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Interview with Colm Ó Briain, Special Advisor to Michael D. Higgins

Rathmines, Ireland. 2nd May 2001
Alexandra Dilys-Slaby
p. 221-232

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Index chronologique :

20th century, XXe siècle

Index thématique et géographique :

culture, histoire, history, Ireland, Irlande, société, society
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Texte intégral

1Colm Ó Briain is a member of the Labour Party. He was Chairman of the Arts Council between 1975 and 1983, Special Advisor to Michael D. Higgins between 1993 and 1997. He is now Chairman of the National College of Art and Design. This interview aims at completing the previous one by providing other elements about Michael D. Higgins’s background, and more details about the events surrounding the creation of the Department. It also reveals a particular attitude of defence towards intellectual justifications of Irish political decisions.

Alexandra Dilys-Slaby : What did your position as Special Advisor to Michael D. involve?

Colm Ó Briain : Let me give you a few elements about my background first of all. I was the first full-time Director of the Arts Council before that, and I set up a course in Arts Administration in University College Dublin, and I was also involved with a group in setting up the Business Council for the Arts—it is now called Business2Arts, it was called Cothú then—and I was the first Director of that as well. And also, in the mid-eighties, I was General Secretary of the Labour Party. So this is my background. And when I was General Secretary it was the last years when Michael D. Higgins was Chairman of the party. So there was that personal connection. Also, in his work in the Third World, he has been in Nicaragua and Somalia, my wife is involved in Third World issues, she was then very involved in the Philippines, and she is now in Thailand. She and Michael D. worked on a commission together in the 1970s. So we go a long way back. We have had connections, Michael D. and myself, for over twenty years.

AD-S : What brought Michael D. to work on Third World issues?

COB : He was not Spokesperson on Foreign Affairs, but he had a personal interest in Third World issues, and he was involved a lot in meeting various delegations in Ireland who came to see him because of his role. He didn’t carry an official spokespersonship. He wasn’t a spokesperson for the party, but it was one of the issues he did a lot of writing about, about Third World debt, and development policies in the First World, and so forth, and transfer of skills. So that is an area where he had some direct experience himself.

AD-S : And where can one find those writings?

COB : In Hot Press, he wrote a weekly column in Hot Press. This would have been material for his columns.

AD-S : So he moved from that area to the arts after that?

COB : No. He didn’t move at all. His wife is an actress, and he had been interested in the arts, but not at a political level. Because he is a poet – he had two books of poetry published in the late eighties and early nineties, and he was involved with a lot of the artists in Galway where he was elected to represent Galway in the Parliament. In the eighties, there was a wave of artistic activity in Galway. And he would have been familiar with the people, with say, some rock musicians, with people running the arts centre, he would have been, through his wife as well, going to the theatre in Galway. So he was very much involved in the arts as a supporter of the arts, but when he was on Galway Corporation, he was elected to chair a regional committee for the Arts in Galway and Mayo. So his background in the arts came from a personal interest and a professional interest.

AD-S : What was the rationale behind the creation of the Department and what were the main stages of that process?

COB : The idea of having a Department of national culture goes back as far as the 1960s when there was a survey of the organisation of government departments, and it was suggested in what is called the Devlin Report, that there should be a Department of national culture. So that was in the 1960s, but nothing was done about that. The first change comes... You see, unusually, the Arts Council reported not to the Education Ministry, but to the Prime Minister’s Office, under the law. In the 1980s, the Prime Minister’s Office started to gather in all of the other arts activities that were in other Departments, as in the Industry Department or in the Education Department, and they were all drawn into the Prime Minister’s Department. So, within the Prime Minister’s Department, there was a section called « arts and culture », and that meant that that section in the Department was responsible for dealing with the Arts Council, but the Arts Council, as you know, is not on the French model, but on the British model. It is an autonomous body which is funded by the Department, but the Department is not involved in any of the decisions. So there were no decisions for the civil servants to take in the arts, but all the other organisations like the museums and other cultural institutions were drawn into that Department in the 1980s. There was a Junior Minister reporting to the Prime Minister in relation to the arts in the 1980s. In 1987, Charles Haughey came back as Taoiseach, and he did not want anybody else running the arts, and although there was a Junior minister in his office, she was only appointed to deal with the European aspects of culture. She wasn’t responsible directly, she didn’t have the title of being an arts and culture Minister of State. So you find then after the general election of 1992 the Fianna Fáil party is itself discussing the idea of having a Culture Ministry. And the Labour Party, as you can see in its Manifesto, was the only political party which had a number of cultural objectives as part of its policy. And so when they came to negotiate about forming a government, it was agreed that they would set up this Department. And because the division in the Prime Minister’s office was called Arts and Culture, the name of the Department which was now being merged with the Irish language Department became Arts, Culture and the Gaeltacht. So there was no ideology. It was a purely an administrative background to terminology that was used loosely in the organisational structure of the Prime Minister’s office and that was the name that was given to the new Department.

