By Anne Cadwallader
BELFAST — A blistering row over alleged political censorship has blown up after the Northern Ireland Arts Council withdrew substantial funding from a play about policing being staged at this year’s West Belfast Festival.
The play "Forced Upon Us" — by Dubbeljoint Productions and JustUs Community Theater — charts the history of the RUC from an unashamedly nationalist perspective. The same company recently staged a history of West Belfast, "Binlids," to full houses in New York.
Sinn Fein President Gerry Adams has called the decision to withdraw funding for a play "political censorship" and has called on the Council to reconsider its decision.
On Monday, however, the Arts Council reaffirmed its original ruling, meaning the play stands little chance of obtaining the funding it had already been promised.
In a letter, the Council said it "remains unconvinced that this script attains the artistic standard expected from the professional theater companies it supports."
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The Council said that funding was conditional upon receipt of a completed script, which it would then assess artistically. The Council received two unfinished scripts, which, it said, fell well below the threshold of "artistic acceptability."
But a spokesman for Dubbeljoint and JustUs said: "This criteria has never been used for any previous Dubbeljoint production and is unheard of within the arts community in Belfast. The use of this funding criteria is clearly a smoke screen.
"The decision should be seen for what it is — a politically motivated attack on one of Ireland’s leading established theater companies. There are wider ramifications for the production of a challenging drama, for which Dubbeljoint has an unparalleled track record."
Shane Connaughton, nominated for an Oscar for scripting the film "My Left Foot," wrote to the Irish Times and other newspapers, with a number of well-known signatories from the fields of drama and publishing, saying the decision to withhold funding was "to be condemned by all who believe in the artistic freedom of companies to produce work in which they believe and which their audience supports."
"The idea that funding is conditional upon Arts Council ‘external assessors’ liking a particular script is a Stalinist criteria hitherto unpracticed by the Council," Connaughton said.
He said the Council did not have the guts to stomach a play about the RUC from a nationalist perspective — particularly with the future of the RUC being debated.
"We have been here before," he said. "The General Officer Commanding the British Army brought pressure to bear on the English Arts Council in 1972 when the 7:84 Theatre Company performed John Arden’s and Margaretta D’Arcy’s play ‘The Ballygombeen Bequest.’
"That pressure had to be fought then and this deplorable and cowardly stab in the back must be fought now. The GOC in 1972 didn’t think the play worthy of public funding. It’s amazing how the leopard never changes his spots."
In an attack on the Arts Council, Adams said: "It is not the job of the Arts Council to decide what is and is not "acceptable" or "proper" drama. The people who will turn out in large numbers next week to see this production are the only judges who matter."