The Minister for Finance, Paschal Donoghue, announced last week that the government will press ahead in their plans for reducing the Pandemic Unemployment Payment.
As the public health emergency begins to improve, this can hardly come as a surprise. Even less so considering the government has been aiming for PUP reductions since the lockdowns began.
On one side there are the Irish people in their hundreds of thousands struggling to find employment. On the other are artists and musicians. Self-employed, independent practitioners that are still seen simply as ‘unemployed’ when they have struggled as much, professionally, as anybody else during the pandemic.
The reductions will begin from 7 September. Proposals are for a €50 reduction on the €350 currently offered. This process will continue, reducing by €50 again in November, and finally in February of next year.
The current unemployment rate stands at 18% and this is expected to lower. However, even if the unemployment rate were to remain as high as 15%, the cuts would still move ahead, according to Minister Donoghue.
It isn’t the first time these cutbacks have been introduced either. In September of 2020, seeing a possible road out of the pandemic, the government cut back the PUP significantly only having to reverse the decision on the brink of second wave. These cuts were indiscriminate across every sector, from hospitality to live entertainment.
Again, artists and musicians were those caught right in the middle of these cutbacks. As much of society was slowly and carefully reopening at the time, the roadmap out for creatives was notably absent.
“We’re seeing a complete and utter repeat of what we saw in September last year,” said Matt McGranaghan of the Music and Entertainment Association Ireland (MEAI).
Matt has been on the forefront in discussions with government about supports for self-employed artists. From the universal basic income proposals for artists, to discussions on reopening the sector, McGranaghan notes the problematic relationship Ireland has between politics and art.
“A lot of working musicians and entertainers that we represent work in pubs and hotels,” said McGranaghan.“ But the collective industry doesn’t have any workable roadmap out of this.
“You can’t expect theatre to be viable at 50 people, or 100 people, unless heavily subsidised.”
“What is a city without social, cultural and creative synergies?”
Much support for those in theatre and across live entertainment has been entirely lacking for the Irish scene. Looking to New York’s Broadway, the incredibly popular musical ‘Hamilton’ received $30 million in federal aid to get the show back on stage.
Even looking across to the opening of nightclubs and venues in New York as of this month, it is clear that culture and art are the driving forces, the main Focal point of reopening in the city that never sleeps. As Governor Andrew Cuomo said, “What is a city without social, cultural and creative synergies?”
Evidently that same sentiment is missing in Ireland, where these restrictions are forced upon struggling artists with no guidance toward a meaningful future. But perhaps the hidden threat within these new cutbacks is most worrying.
“A lot of politicians didn’t even realise this when the proposals were made on the first of June,” said McGranaghan. “Not only are they cutting the payments, but when you are on the lowest tier you are transitioned to job seekers.”
The ‘hidden threat’
There are significant differences in the eyes of Irish institutions between job seekers benefits and the Pandemic Unemployment Payment. For a self-employed business, as most musicians and artists are, this could have devastating impacts on applications for insurance, loans, mortgages and beyond.
“We spoke to banks and insurance companies about this last year, the PUP offers a protection that job seekers just does not,” said McGranaghan.
Artists who follow government guidelines will be seen at the same level as someone who struggles to find employment, even though they are in completely different positions. The loss of finances, although devastating in the short-term will have a much different impact than being seen as ‘unemployed’ by Irish institutions.
Dublin South-West TD, Paul Murphy of People Before Profit, has been vocal against all government cutbacks when it comes to social welfare. The standard of social welfare in Ireland has been very high throughout the pandemic, but this is step is one slightly premature in the eyes of many opposition parties.
“The government doesn’t want to establish as a norm that people are going to get €350,” Murphy said. “They are against paying that sort of money and now, if you look at JobBridge coming back, it’s about individualising the problem of unemployment.”
Within this issue of classifying self-employed artists as ‘unemployed,’ comes the idea of retraining artists. Minister for Social Protection Heather Humphreys, who introduced the work experience scheme, had come under some criticism last year in saying some jobs “will not come back and there is no point in waiting… It is best that we help people to re-skill, retrain and look at other jobs they can take up.”
The brazen lack of care the former Minister for the Arts showed displayed an antiquated view on the arts scene. This is one echoed by Rishi Sunak in the UK when claiming that people in the arts “should retrain and find other jobs.”
Over the past year, people in the arts sector have been out of work the longest and will, evidently, be the last to know when they will return. The problem with individualising the employment problem also works to strengthen the view that the government isn’t willing to support artists.
“There’s this view that if you can’t get a job then it’s your fault,” said Paul Murphy. “In reality, it’s a pandemic and large sections of society, the arts and music, couldn’t open up because of public health guidelines and it isn’t down to the person.”
Although there is evidence of a lack of care for those in the arts sector, there is cause for optimism with certain proposals when the health emergency improves. The July report from the Joint Committee on Tourism, Culture, Arts, Sport and Media has shown a clear willingness to support artists and venues with improved licensing laws, speedier processes to achieve those licenses, and even extended hours.
Going into next year, proposals for the universal basic income for artists gives a clear indication that the pandemic has offered some chance for a difference in the relationship between artists and politicians.
However, the government’s public mishandling has only pushed a feeling of insecurity on those employed in the arts and culture sector. As society begins to reopen, it is hoped that there could be a meaningful future for Irish live entertainment. Yet, this meaningful future seems distant with a lack of a clear roadmap for recovery.