AD-S : Was that a purely Labour initiative?

COB : No, that was a joint initiative. It came from the two parties.

AD-S : But how did the other elements of the coalition respond to that? Was there a consensus?

COB : It wasn’t proposed by Labour. In my understanding it was an idea that Fianna Fáil was in support of as well. There was no public debate about setting up that Department. It wasn’t a public issue. It didn’t arise in the general election. But in the negotiations between the two parties, it was a joint venture between them to establish this department.

AD-S : What do you make of the distinction between arts and culture? Was there an element of Labour conception of the notion of culture?

COB : No. There was definitely no ideology. They inherited that. There was no ideology. The decision of the government was to take this division which was called arts and culture in the Prime Minister’s office, and put it in with the already existing Gaeltacht Department, to merge them as one Culture Department. So there was no debate about what were arts and what was culture and so forth. Under the legislation, the arts decisions were autonomous, for the Arts Council. The cultural decisions, the museums, and the arts galleries were in that division as well, so when the decision was being taken to take all of this element and put it into the existing Department of the Gaeltacht, it was just a transfer of a division that was called arts and culture.

AD-S : Did Michael D have an involvement with the naming of the Department?

COB : No.

AD-S : What do you make of the removal of the word culture from the heading of the Ministry when Síle de Valera became Minister? Did the word culture have a political meaning?

COB : Yes, it did become a political word. You see, all culture isn’t in the arts, but the arts are part of culture. So in early discussions with Michael D. Higgins, we felt that the name of the Department was not logical in the way it was phrased. But we felt that that was the name given to the Department. When the government changed after two years, we had a discussion as to whether we should recommend to the government to change the name of the Department to, maybe, the Culture Ministry, but we couldn’t drop the Irish language. Dropping the Gaeltacht, even in name, would have had huge political consequences. But on balance, Michael D. Higgins said, I have spent two years building a new Department, and it would not be helpful to change the name so soon. But certainly, subsequently, Fianna Fáil changed the name of the Department. But they said, during the 1997 election, that they were going to rename the Department. There was a comparison with what was happening in the United Kingdom, because in the UK before Tony Blair was elected, what they had was a secretary for National Heritage, and when Blair came into office they called it the Cultural Secretary. So, as we were changing from Culture to Heritage, the British were changing from Heritage to Culture. But there was no ideological debate in government or in the parties about the issue.

AD-S : What was Michael D’s personal input?

COB : Michael D. wasn’t involved in the decision to create the Department. The Labour Party and the Fianna Fáil Party decided that they would create the Department. And then it was Dick Spring, the leader of the party, who nominated Michael D. to be the Minister for Culture. But he wasn’t involved in the decisions or the discussions to set up the Department. After the Department was established, the government then appointed him to the Department. Because Michael D. was on the left of the Labour Party, it was not generally thought that he would get a Ministry, because in many issues he would have been on the other side of the issue from the leader of the party, from Dick Spring. So when Dick Spring had decided in negotiating with the Fianna Fáil party the number of ministers and what ministries the Labour party would have, it was his decision and his alone to appoint Michael D. As well as that, there was another Deputy, Emmet Stag, who was appointed a Junior Minister, and these were considered always the people who were rocking the boat within the party, and it was seen as unifying the party, that Dick Spring was nominating people from across the country on the basis of their talents, rather than on whether they had been on his side or on other sides in various arguments in the party.

AD-S : How was Michael D. received as a person by the rest of the government?

