Minister of State at the Department of Health (Deputy Helen McEntee): I welcome the opportunity to conclude the debate and wish Deputy Niamh Smyth well in her new role. As has my colleague, I also welcome the visitors in the Gallery. When one thinks of the arts, one thinks of music, song, dance and laughter but it is a serious issue. The arts are a part of our showcase to the world and are part of our culture, who we are and from where we came. It is a part of our legacy to our children and grandchildren and to our history. Many Deputies have spoken of their commitment to the arts, either professionally or in their spare time, and the Minister has taken note of the comments and the ideas as food for thought.
The recent economic crisis, which thankfully we now are putting behind us, was fought and fought hard. It was a fight to keep the country on track and to keep it solvent in order that as it recovered, the Government would be able to focus on the really important things that society demanded, not just the economy, be it in health, education, housing or indeed the arts. A country’s soul, as well as its pockets, must be looked after. No one would try to argue the arts were immune from the financial crisis, as all sectors were touched. However, I believe the previous Government did its best to try to insulate the sector as much as it could. It recognised the key role of the arts in their own right and as an important economic, educational and tourism driver for Ireland. In common with all Members in this Chamber, I want the new partnership Government to provide for the arts to an even greater extent than was the case in previous years. While I note there has been much talk about cuts to funding, one need only consider the Arts Council of Northern Ireland, which expects its budget for the next year to be cut by almost 6%.
The narrative here is different, as funding has been increased for the past two years and the Minister has given a commitment to continue that as the economy continues to recover. The Minister is experienced and while she is in a much larger Department that includes the arts, she is the senior Minister and has taken a special interest in the arts and the potential for them to be a real driver in regional development and rural renewal. As part of this newly enlarged Department, this is something with which everyone must engage and about which they must think in a positive light. Much of the debate has focused on Arts Council funding and departmental funding but it is about a lot more than that and cannot just be about the elite; it must be about everybody. I welcome the Minister’s comments in the House earlier on exploring the establishment of a cultural unit within local authorities. In my native County Meath, a fantastic number of people work within the arts, often for little financial reward, and they must be at the forefront of any new establishment and there must be funding to support them.
To conclude, in my new role as Minister of State with responsibility for mental health and older people, I look forward to engaging with service users and older persons networks about the therapeutic benefits of the arts, of which there are many. Much good work is going on in this area already and during my time in this role, I look forward to working with these groups and to developing opportunities for mental health service users and older people to express themselves while making a contribution to society.