Deenihan ducks any blame for Limerick City of Culture conflict

Alan English, Alan O


Alan English, Alan O

Pat Cox and Minister Jimmy Deenihan with entertainers from the group Seodra, Sharon Howley, Aoife Garrard and Jean Wallace at the launch of Limerick City of Culture on New Year's Eve and below, before the storm, the assembled politcal team with Patricia Ryan and Pat Cox
ARTS minister Jimmy Deenihan has declined to accept any personal responsibility for the crisis which enveloped Limerick’s National City of Culture project, leading to four resignations before the initiative was finally steadied this week, following days of controversy and high drama.

ARTS minister Jimmy Deenihan has declined to accept any personal responsibility for the crisis which enveloped Limerick’s National City of Culture project, leading to four resignations before the initiative was finally steadied this week, following days of controversy and high drama.

On Tuesday the Limerick Leader sent Mr Deenihan a list of 12 questions, some of which related to criticisms of him not being well informed on the tensions which beset the project. The minister has said he only learned of Mr Wallace’s resignation through the media after the event.

Mr Deenihan was also asked if he accepted that organisers had been placed in a very difficult positon due to the failure to confirm the €6 million funding until October 15 last. He declined to answer this question, and also did not answer a question asking whether he felt the people of Limerick were owed an apology by him because of the embarrassment caused by the project’s high-profile implosion.

Separately, the other Government minister most associated with the project, Limerick’s Michael Noonan, has told the Leader that he could not understand why the conflict which led to the resignations of CEO Patricia Ryan, artistic director Karl Wallace and event programmers Maeve McGrath and Jo Mangan had happened in the first place.

“I kept in touch with what was going on, and I’m glad that it now seems to be resolved,” Mr Noonan said this Wednesday, following the introduction as interim leader of the locally respected Mike Fitzpatrick, who has been seconded from his job as head of Limerick School of Art and Design, under a new partnership arrangement with LIT.

“Nobody has ever fully explained to me what the basis of the conflict was,” Mr Noonan added. “There were obviously differences of opinions, but with all the talk and all the interviews and all the debate, it was never quite clear to me what the issues were.

“Obviously it’s a pity there was conflict but these things happen. The board that was put in place had excellent people on it. Pat Cox is an excellent chairman. If he was capable of chairing the European Parliament, which he was with great effect, he was surely able for the City of Culture. Obviously there were differences of opinion, and it’s a pity they became public.

“What the Government was asked to do was to provide funding and we did that at Budget time. There were assurances given a year before the Budget that the project would be adequately funded and we fulfilled that commitment at Budget time through Jimmy Deenihan’s department with the help of Brendan Howlin.”

However, in an interview with the Leader late last year, city and county manager Conn Murray said that as recently as six months ago, uncertainty over the funding for City of Culture had forced him to make significant changes to how the project was being managed at local level.

“Quite simply, the money wasn’t coming. That’s the way it was going to be,” Mr Murray said then. He added he learned this through the regular briefings he has with Mr Noonan.

“By July, we were hitting a wall. I was consistently pursuing the issue of how do I get funding ... The minister would have expressed his view that he was not satisfied with the type of proposal (for funding) that was coming to him.

“We had to get something to the department that was credible and deliverable.”

It was at this point that Mr Murray made the decision to put Ms Ryan in charge of the management of the project, initally on an interim basis. She was later appointed CEO after a recruitment process which Mr Murray subsequently admitted was not transparent. He told the Leader that he had spoken to five candidates, but some were unable to start straight away and others were not happy with the salary he was prepared to offer.

Already impressed with the quality of Ms Ryan’s work, he recommended her appointment to the board. Unhappiness over this recruitment process and claims of cronyism – due to Ms Ryan’s previous experience as a personal adviser to board chairman Mr Cox – were aired at last Friday’s dramatic public meeting at the Clarion Hotel, during which Mr Cox heatedly denied having any part in the decision to appoint Ms Ryan.

Mr Murray defended himself from trenchant criticism at Friday’s public meeting, stating he had never had his integrity questioned in 34 years of public service. He previously said that with a longer lead-in time, the CEO position would have been advertised through the usual channels, but that the concerns over funding had forced his hand.

In response to the 12 questions submitted, the Leader received a detailed reply from Mr Deenihan’s office. However, the questions were not individually answered and some were ignored. The responses to the questions that were addressed are below, along with the questions not answered.

Question 1. Why was Limerick chosen as the inaugural National City of Culture and what was the process by which it was selected?

Response: Following his appointment in 2011, Minister Deenihan attended and officiated at a large number of arts events in Limerick. The Minister has always believed that Limerick has a vibrant and diverse arts scene, and raised the idea of a city of culture - with individual groups and publicly at events - to capture and showcase the arts in the city as part of a new national initiative on Cities of Culture.

Minister Deenihan received a presentation from the Limerick Reorganisation Implementation Group in May 2012 setting out how a City of Culture for 2014 could work and encouraging this designation. Following this, in June 2012, Minister Deenihan brought to Government his intention to introduce a City of Culture initiative in 2014, and to designate Limerick as the inaugural City of Culture.