COB : He was well received and had a good relationship with most ministers, but I wouldn’t have seen that directly, because I wouldn’t have been at Cabinet meetings and the ministers would meet at Cabinet. The other ministers, if they didn’t like him, didn’t say it. It was the choice of the Minister, and Dick Spring as Deputy Prime Minister. And there were many people who were disappointed that they were not ministers in the government.

AD-S : What about his relationship with the Department of Finance?

COB : That’s not political. Bertie Ahern was Minister for Finance in the first two years of that government. You asked me about the other ministers in government. But I mean the other members of government don’t have a judgement on other ministers, except when they see whether they are doing their job well or not. So, the issue of what the reaction of other ministers would be to Michael D. would be a personal reaction, and that would be seen in their personal relations, or in any relations that his Department and the Department of the other ministers would have, as to whether the other ministers had a higher regard for the views that Michael D. was putting forward for discussion.

AD-S : What was your relationship with Michael D. and the staff of the Department?

COB : Each minister was allowed to make two appointments : an Advisor and a Programme Manager. Each minister had these two appointments, and they were sometimes interchangeable, but generally speaking, the role of the Programme Manager was to follow up on the commitments made in the programme for government, and to liaise with the staff, the other programme managers of the other ministers, in order to see that the government, collectively, was addressing the programme they had set out. So the Programme Manager’s relationship was generally with other ministers and other ministers’ staff, whereas the Advisor’s role was to advise the minister on the work of his own Department. So that was my role. We were told that because we were political appointees, we had no executive role. My role was to advise the minister, and I had no executive role, but because it was a new Department, because many of the new civil servants were unfamiliar with the issues and the material and the objectives of the new Department, I did have an executive role. I was actually doing work and preparing work from the Minister to the civil servants and from the civil servants to the Minister. In many instances, civil servants would ask me what would be the Minister’s view on such or such, and then when the whole position had been formulated, they would say that they had this position in discussions with me. And I would of course have explained it to the Minister. So I was involved not only in the formulation of policy, in the Department advising the Minister on what steps he should take, I was involved in the execution of that policy. For instance, in the film policy, which gave tax relief to certain film companies, they had to be certified that the whole structure of the film was going to be beneficial to the film industry in Ireland. And if they got the certificate from the Minister, then they were eligible for the special tax provisions. In many instances the civil servants would discuss with me the details of applications from film companies, as to how important or otherwise they were. When Michael D. was anxious to change the broadcasting legislation very quickly in order to change provisions of the previous government, I was involved in the framing of the legislation. I would have been involved in writing some sections of sections which needed clarifications, so the civil servants would involve me as part of the team in the composition of legislation. And other civil servants would say, These things need to be done. What is the view of the Minister? How should we do these and how should we prepare legislation to address these points? And I would be involved in that as well. So that would have been because the Department was very new, and because of my background, I had a knowledge of what was happening in the world outside, and also because we wanted to do so much, myself and Michael D. would argue about things, and then we would agree on steps to be taken, and generally it was my responsibility to see that these were acted upon, and the necessary programmes or action or legislation by the civil servants would be followed through.

AD-S : If you were to make an assessment of the whole term, what would be your major satisfactions and disappointments?

