Cultural policy and arts engagement for the Working Class in Northern Ireland. Case Study: ‘The Gert and Friend’ project
Holly Foskett discusses how cultural policy can create more inclusion for engagement in the arts and culture in Northern Ireland
With its history of cultural division, as per the Troubles, cultural engagement post-Troubles has been an issue of concern, particularly as part of the development of an inclusive cultural policy. Working class cultural engagement is an area of focus, given the socio-economic demographics of NI and the intensity of the division among this group.
Given the importance of cultural identity in the context of political struggle, culture has been seen as a trigger point of conflict in Northern Ireland between the Catholic, Nationalist, Republican (CNR) and Protestant, Unionist, Loyalist (PUL) communities. It has been suggested that it would be extremely difficult to make a cohesive and inclusive cultural policy that values and celebrates both communities, without backlash or bias. With a lack of cultural policy outlining the priorities of cultural activity and industries in the country, it has been left to the devises of other governmental and public funded bodies to fulfil these aspects and support artistic and cultural outputs.
Reports from NISRA (Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency) shows 79% of adults engaged in culture, arts, heritage and sport while 62% had engaged in only in culture and arts in Northern Ireland in 2021/22. The data also showed that adults who identify as PUL were less likely to attend an art event than CNR adults (41% and 46% respectively). The statistics also showed were less likely to participate in art activities, engage in the arts or attend any art or cultural activity compared to those adults who were living in the least deprived areas in Northern Ireland. There are patterns of social inequality in arts and cultural participation and evidence of links between socio-economic and education in low engagement else were in the UK. However, it is possible that the cultural or artistic forms offered to these communities (or the general population) are not appreciated, valued or deemed welcoming by those communities. Research and understanding on the artistic or cultural form valued by different demographics should be considered to create meaningful and long-term engagement in the arts, otherwise known as cultural democracy
This research focused on one case study, titled ‘The Gert and Friends’ which was delivered by EastSide Arts, an arts-based community organisation based in East Belfast, Northern Ireland. This co-creation project was formed with a local PUL (Protestant Unionist Loyalist) working-class flute band called the Gertrude Star, exploring their cultural expression and identity with the participation of professional musicians. This project was delivered under a cultural funding initiative for the PUL community in Belfast, granted from the Belfast City Council titled ‘A City Imagining Micro Grants & Cultural Leadership Support 2021/22, Focus on: those working within the area of cultural heritage, identity and its expression within the broad Unionist community’. Through further research it is not clear if other grants similar to this fund dedicated for PUL identities was reproduced for CRN communities. Funding sources were found that were awarded to cultural and community based organisations who work with the CNR community with their own valued culture and expression of heritage such as the Féile an Phobail festival.
Participants from the flute band wanted this project to showcase their musical talent and to improve on their skills by trying out new styles and pieces. They expressed the opportunity to work with other musicians to try something new and to play alongside them on collaboratively written pieces was something they wanted to showcase.
“I saw this as a great opportunity to improve myself both in my playing and with musical theory and seeing how traditional unionist music can combine with a more contemporary music style.” Participant from Flute band.
I also identified the important role that local authorities can play in addressing issues of inequality in cultural participation. I found that valuing the cultural tastes and values of working-class communities in the arts and culture are key for engagement. However, understanding the cultural tastes and values for working-class communities is complex as there is no deemed ‘working-class culture’, particularly in the context of Northern Ireland.
Arts and cultural engagement is shaped by the and understanding gained through cultural participation. With this, EastSide Arts conducted a trust building session, which was a very important aspect as it gave both facilitators and participants a way to address their concerns and ask questions to help outline the co-design approach to the project. This furthered the deepening of engagement and the confidence of those involved in the delivery of the project. This is significant when engaging with a particular cultural form reflecting cultural heritage and identity. Culture is a complicated word for many in Northern Ireland, so respect and trust are vital for gaining knowledge and appreciation for cultural forms with multifaceted layers of identity and heritage for both CNR and PUL communities.
The existence of a cultural fund to support Unionist culture illustrates that there is recognition of the value of such forms of cultural expression. This case study shows that the working-class community evidently values the musical and heritage facets of PUL flute bands, which have a strong presence for this specific community and others who identify as PUL. However, due to the political aspects of this cultural form, there are complexities in thinking about how PUL flute bands might be supported in cultural policy in NI. Using tools of co-creation and trying new musical styles and setting their own terms, wants and needs for this co-creational aspect helps shift the power dynamics in cultural delivery and the aspects of a cultural democracy approach for engagement and rewriting a new narrative for this cultural form within the PUL community.
With the intricate layers of cultural identity and the outlining of equality strategies within Northern Ireland, the representation of all identities is reflected into all fragments of society including cultural strategy. In Northern Ireland, socio-economic classifications are not at the forefront in equality policies. But those from working-class communities do contribute to the delivery of art and cultural activity, though contested, in Northern Ireland within their own areas and communities. Through this research it is hoped that more acceptance of working-class cultural forms and other marginalised groups due to socio-economic inequalities will be supported by specific cultural policies to create more inclusion for engagement in the arts and culture in Northern Ireland and beyond.
Image courtesy of Sabrina Dallot-Seguro via a Creative Commons License.