Irish Museum of Modern Art Entrance with Hare sculpture in foreground

The Taoiseach’s appointment of an failed election candidate to the board of Irish Museum of Modern Art (IMMA), while at the same time setting him up for a Seanad seat illustrates the very worst of our crony political system and how little it has changed despite all the scandals of recent years and the promises on transparency. Leinster House has barely re-opened after the long summer break and Enda appears to have indulged in stroke politics of the most brazen sort.

The appointment also shows how little regard the political establishment has for the State’s cultural institutions, as does in many ways, the selection of the new arts Minister, Heather Humphreys, who has little background in the arts and appears to have mainly got the job to fulfil a regional demand of Fine Gael’s electoral ambitions., As it was, Minister Humphreys struggled to explain Enda’s crony appointment and, when called before an unusually roused Seanad on the matter, she just read, twice, a pre-prepared statement, apparently unaware of the stroke nature of the appointment.

The saga began on Tuesday, when it was revealed that the Government was yet again trying to use a State board appointment to win party political advantage, by putting John McNulty, a failed FG local election candidate from Donegal, to the board of the prestigious arts body, IMMA. This was just six days before close of nominations for a vacancy in Seanad, on the education and cultural panel, and thus it was assumed that the IMMA gig would, in some pathetic rapid way, strengthen his ‘artistic credentials.’ The Seanad vacancy had been created by the departure of former FG Senator Deirdre Clune to the European Parliament.

However, in an impressive piece of defiance, the Senate voted to reject the appointment. Thomas Byrne of Fianna Fail said the appointment was to get McNulty ‘over the hill and through the gap’ for a Seanad run and another Senator described it as the ‘greatest cynical stroke in politics in recent times.’

Yesterday, the situation got worse when it was revealed that, in selecting the relatively unknown McNulty as a Seanad candidate, Enda Kenny had rejected three strong female candidates on the possible shortlist – this at a time when our political culture has such a glaring gender imbalance. The three names put forward by Fine Gael’s national executive were Stephanie Regan, Samantha Long and Councillor Kate O’Connell, all of whom are expected to be Dail candidates at the next election.

But although this shows a further lack of ‘progressive action’ in Enda’s stunt, it does beg the question of why these three names are being put forward for the Senate just to boost them for the Dail : the very accusation that was made against the irrelevance of the second chamber during the Seanad campaign – led by Enda Kenny! Ah, but memories are short and it seems that if the system won’t be reformed, sure you may as well as use it as cynically as you always did.  Jobs for the boys and (less so) for the girls!

Meanwhile, at a time when our cultural institutions need all the help and expertise they can get, McNulty is quite clearly not a suitable candidate. I speak with some authority here, as I was on the board of IMMA myself for many years. And from my own time, it was clear that the board was crying out for persons with a background in the visual arts, which this man doesn’t have. His appointment is pure politics and cronyism.

Minister Humphreys defended his appointment by saying that McNulty was ‘a self-employed businessman who brings 15 years’ business experience to the IMMA board. He is involved in the local Tourism and Cultural committee in Kilcar, Co Donegal, and has a track record in promoting culture, heritage, the GAA and the Irish language.” She added, robotically, that ‘he has been involved in heritage restoration project, and festivals such as the Fleadh Ceol, and was currently driving a three-year Irish language development plan for the area.’

But these are not the qualities needed for a modern art museum. Indeed, they could describe any ambitious local politician. IMMA is a cutting-edge national gallery, tracking international trends in avant-garde contemporary visual art. It does a valiant job in this, in the face of an often indifferent public, and with little resources. In all of these efforts, the board needs to strongly support the Chairman and director.

In my own time, the IMMA board acted as such and was strengthened by the inclusion of persons such as the art historian Dr Eimear O’Connor, sculptor Rowan Gillespie and Mary McCarthy of the National Sculpture Factory in Cork. We also had board members with a strong business or public sector experience, such as Julie O’Neill, now on the board of Ryanair. But these were senior business and corporate figures, not a local FG politician with a small business background!

As for my own appointment, it was for many reasons: I had just written a book about the Irish arts scene, organised an exhibition of my father, who was a sculptor, and had an extensive knowledge of the gallery scene. I had also worked in Government on cultural and artistic projects. Being an IMMA board member was an unpaid duty but I was very glad to do it. And I wasn’t running for an election elsewhere!

There are so many depressing aspects to the McNulty ‘double appointment’. It shows the casual, almost derisive treatment of arts institutions and especially visual arts institutions, by the political culture. When I was on the IMMA board, we tried to fight a pointless forced merger of IMMA with the National Gallery but we got little support from the philistines down in the Dail or Senate.

In this regard, Fine Gael is actually the worst offender. Fianna Fail has at least shown strong support for the arts over the years, especially (but not only) under Charlie Haughey who founded the artist’s body, Aosdana, and introduced tax exemption for artists. By contrast, Fine Gael, perhaps of its austere historic and social background, has usually shown little interest in cultural matters. And this is typified now by Enda Kenny’s bone-headed appointment of a local politician and Seanad candidate to the board of our modern art museum!

Bu the wider picture here is of a political system that is still about perks, cronyism and a scrambling for personal and political ambition. And if this means that they have to ride roughshod over our esteemed cultural institutions then so be it. Nothing has changed.

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