COB : It was only four and a half years. So a lot of things were begun. They weren’t left undone, but they were started. But they would take longer. For instance, there was a special scheme of giving grants for new buildings, for museums and galleries and art centres around the country, and also for heritage sites like castles and special archaeological sites. But this work was programmed for five years, and it didn’t start until we were in our third year, so Michael D. only had two and a half years left, so there were still two and a half years of that programme to run, so there were many things that had begun, but couldn’t be finished in the time. Among the achievements we can mention that TnaG which is now TG4 was established. And there was the first Arts Plan, the idea of planning for a number of years for the arts and arts activities. This principle was accepted, and the Arts Plan was prepared in dialogue between the Arts Council and the Department. The Arts Council was asked to prepare the Arts Plan and went into discussion with the Department, and I was very much involved in those discussions, and then Michael D. brought that plan into government and that government became government policy, and as a result of that plan, increased levels of funding were given to the Arts Council. So both the funds and the procedure, the structure of arts support were strengthened. The decision was made at government again by Michael D.’s request that Collins Barracks should be developed as part of the National Museum of Ireland. And that was done. In the early years, the Irish Film Board, which had been discontinued, was re-established, and a grant was given to it for development and script work. The laws in relation to investment and film were changed, and a whole system put in place to re-build a viable film industry. The word we had was that to have a viable film industry, you need to have about 12 film projects on average a year. In fact, for the previous five years prior to Michael D., the average was 1 or 2 films a year. So our ambition was to go from 1.5 to 12. But in fact, what we achieved was an average of 25 to 30 films a year. So now, each year, an average of 23 new film projects are supported under this tax scheme, which means that we now have a film industry, which we didn’t have when Michael D. came into office. And in fact, this government has said that the audio-visual industry will be central to its industrial policy, so this aspect of cultural policy has moved centre-stage. Additionally, because of Michael D.’s role in the Irish language, it was possible to establish a branch of Richard Gorman’s studios in Galway. Those are film studios that are producing films every year since then. It was supported with grants for industry in the Gaeltacht areas. So a new film studio was attracted into Ireland and is continuing. There was also a very clear government procedure in relation to archaeology, and the law was changed to make the protection of our heritage sites what was described as the best legislation in Europe. There had been much criticism in relation of the inadequacy of Irish law in relation to vandalisation or taking of objects or finding objects and so forth, and there had been a special government commission about seven or eight years before saying the law should be changed. That’s what we did in the government. We undertook to bring in a new National Monuments Act that clarified the whole area of the State’s role in archaeology and the role of the National Museum in relation to objects that were found whenever archaeology discovered these things. Uniquely, the government, on Michael D.’s recommendation, adopted a policy on architecture. So there was for the first time in the history of the State a government policy on architecture, and that had been worked out with architects and working groups during the period that he was Minister. But at the end, the recommendations were all brought to government, and the government adopted these, and three pieces of legislation of the present government owe their origins directly to this government policy that Michael D. succeeded in bringing in. Very dear to Michael D.’s heart is that Section 31, the censorship of broadcasting which was repealed by him, within the first year and a month of his coming into office. It was a great target for him to achieve this and to get the government to agree to it, but once it was done, everybody seemed to have forgotten it in the list of his achievements. There was a legislation to establish a Heritage Council to give a structure of grants and educational programmes for the understanding of the heritage which had not existed before. And there was also the legislation on the Cultural Institutions, the Cultural Institutions Act, which established a whole new regime for the National Museum, for the National Library, and also introduced elements in relation to the National Gallery and the Marsh’s Library, and to a couple of other institutions. There were also changes in the tax law in relation to gifts, of heritage objects, to the state institutions, where the donor, the writer who gave papers or the collector who gave paintings, or people who had special materials that were valuable in terms of the national collections of these objects. If they gave them to the State they received tax benefit, so the legislation was changed to encourage that as well. So there were things happening on all fronts in Michael D.’s Department, on the heritage side, on film, on the arts, in the Gaeltacht, in industrial policy in the Gaeltacht, and the general view was that unless Michael D. had had my colleague that was the Programme Manager, and myself, it wouldn’t have been possible for Michael D. to have sustained that level of activity and the number of targets being achieved in the four and a half year period. About our failures, we had prepared a three-year Arts Plan, and because of difficulties with the Department of Finance, it had been necessary to change that to five years. When the government changed, the new government changed it into four years, and they completed the whole circle, so they shortened the period in which the funding would be provided for this Plan. So that was one aspect on the arts side that the new government speeded up some of the things that the previous government had not been willing to move faster on. Also, previous governments’ policy and Michael D’s policy in relation to film has been continued and developed by the present government. Some of the heritage programmes and policies that were initiated by Michael D. were then continued on, and in fact I mentioned the five-year programme of building for the arts and museums, and so forth. This government introduced its own five-year programme when Michael D.’s programme had run out, so they did a similar capital scheme for arts venues and museums and galleries. So in fact I would say by and large that the present Department, although in some issues of detail understandably it differed, built on and generally took the philosophical position that Michael D. took. There would be a major exception in the field of broadcasting. Our biggest failure was that we didn’t get new legislation for restructuring the broadcasting environment in the wake of digitalisation, and the reason for that was that the civil servants were much engaged, as Michael D. wanted them to be, when we had the Presidency of the European Union, and Michael D. had a particular programme that he wanted followed through, but one of the casualties of this was that the direct proposals for broadcasting reform that were being prepared by the Department were not prepared in time. They were submitted to the government and the government accepted them in October of 1996, but to have the legislation prepared and to bring it before the Parliament it should have been with them in June, and so the legislation was being worked on when the government went out of office. So that was a big failure and a big disappointment that Michael D’s vision of new structures of broadcasting were not achieved during his term. And I would say on that issue this government has changed radically its proposals, in relation to the new broadcasting environment from what Michael D. would have and obviously involves privatisation of elements of the transmission network, and RTÉ, the State broadcaster, will only be a minority share-holder in a digital structure, whereas Michael D. saw RTÉ very much as the State broacasting service, the national broadcasting service, in a lead role in that regard, but was going to appoint another State body, a super commission, to plan major issues of policy. So Michael D.’s ideas for a new broadcasting legislation were in fact published and in public discussion, but they were not in time to be brought before the Parliament before the government went out of office. So that would have been the big failure. The other failure was that despite all our discussions with the Industry and Commerce we failed to get a change in the copyright laws, along the line of droit de suite in France, where artists have a resale right in their works which are sold during their lifetime and for a period after their death. And again we were very committed to that idea, and supported artists and the artists organisations in Ireland, the Artists’ Association of Ireland, in this objective, and we attended meetings in Brussels in this regard. But I think the reason we were unsuccessful there was that although they didn’t say it, the Industry Department were totally opposed to giving artists, because, my own feeling is, they had been persuaded by the gallery owners that this resale right was unnecessary and too bureaucratic, because they would have to maintain records, and the gallery dealers, as the gallery owners and dealers in London, don’t want this system, and that their view is one that was shared by the Industry Department. And although Michael D. made many attempts to open the debate there we were mainly unsuccessful and the legislation went finally past. The government had made a formal decision, and I have no doubt that it was on the recommendation of the Industry Ministry not to carry this out—Ireland, Britain and Luxembourg, I think, are the only EU States who do not recognise this right of artists to receive payments on the resale—so that was a failure. One other thing we wanted to try and achieve was to create autonomous status for the National Symphony Orchestra, which is under RTÉ. We engaged in much discussion and consultation on this, and I suppose the reason we didn’t succeed in this objective was that the broadcasting organisation did not want to see that happen, they did not want to see the National Symphony Orchestra outside broadcasting structures, and there wasn’t a sufficient consensus around about how to achieve it. And again, by the time the government left office, this project which had been in discussion and in negotiation was not secured.

