In MID-March, Coronavirus regulations brought many areas of Northern Ireland’s vibrant arts sector to a halt, as venues were shut down and live performances cancelled.

With the help of Government guidelines and incentives, other sectors have slowly got back to their feet, but with live music banned, and arts venues and theatres still closed, the arts sector continues to struggle.

The phrase “kicking someone when they are down” comes to mind after Chancellor of the Exchequer, Rishi Sunak, recently implied during an interview with ITV News that musicians should retrain.

This was echoed this week in a controversial Government poster featuring a photograph of a ballerina alongside the wording: “Fatima’s next job could be in cyber (she just doesn’t know it yet). Rethink. Reskill, Reboot”.

A glimmer of hope for the arts sector in Northern Ireland was the announcement at the start of July that the UK government would be allocating a £33million support package for arts, culture and heritage, and a further allocation of £29million was announced at the end of September, but it is yet unclear exactly how this funding will be distributed across the sector.

This week, The Impartial Reporter spoke to a number of Fermanagh natives who work within the arts sector in Northern Ireland, asking them how they have been impacted by the pandemic, and what they think the Government should be doing to support their sector.

CIARA O’Flanagan, founder of the Fermanagh School of Music and Performing Arts said: “I’m delighted to see the Government has finally acknowledged the impact Covid has had on those who work within the arts sector.”

She continued: “Speaking from the point of view of a person who has studied music from the age of four, it was very distressing to hear the Chancellor of the Exchequer advising musicians to retrain in other jobs.

“It’s very demoralising to expect musicians that have trained for years upon years, and invested tens of thousands of pounds on training and equipment, to then be told to retrain.

“It was encouraging to see the Government now offering to help those in the arts sector.”

Ciara explained that her only concern is that the money will be passed to buildings such as theatres and various venues, rather than the actual people – the artists, the musicians, the actors.

“The abolition of live music is detrimental to so many people within the local area who rely on this as their career, not only financially, but mentally.

“Some musicians who used to work every week within the industry suddenly have nothing to get up for each day, nothing to look forward to, nothing to keep them focused and engaged in daily life.

“We’ve only seen the tip of the iceberg as to the effect this is having on the arts sector, so hopefully this funding will go a long way to supporting those who need it to continue in their daily lives,” said Ciara.

WRITER and director Kat Woods is from Enniskillen but currently lives in Belfast, and said that the arts in general are seen as an ‘elitist’ affair, and those from socio- and economically-disadvantaged communities are going to be the hardest hit.

“Throughout my career I have had to work a full-time job to subsidise my income within the theatre community.”

She continued: “This is the first year that I have managed to secure enough commissions to focus on writing and creating, and in January I finally felt that my soul could breathe just a little easier.

“Alas, the pandemic has put my plans on hold.

“We have to stop thinking that the arts are a luxury, that theatre is inaccessible, that there are more important things to help, for it is from the theatre that we are allowed to let writers, actors etc flourish.”

She highlighted how theatre gave people the most popular viewed shows throughout lockdown, such as, ‘I May Destroy You’, ‘Fleabag’, and ‘Normal People’.

She added: “It [theatre] gave you most of the writers and actors who work across Eastenders and Coronation Street, not to mention Netflix and other streaming services.

“The theatre and our artist community is vital to our mental health, and to our education, and our employment.

“We are calling on our politicians to release the necessary funds in order to save us.

“We need urgent help and we need it now.”

RUTH Moore from Enniskillen is the co-ordinator for the International Fund for Ireland-funded ‘Across the Lines’ programme at the Glens Centre, over in Manorhamilton.

She said that the artistic and creative industries, which comprise many sole business traders, and businesses and charitable companies, have metaphorically been left hanging “despite initial governmental supports and despite the long-awaited support package for the sector”.

“There can be no doubt there has been a collective political failure, which has under-appreciated the integrated nature of arts and culture in all our lives and its net contribution to health and well-being, to the economy, and to cultural tourism; the failure is revealing in itself,” said Ruth.

She continued: “Artists living in Border communities face significant challenges at the best of times, and it is a real struggle for rural areas to hold on to their home-grown creatives.

“Whilst support is by no means rosy for artists a few miles away in the Republic, the government there has continued to offer Covid payments until next year to working artists.

“Our Government must act now with a view to the longer-term to support the industry so much depended upon in normal times,” Ruth told this newspaper.