Today I raised at Oral Topical Issues debates in the Dail the future of the RTE Orchestras.
Unfortunately Minister Humphreys did not attend in person and the Minister of State covering debate again re-iterated that the Department of Arts & Heritage had no responsibility in respect of the future of the RTE Orchestras. Below is the contribution I made to the debate:
“I had not heard that the Minister was not going to appear in the Chamber. I am disappointed that she is not present as she is the Minister with responsibility for culture and this matter was very much directed at her. I will wait to hear what the Minister of State, Deputy Paul Kehoe, has to say on her behalf, but this is most unsatisfactory. With no disrespect to him, had I been advised of this information, I would not have accepted this arrangement.
I wish to ask Deputy Heather Humphreys as the Minister with responsibility for culture whether she agrees that orchestras, in particular, the two RTÉ orchestras, the national symphony and concert orchestras which were founded in 1948, are an intrinsic part of our culture? Does she agree that music is an intrinsic part of our culture? It is something for which we are known and celebrated throughout the world, yet we seem to be on a slow march towards dismantling the numbers of employees working with the orchestras and possibly doing away with one of them entirely.
The Minister has not come into the House to take this matter, but I want to ask her as the Minister with responsibility for culture and a successor to a former Minister, Michael D. Higgins, now President, who established the first Department of Culture, what her vision or fís is for orchestras in the playing of music in this country? Are we on the road to almost having a plot that one might see in an opera in which music, particularly classical and orchestral music in RTÉ, will be killed in a death by a thousand cuts? Already RTÉ is 30 professional musicians short and by next year, it may be 40 short.
I am not aware that in its history Fine Gael has been particularly committed to culture, but this is shocking. When Creative Ireland was established during the centenary commemorations, as the then Tánaiste, I strongly supported widening the investment in culture to rebuild the national cultural institutions, including the National Concert Hall, yet we have an important short debate taking place on the matter today and the Fine Gael-led Government has not been able to send the Minister into the House to take it.
Having listened to the poor Minister of State who was asked to deliver that script, I know why the senior Minister did not come in. It is a disgrace. We are proud of our culture in this country. It is an insult to the musicians who work in the two orchestras that the Minister responsible for culture was unable to grace this Chamber for the debate. I mean no disrespect to the Minister of State, Deputy Paul Kehoe, when I say that. At least he had the courage to be here. He was certainly handed a patsy to read.
Will the Government apologise to musicians? Will it apologise to the large numbers of young people who are studying music to degree level with a view to becoming professional musicians? Where is their employment going to be if we are working systematically to downgrade the number of people who work with the RTÉ orchestras, possibly with a view to axing one of them entirely? Music lovers and the members of the Musicians Union of Ireland and SIPTU want to see the orchestras restored to their full status. We want to see a thriving culture of music learning and appreciation in schools and at degree level in universities. We probably have the smallest orchestra provision of any small European country. Our orchestras are based in RTÉ because the custom when they were founded in 1948 was to have radio orchestras that broadcast to people around the country in order that they could enjoy classical music.
The Minister of State was part of the discussions when Topical Issue debates were introduced. One of the reforms promised by the Government at the time was that the relevant Minister would appear. If he or she could not appear, which can happen, an apology would be provided as part of the discussion with the Deputy who placed the Topical Issue. We were told that it would be possible, with the agreement of the Chair, for the Deputy in question to refuse to proceed with the Topical Issue on the day and ask to raise it with the Minister in the Chamber on another day. Will the Minister of State ask the senior Minister to reschedule this debate in order that we can be given some answers as part of a response in favour of the retention of the orchestras?