AD-S : Could you tell me more about Michael D.’s relationship with the other ministers?

COB : Michael D. had a very good relationship with Albert Reynolds when he was Taoiseach, and Albert Reynolds would often value the philosophical point of view that Michael D. would offer in discussions. And his background was in popular culture. He had managed ballrooms, owned ballrooms, all over Ireland, and had been involved in the show band scene, so himself and Michael D. seemed to have a rapport. The other minister that I know he had a very good relationship with was the Minister for Agriculture, Joe Walshe who is currently the Minister for Agriculture. This didn’t affect directly the work of Michael D.’s Department, but having another minister at the table who was well disposed to him or admired him would have been helpful in any debate or any discussion. He had a good relationship, which was crucial in getting momentum on the TnaG initiative, with Maura Geoghegan-Quinn, who is a Deputy from his own constituency, and had been responsible for the European dimension of culture in the previous government. And she was very much committed to the TnaG concept, and so on the Fianna Fáil side, when this was being discussed in government, she would be supporting him, and discussing with him afterwards where the difficulties were—people in the Fianna Fáil party who would be resistant to the creation of an Irish language television service. So I would say in spite of them being political rivals in Galway, they had a very good and productive relationship. Other ministers I just know, for instance, while Michael Smith was Minister for the Environment, we were unable to really get any momentum on issues where our Department had views and wanted planning on architecture and on public sculpture. We didn’t achieve much momentum while Michael Smith was Minister, so that’s all about that. There just seemed there was no relationship rather than a good relationship or a bad relationship.

AD-S : And what about Education?

