that the ship has now been steadied. But if it has, what lessons have been learned?

First, it has been painfully clear that Limerick paid the price for being first out of the blocks once Minister Jimmy Deenihan announced the new National City of Culture scheme in July 2012. Naturally we accept that, in making the designation, Mr Deenihan was entirely motivated by a desire to give Limerick a lift. Responding to questions put to him by the Leader earlier this week, he said the idea was to “help shape, brand and promote a new Limerick city and to showcase the very best of Limerick arts on the national and international stage”. All very well – and a noble intention for sure – but once Limerick was given the designation, the minister dropped the ball. He had a responsibility to ensure that those charged with making a success of the year were given a reasonable chance. Instead, uncertainty over the level of funding the project would receive ended just 77 days before the year began, with the confirmation of its €6m budget on October 15.

As the City of Culture project began crashing into the rocks, with artistic director Karl Wallace lost overboard, the reasons for its implosion came under the microscope. It would be inaccurate and unfair to blame the minister for everything that went wrong, but it was also ungracious of him not to accept that the failure to confirm funding until so late in the day was the ultimate source of many of the problems that ensued.

There was more to this mess than that, though.

This week’s decision to add new members to the board drawn from the local cultural community was an overdue admission that it did not have enough input from respected, knowledgeable arts practitioners in the first place. That was a failing which led – at least in part – to the huge turnout at the now infamous meeting at the Clarion Hotel. It was a fractious and sometimes ugly occasion. In one respect, it was understandable that tensions ran high and that supporters of Mr Wallace and the two programmers who resigned with him – Jo Mangan and Maeve McGrath – would feel anger towards the City of Culture board. However, it must also be stated that the reputations and the honour of well intentioned people were unfairly traduced by some of those who spoke out. In particular the departed CEO, Patricia Ryan, was subjected to a dreadful experience. Whatever about the circumstances of her appointment – and city and county manager Conn Murray has accepted that the lack of transparency was an error on his part – Ms Ryan did not appoint herself.

Thankfully, we have moved on. The turbulence has given way to fresh hope that the year can be a success after all. Everybody has wished Mr Fitzpatrick the best of luck and at least nobody can now doubt Limerick’s passion for the arts. Let us now move forward together and leave the rancour behind.