Michael D. at the NFT

‘A First World country with a Third World memory!’ This was how the Minister for the Arts, Culture and the Gaeltacht, Michael D. Higgins, described Ireland during an appearance at the National Film Theatre in October. He was responding to questions from Stuart Hall and Colin McCabe about the package of policies he had devised to promote cinema in Ireland.

Afterwards, over a drink, some of his admiring audience learnt that the Minister was scheduled for a breakfast meeting next morning with Chris Smith, then still Labour’s Shadow Heritage spokesman. They also learned, from another source, one of the Minister’s constituents in Galway, that back home he is known as Michael Twee. They could only respond that there had been nothing twee about the vision of culture the Minister had shared with his audience earlier in the evening. For listeners still suffering under a government whose determination, for sixteen years, has been to subject the British economy to the whims of multinational investors whose wealth is rooted in more successful economies (in an apparent attempt to produce a Third World country with a First World memory!) Michael D. Higgins’ vision, analytic power and oratorical skills came as a breath of fresh air.

Culture is, he suggested, a vitalising force in the life of a nation. Thus it was particularly important to invest in culture in times of economic stagnation. Delaying such investment till an upturn in the economy made additional funds available was to misunderstand culture’s potential. For this reason he had insisted to his cabinet colleagues that the refinancing of the Irish Film Board, which is responsible for lower budget and more experimentally work, and the work of new directors, was an essential part of the package of measures he introduced when he came into office. He wanted a sustained level of cultural activity as well as a successful industry. Tax breaks alone were not enough to ensure this, as obviously the producers who benefited from them came to Ireland to make money. Thus he had insisted on a 5-year commitment to the Film Board. In retrospect, he argued, it could be seen that the first Board had been wronged when its funding had been discontinued in 1987, at the same time as the tax incentives had been introduced. This had been a failure of political nerve. In fact, the Minister himself liked best the work generated through the Board, and knew and admired the film community behind it. Given the choice between European blockbusters, aiming at rivalling American productions, and works which set out to be the filmic expression of Europe, the Minister emphasized that he himself believed in the latter. ‘Europe has to rediscover its nerve... It you don’t dream about it, nothing will happen’.

He said he was determined to press for a more central role for culture to be written into the 1996 revision of the Maastricht Treaty, and warned against the dangers of selling the pass on the commodification of cultural products. ‘Cultural diversity,’ he insisted, ‘creates values of tolerance’. Moreover: ‘There are those who own who are responsible. There are those who own who exploit.’. We are now, he continued, face to face with: ‘The last great colonisation... The colonisation of the imagination’. Whilst he had nothing against American films: ‘It is surely wrong that all the images of the world should come from one place’.

Underpinning his remarks throughout was the Minister’s commitment to a democratic theory of culture, one which regarded people as citizens rather than consumers, and accepted the market as a means of exchange whilst resisting its hegemony.

He himself, however, did not read scripts, as it is: ‘Not my business to act as a censor of the imagination’. Challenged by Alexander Walker of the Evening Standard about the new film by Thaddeus O’Sullivan, Nothing Personal, and whether it was appropriate to invest in work of this kind, only for a moment did the Minister seem to seek refuge in the hiding-place typical of the politician: ‘I haven’t seen it yet!’ As soon as he realised that, in fact, he had seen the controversial film under the title Frantic Heart, he explicitly expressed his admiration for it. As Walker and O’Sullivan traded accusations of sectarianism the Minister commented that the existence of the film helped make debate possible.