City of Culture Conflict

There was supposed to be one dominant news story emerging from Londonderry over the past two weeks.  For the first time ever, the Turner Prize – one of the world’s most prestigious art competitions – is taking place outside England.  More than a thousand people a day are attending this centrepiece of a magnificent year long programme of the UK City of Culture 2013.


Yet the news headlines are about something entirely different – the emergence of previously private emails between the chief executives of Culture Company 2013, in charge of programming the year, and its parent body, Derry City Council.  It was already common knowledge that the two chief executives – Shona McCarthy at the Culture Company and Sharon O’Connor at Derry City Council – are short of mutual affection.


Correspondence between the two was released by the Culture Company following a Freedom of Information Act request.  Not only were the emails embarrassing for both organisations, but the amount of correspondence released – far more than necessary to comply with the request, according to one source – aggravated existing tensions.


The extent of the ill-feeling is revealed by Shona McCarthy’s emails, which consistently refer to Sharon O’Connor as ‘the town clerk’.  A tone of bitterness followed a move in October last year by the City Council to take control of what it regarded as a failing Culture Company marketing operation.


“The move is driven by the town clerk’s belief that she is a marketing expert,” wrote McCarthy at the time.  “The town clerk has tried to push through this takeover bid by constant discrediting of the culture company marketing effort….  It is about Derry City Council pushing through a flawed plan and taking the Culture Company’s budget to do it.”


Meanwhile, anxiety shows through in Sharon O’Connor’s emails.  “This whole project is in jeopardy and deflecting blame is not helpful,” she wrote.  “We really need for you to drop the us and them attitude and get with the team Derry approach.  You told me there was no need for panic with regard (to) the state of planning for 2013. Now might be a very good time to panic.”


That dispute a year ago led to the Culture Company’s marketing operations transferring into the council offices, but the marketing director, Garbhan Downey, was not included in the move.  Instead, he left.  The Strategic Investment Board – the Northern Ireland public body that oversees infrastructure and major projects – became concerned.  It headhunted Dermot McLaughlin from Dublin’s Temple Bar to act as project director, liaising between the City Council and the Culture Company.


However, these moves did not have the desired results.  McLaughlin’s role was not welcomed by some within the Culture Company.  Leaks began emerging from Dublin alleging problems at Temple Bar.  McLaughlin abruptly left the secondment to return to Temple Bar – from which he was soon suspended amid moves to wind-up the company.


Nor did the integration of marketing go as planned.  Staff from the Culture Company began to work from the City Council’s building, but with the two organisations’ main offices separated by the River Foyle and a walk across the Peace Bridge, it was soon recognised that co-location in a single marketing office was inefficient.  The Culture Company marketing team returned to their Ebrington base on the Waterside, under the charge of the Strategic Investment Board’s seconded head of marketing, Fiona Kane.  Insiders say that the two teams now work in close co-operation.


In truth, none of these difficulties should have caused surprise.  Liverpool’s year as European Capital of Culture in 2008 was a magnificent success, but was also marked by tensions behind the scenes.  The lesson, said Phil Redmond – tv mogul and one of the inspirations for the Capital of Culture project in Merseyside – was to keep the programming company independent from the local authority.  It is a mission that the Culture Company has pursued ever since – its critics would say with excessive dedication.


Professor Declan McGonagle – director of Dublin’s National College of Art and Design – was a driving force behind Derry’s City of Culture bid and the Culture Company’s interim chair at its formation.  He says that as well as Redmond, the UK Government’s Department of Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) “insisted that the City of Culture was independent of local government”.  (DCMS, though, now says that it is up to “the city” to decide on the relationship between the delivery company and the City Council.)


But it has been made abundantly clear to Derry City Council that it is directly responsible for spending by its subsidiary company. A spokeswoman for Northern Ireland’s Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure (DCAL) – the main funder for the year’s events – confirms that the council is responsible for financial control, adding that the chief executive personally has “responsibility for providing assurance to DCAL on delivery and achievement of benefits”.


“I could see how that would make someone extremely nervous,” says McGonagle.  Tensions were clear by the time he left the board in September last year.  “There seemed to be a slight shift in the agenda of where control would lie, in terms of the organisational model,” he recalls.


Even if the tension between the two organisations was inevitable, there is now universal acceptance that the row is damaging.  The low point came when Shona McCarthy appeared on the radio a few days ago, accusing Derry City Council of not consulting with the Culture Company in bringing forward its closure from the previously agreed June 2014, to March 2014, to save money.  A few minutes later, Sharon O’Connor came on the same programme – clearly irritated – to contradict McCarthy, claiming there had been extensive consultation.


Now the city’s leaders have had enough – including O’Connor and McCarthy.  Both declined, along with current Culture Company chairman Martin Bradley, to contribute to this article, giving the clear message that the least said from here on, the better for the image of the city.  Politicians, meanwhile, have become open in their unhappiness.