COB : Well, Education was a Labour minister. Niamh Bhreathnach was the Minister for Education. Now in a sense, because of her involvement in the Labour Party and Michael D.’s knowledge of what she had supported or what she had not supported, over the previous twenty years, he would have been sometimes very suspicious or antagonistic to her. I know that she admired him. But she was intimidated by him. She felt it hard to have a conversation with him. She was intimidated by his status and his intellectual capacity, but she was willing, on a real basis, to debate issues on the arts in education as in her White Paper for instance. She published a White Paper on the future of education. We had very good relations with her, I mean a lot of arguments, because there were different views of structures for Irish language schools, for what measures needed to be taken, so that people in primary schools could have the arts as a subject, how the arts were to be examined in the State exams, and the training of teachers. So on all of these issues we had a lot of discussions with the Minister of Education’s Office, so shall we say that this was more a typical Labour Party policy argument, rather than a political difference, because the political objective was the same, but with different approaches to handle problems in different structural and procedural ways. When Brendan Howlan became Minister for the Environment, there was a very strong cooperation between the Department of the Environment and the Department of Arts, Culture and the Gaeltacht, and this would have been because Brendan Howlan and Michael D. would have been very close personally. They would have shared views on a number of issues being discussed by the government, so that if you could say that when there were splits in the government, there may not have been on a party basis, they would have been on an issue basis. Michael D. would more than likely have found himself in agreement with Brendan Howlan and in disagreement with Niamh Bhreathnach, so in agreement with the Minister for the Environment on a personal/political basis, and in disagreement with the Minister for Education on a personal/political basis, rather than on a party basis. So it would have to be said that TnaG wouldn’t have happened but for Ruairí Quinn who was Minister for Finance, because he was instrumental. He made a decision, he told his civil servants, when he became Minister for Finance, that this was going to proceed. And the money was provided in the budget of 1995, the first formal money was put into the government’ estimates and budgets to fund TnaG. So that was directly due to Ruairí Quinn. There was also another thing where Ruairí Quinn’s views were of importance, and that was in the restructuring, and bringing over the State’s Heritage Service, which was in the Finance Department, and bringing that over into the Culture Department, and Ruairí Quinn’s support in that would have been critical. But as the government changed midway and parties changed without an election after two years, so that Fianna Fáil went out of office, and then there was what was loosely called the Rainbow Coalition of the Fine Gael party and the Workers’ Party with the Labour Party, Ruairí Quinn became minister in 1995 and was Minister for Finance in that period. During that period, relations between Ruairí Quinn and Michael D. Higgins became tense and difficult, and my view of that is that this was a deliberate policy of the civil servants in the Department of Finance to create a bad relationship between the two ministers, although they were both in the Labour Party. Their view was that if there was a good relationship between the two men, this would help the Department to get more money, more resources for its schemes. What they did was that every small issue which could have been resolved between civil servants of the two Departments the Finance Department wouldn’t make a decision without going to their minister, and my view is that they were doing that deliberately, even on small things, in order to promote the idea, with Ruairí Quinn, that Michael D. had a non-ending list of requests, was always looking for more money, was never satisfied, and never appreciated what was done for him, when money was provided for schemes. So by always flooding Ruairí Quinn with the needs of the Department, even on small things, I can see why Ruairí became perhaps exasperated, but that this was a deliberate policy of his civil servants, by creating a bad feeling between the two ministers, and they succeeded in doing it. The origin of that has to do with the TnaG issue, which, although it was government policy for the two years of the Fianna Fáil-Labour partnership, there were three separate government decisions to proceed with TnaG, and they were always frustrated by officials in the Department of Finance. There was one official who said that TnaG would happen over his dead body. And so they resisted Michael D. and it wasn’t until Ruairí came in that TnaG went ahead, so you can see then that the civil servants wanted to create bad blood between the two ministers, because otherwise Michael D.’s Department would have been even more successful than it was. For instance, one of the ongoing battles was that he won the battle to get Collins Barracks, and to have Collins Barracks developed for the National Museum of Ireland, but the Department of Finance, time in and time out, refused to approve the extra-staff to run the new building, and so there were strikes with the existing staff, the opening of the building couldn’t go ahead, and all of this was because the officials in the Department of Finance were not prepared to address the needs of the Department. They only saw it as, He will win again, and most of the people who resisted Michael D. would have been officials of the Department of Finance. They resisted him for the initiatives he wanted to carry out, and not personally or because he was a Socialist. We had a feeling that the officials in the Department of Finance didn’t want the new Department to be created, and they were hoping it would be a temporary experiment only. There isn’t any documented proof of that, but my view is that they saw it as a drain on public money. Every Department makes demands on the Exchequer. The role of the civil servants in the Department of Finance is not to let government spend money, and the Department of Health, the Department of Education, the Department of Environment all have demands for housing, for schools, for hospitals, for more beds, for doctors, the prisons are looking for new prisons, so the role of the Department is to say no and to resist the political arguments and to restrain expenditure. The idea of a strong Culture Ministry was something that they would have resented and resisted, because it was in their interest that the language and culture section of government policy would be weak, because it could then be easily controlled and it could be an afterthought in relation to expenditure, but what Michael D. was building was a strong Department. Now our view was we had a feeling that, because of the hostility and the behaviour of the Department of Finance officials, 1) in relation to government decisions on TnaG, 2) in relation to staffing matters which were a direct consequence of a government decision, they resisted them all of the way. They fought them tooth and nail. They wanted to keep to their Department to be weak, so that there would be no argument for continuing a strong Department in a new government. But that is contentious. That is my view of what it felt on the inside. I can’t quote you chapter and verse, other than the level of hostility that Michael D. felt from Finance officials. Civil servants did not want to see cultural policy driven by a strong minister in a strong Department. I think one of the achievements which is almost invisible, is that the Department survived with the new government, because people saw it as a worthwhile political stroke or governmental development. There are still people though who say that the Department of Arts, Culture and the Gaeltacht is a waste of money.