Limerick City is undergoing a process of profound change at present. 2014 – when a new single local authority will come into being – is an important year for the city. The designation of Limerick as the inaugural City of Culture was made 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.

Question 2: When the designation was initially announced the minister said it would go to a new city every two years – this has become four years. Did the minister think that two years was too short a lead-in time? If so, did Limerick have enough of a lead in time, in the minister’s opinion?

Response: The formal designation of Limerick City of Culture 2014 gave the city 18 months to plan for 2014. As set out above, in the months before the formal announcement was made there was also contact between the Department and the local authorities and the Limerick Reorganisation Implementation Group.

Without doubt a lot of work had to be done in this period, and a detailed and exciting programme of events was prepared for the city. The priority now is to ensure that this programme is delivered.

A significant financial commitment has been made to Limerick City for 2014. It is not now envisaged that the Department would be in a position to make a similar commitment again as soon as 2016. It is the intention that the next City of Culture will held by a city in 2018. A selection process will take place to select this city.

Note: the selection criteria were then outlined in detail in the response, including “a preference for a ‘bottom-up’ approach which seeks to unite cultural and socio-economic stakeholders in a common project”. The criteria also refer to “the city’s ability to maximise its existing infrastructure and facilities to the benefit of the arts”; and “the lasting and positive impact on the location long into the future”.

Question 3. Does the minister accept that the the organisers were placed in an extremely difficult position because of ongoing uncertainty over the level of Government funding?

Response: In terms of funding, the only mechanism that is available to the Minister to confirm funding is through the budget process. Limerick is receiving €6 million in funding this year, and that has been drawn from the proceeds of the sale of the National Lottery licence. Funding has been dependent on the presentation of a diverse, high quality cultural programme. That programme is in place now and significant funding is also in place.

Question 4. Conn Murray, Limerick City and county manager, has stated that he was told at Government level, including by Minister Michael Noonan, that the application for funding submitted in June 2013 was not well received. He says changes to the running of the project, which led to the appointment of Patricia Ryan as CEO, stemmed from his understanding that insufficient funding would be made available if the original application was not considerably revised. Is that an accurate assessment?

Response: None

5. Little happened between July 2012 when the project was announced and January 2013 when Pat Cox was enlisted as chairman. Initial funding to get the project off the ground and appoint an artistic director was provided by Limerick Local Authorities. Crucial planning time was lost in this six-month period. Does the minister accept that he underestimated what would be needed to ensure the project’s success?

Response: None

Question 6. Was it not inevitable that the project would run aground when its funding was confirmed only on October 15, 2013 - just 77 days before the year began? Even if indications were made earlier than this that the funding would be around €6m it still placed the organisers in an extremely difficult position. By comparison organisers of the Derry UK City of Culture year had their funding confirmed well over a year before it started.

Response: None

Question 7: Minister Deenihan has said he first learned of the artistic director’s departure through the media. Does he accept that, having given Limerick the City of Culture designation, he should have ensured he was better informed about how it was progressing?

Response: None

Question 8. Some have been surprised that the minister was seemingly unaware of the tensions behind the scenes which led to Mr Wallace’s resignation, given that his department’s assistant secretary, Niall O Donnchu, sat on the City of Culture board. Was the minister not being briefed by Mr O Donnchu on events?

Response: A senior official of the Department supported the local authority, to the extent that was possible, with the preparation of a programme case for possible Exchequer support. Following the allocation of exchequer funds to support the City of Culture in 2013, this support was ended in November. The Department has been designated as the funding authority to administer and manage the Exchequer allocation announced in Budget 2014 for the City of Culture programme.

The Department’s engagement can now only be in the context of the administration, management and oversight of the disbursal of that funding to Limerick City and County Council, not in day-to-day operational issues.

Question 9. What part has the minister played in trying to put the project back on track?

Response: On Monday evening Minister Deenihan met representatives of the local authority management and the board of Limerick City of Culture 2014. On Tuesday morning he met representatives of the local arts community including the Professional Limerick Artists Network (PLAN) and Ormston House Visual Artists. In these meetings, he stressed the importance of getting Limerick City of Culture 2014 back on track, and it was abundantly clear that everyone he spoke to was 100 per cent committed to this.

Question 10. Pat Cox has said that no funding has been received as yet, even though we are a week into the year. When will the money arrive?

Response: The Department and the local authority have signed the Heads of Agreement that set out the terms under which this funding can be drawn down.

Question 11. The people of Limerick have been upset and embarrassed by recent events. Does the minister feel they are owed an apology by him?

Response: None

Question 12. What can the minister say to assure Limerick that, despite the deeply unfortunate beginning, the City of Culture year will recover and become a success?

Response: No specific response was provided by Minister Deenihan to this question, but the statement issued by his department also included comments he made earlier in the week, which can be read in the Limerick Leader.