MP and MLA for neighbouring East Londonderry Gregory Campbell of the DUP says it is clear what needs to be done.  “Banging heads together!,” he says.  “Two in particular.  I don’t know the genesis of this, whether it is purely personality driven, or whatever…. !t could potentially damage the legacy.”


Maeve McLaughlin MLA, a former Culture Company board member, takes a similar view.  “The two chief executives need to put their differences to one side for the benefit of the bigger project,” she says.  The focus must now be on ensuring that the positive mood created during the year is maintained to create lasting benefits, argues McLaughlin. “The rest of the world wants to see us deliver that legacy,” she stresses.


Colum Eastwood MLA was Derry’s Lord Mayor at the time of the bid and was closely involved with it.  He says it was always stressed that the Culture Company had to be operationally independent.  “DCMS were very clear on that.”  Eastwood argues that there has to be a balance between accountability for money spent and keeping the focus on the events.  “People expect full accountability….. but not to obsess about [it].”


It is no longer enough for the two chief executives to keep their heads down: other conflicts are surfacing.  A board meeting next Monday is expected to be tense.  An Industrial Tribunal hearing begins the following week in which Garbhan Downey claims unfair dismissal.  Culture Company staff are meanwhile protesting against the company being wound-up three months early – a decision described by its senior programmer Martin Malarkey on the radio as “despicable”.  Three board members have resigned, seemingly also in protest at the move.


And there is a fresh public dispute over the future of the gallery space created at the former Ebrington Barracks for the Turner Prize.  A strong arts lobby – led by Declan McGonagle – is demanding that the space be used permanently as a gallery, rather than as planned by site developers Ilex for commercial offices.  McGonagle argues that the Ebrington site is “ideally suited” as a location to bring together the art, design, culture, creative and digital disciplines to produce a sector that builds the local economy and creates jobs.  But, he warns, he can’t see a strategy in place to achieve that.


“For me the whole issue was about legacy,” says McGonagle.  “It was not about 2013, but a step change, establishing a platform for activity way beyond the year.  We were thinking very much about it being an investment, not expenditure for one year.”


The focus will now be on that legacy.  But we can also expect a few more distractions along the way.



Box outs


Financial tension


Derry City Council paid £10m less than it promised towards City of Culture activities – according to

an anonymous source within the Culture Company who briefed parts of the local media.  This is angrily denied by Derry City Council and the official Culture Company position is that the allegation is untrue.


A spokeswoman for Derry City Council says the City of Culture bid promised the council would spend £11m across four financial years, plus another £3.8m between 2011 and 2013.  “This investment has been honoured and exceeded,” she says.  In addition, the Culture Company will have an unfunded deficit at the year end, the size of which is as yet unknown.


The Department for Culture, Arts and Leisure is the main funder of the 2013 events, allocating £12.6m across the 2012/13 and 2013/14 financial years.  A bid to the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment for a further £3.8m was rejected.  Funding for a legacy programme is being sought.


Sharon O’Connor v. Shona McCarthy

Sharon O’Connor was appointed chief executive of Derry City Council in October 2011. She was previously director of cultural and economic development at Down District Council and has been on the boards of the Arts Council Northern Ireland, the Northern Ireland Museums Council and the BBC Broadcasting Council for Northern Ireland. She has run her own consultancy business.


Shona McCarthy was appointed chief executive of the Culture Company in April 2011. She was previously director of the British Council Northern Ireland and had been chief executive of Belfast’s bid to be European Capital of Culture. She has run her own consultancy business.


Cultural highlights so far

May. The Radio 1 Big Weekend. Attendance of 37,500 across three days.

June. The Return of Colmcille. River based pageant.

August. Fleadh Cheoil na hÉireann. Attendance of 430,000 across a week of activities.

August. The Walled City Tattoo. A sell-out tattoo at Ebrington.

September. CultureTECH. Attendance of 24,000 across a week of technology and business events.

October – until January. The Turner Prize. First time major art competition has left England.


What was great for you?


“The Fleadh. It was not just a music event – it changed the way the city felt. There was a sense of confidence and safety.” Declan McGonagle.


“The Walled City Tattoo – it was sold out for four nights.  In terms of sheer numbers, the Fleadh – though I missed it as I was on holiday.” Gregory Campbell.


“The Fleadh was amazing.  The Colmcille event was huge.  People have taken ownership of the year.  The city has turned to the river, instead of turning its back to the river.” Maeve McLaughlin.


“The Fleadh and having the PSNI pipe band applauded into Derry city centre, in the world’s biggest festival of Irish music and dance.  We have to turn this into things that are more substantial – but this is a start.” Colum Eastwood.


“The Return of Colmcille festival showcased the huge contribution of St. Columba to these islands and beyond.” Martin Reilly, Derry’s Mayor.


  Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness.




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