AD-S : Would you say that Michael D. increased public awareness of the place of culture in Irish people’s everyday lives?

COB : There is a shift, slowly, and again this would have to do with Michael D.’s philosophy of inclusiveness of cultural rights, of citizens having a right to access cultural facilities, cultural activities, that there was a shift in the public psyche which Michael D. was responsible for through his speeches and his appearances on the media, where he would be discussing these issues and what his philosophy was, that because there was a lot of activity on the ground in the country at the time, these forces came together under his leadership, and found that they were being given a place and they had a place and a right to a place in Irish public life. But some people would have felt that Michael D. would have been too perhaps philosophical and theoretical about certain issues, but it was those theories and those discussions that lifted the whole level of the arts community to a new level, during the time that he was Minister. It is interesting too, in relation to Europe, that Michael D. came into the European Ministers of Culture when Jack Lang was leaving. And by virtue of that fact, Michael D. took on the sort of role that Jack Lang had, as the kind of ideological, philosophical member of the group of ministers talking about the kinds of objectives, particularly broadcasting, because his suspicions of the market economy came into play there, and he was articulating the kinds of anti-globalisation views that are now being articulated on the streets and various protests. But already in the early 1990s, Michael D. was articulating that kind of position of irresponsible corporate power and greed, and these were the values that were shaping the framework of Europe. So, as I say, because he is a charismatic individual, and because I said Jack Lang was no longer a member there, Michael D. became the primus inter pares of the Culture Ministers of Europe during his term of office, and since leaving office, he has been invited to many seminars and government conferences and so forth to address them on cultural issues, although he was in Opposition, he became the spokesperson not on culture but on education, and he is now the spokesperson on foreign affairs.

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Référence papier

Alexandra Dilys-Slaby, « Interview with Colm Ó Briain, Special Advisor to Michael D. Higgins », Revue LISA/LISA e-journal, Vol. II - n°4 | 2004, 221-232.

Référence électronique

Alexandra Dilys-Slaby, « Interview with Colm Ó Briain, Special Advisor to Michael D. Higgins », Revue LISA/LISA e-journal [En ligne], Vol. II - n°4 | 2004, mis en ligne le 03 novembre 2009, consulté le 24 septembre 2020. URL : ; DOI :

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Alexandra Dilys-Slaby

Dr. (Caen, France)Alexandra Dilys-Slaby is a Senior Lecturer at the University of Caen. After graduating from the École Normale Supérieure in Cachan in 2000, she undertook a PhD on the relationship between state and culture in Ireland which she completed in 2003. She carried out these interviews with two key figures of cultural policy in Ireland during the two years she spent in Ireland doing research for her thesis.

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Les contenus de la Revue LISA / LISA e-journal sont mis à disposition selon les termes de la licence Creative Commons Attribution - Pas d'Utilisation Commerciale - Pas de Modification 4.0 International.

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