The maritime museum was earmarked to open in Derry- Londonderry in spring 2020

Political stalemate in Northern Ireland stalls museum projects

Rob Sharp, Issue 119/01, 01.01.2019
Projects such as Derry-Londonderry’s maritime museum are in limbo because government cannot release funding. By Rob Sharp
Infrastructure projects in Northern Ireland, including capital museum schemes, have ground to a halt as political stalemate continues to grip the country, two years after its devolved government collapsed.  

In November, it emerged that development plans for  a £11.2m maritime museum in Derry-Londonderry had stalled because the required funding could not be released by central government. Northern Ireland’s Executive collapsed in January 2017 after the two governing parties, the Democratic Unionist Party and Sinn Féin, were in dispute over the handling of a renewable-energy scheme.

Despite the Heritage Lottery Fund’s financial support for the maritime museum, there is no capital fund available to release the funding from the government. Paddy Gilmore, the former head of programmes at National Museums Northern Ireland, says there is no way forward for big museum and capital projects requiring government approval.  

“With no government in place, the maritime project is not feasible, and the whole thing is hanging on a knife-edge, although the commitment’s there to do it,” he says. “If you’ve scoped your project at a particular point in time, and you’re taking into consideration the costs at that point, but then the timeframe increases, that’s going to have an impact on cost and quality.  

“There are three elements to the project – time, cost and quality – and if one of them is impacted, it will automatically impact on the other two. That’s a fact of life for projects.”  

Planning permission for the maritime museum project was granted in November 2017, with the institution originally earmarked to open in the spring of 2020.  

A spokeswoman for Derry City & Strabane District Council says: “We are working very closely with all the relevant departments and funders to ensure we get this approved and over the line.”

The council says plans are at an advanced design stage, despite the lack of funding. The new museum is set to feature exhibition galleries, archive reading rooms and dedicated learning facilities, as well as a cafe and shop.

Regarding other projects being potentially affected by the political stalemate, Gilmore says: “The same applies. With no political mechanism in place, the civil service finds itself in a position where it can’t take those big decisions. It keeps on doing the business of government, but in terms of those big infrastructure decisions, they are in limbo.”

Another senior museum executive, speaking anonymously, says: “Clearly, nothing ‘novel or contentious’ can be approved without ministerial approval.”

Arts Council Northern Ireland (ACNI) has extended its strategic plan, Ambitions for the Arts, 2013-18, to cover the 2018-19 financial year, with any subsequent draft framework running until 2024 still to be confirmed.  

An ACNI spokesperson says: “As we are experiencing a period of unprecedented uncertainty in the political and economic environment, the arts council is working on a new strategic framework for 2019 onwards.”
The framework sets out ACNI’s aim of putting the arts at the centre of Northern Ireland’s social, economic and creative life.