Broadcasting (Amendment) Bill 2015: First Stage

I move:

That leave be granted to introduce a Bill entitled an Act to provide for a minimum percentage of Irish works in radio music programmes and for that purpose to amend the Broadcasting Act 2009, and to provide for related matters.

I seek leave to introduce the Broadcasting (Amendment) Bill 2015 on the floor of the Dáil today. I thank the Leas-Cheann Comhairle and my colleagues for facilitating this process.

The purpose of this Bill is to introduce a quota for Irish music on the Irish airwaves and, for that purpose, to amend the Broadcasting Act 2009 by inserting a new section 65A, which would provide that it shall be a condition for the award of a sound broadcasting contract under section 65(8) that at least 40% of the aggregate amount of transmission time allocated to music content programmes provided under contract shall be reserved for musical compositions that relate to some distinguishing or distinctive element of the culture of the whole people of the island of Ireland.

I first raised this issue in the Dáil on 7 October 2014, having been inspired to do so by discussions I had with various musicians, composers and singers, as well as by the excellent polemics and reasoned arguments in support of a quota system put forward by Limerick man Johnny Duhan, the brilliant composer, singer and musician who is now based in Galway. Indeed, the remainder of my speech on this matter is clearly informed by a series of articles in the Sunday Independent during the past year by Johnny Duhan. The arguments he has made are absolutely compelling.

One particular article had a lasting impression on me. The writer reminded us that part of the reason the men who went out and sacrificed their lives in the 1916 Rising was to establish Ireland's separate cultural identity to that of Great Britain. Following in the footsteps of Yeats and Lady Gregory, who had worked tirelessly towards that end, many of the volunteers who lost their lives were poets and writers. By a strange irony, they made what is now considered one of the first broadcasts ever made from the General Post Office on the Easter weekend of the rebellion through a primitive telegraph system. They informed the world in Morse code that they were establishing an independent Irish republic.

It may be ironic that the building at the centre of the Rising later became the headquarters of our national broadcaster, RTE. In the first decades of its history, RTE was based in the GPO. In that time it remained loyal to an Irish musical culture, while, at the same time, embracing musical culture from throughout the world, especially America and Great Britain, because of our shared language. Up until the 1950s, 1960s and even the 1970s, as much as 40% of the music that went out over the national airwaves was influenced, in one way or another, by our musical heritage. Things started changing in the 1960s when popular music, as we know it today, coming from the US and Great Britain started taking a grip throughout Europe. By the time we joined the then EEC in the early 1970s, US or UK pop music, run by an aggressive industry, was beginning to make serious inroads throughout Europe and further afield.

Meanwhile, versed in the ways of revolution, the French wisely took precautions to protect their national interests and fast-tracked legislation that enacted a quota to ensure 40% of all music played on French radio had to be sung in French. They used the argument that they were protecting the French language and French culture with this manoeuvre. However, this decisive action was as much about economics as anything else. On the other side of the world, Canada did the same thing and used the argument that its indigenous music industry was under threat of being wiped out by the overpowering presence of the US next door. Since the Canadians acted as decisively as the French in this matter, they now have a thriving indigenous industry.

Although those of us in Ireland were even more exposed to the towering influence of Great Britain on one side and the US on the other, we have been hamstrung from doing anything about it by a limp argument that has prevailed until this day. This argument holds that because our music and culture is primarily conducted in English, we cannot resort to the same argument that the French used to legislate for their quota. However, we need not use the French argument. On the question of language, most EU countries, including France, have a clear advantage over the Irish because Europeans still have a taste for hearing songs in their mother tongues. Therefore, their playlists are automatically made up of a high percentage of their indigenous songs. Besides that argument, we also have a legitimate case by pointing out that although most of our contemporary songs are sung in English, the best of them have a distinctive Irish musical character in their make-up. More than any other independent country in Europe, Ireland should have demanded and been given clearance to enact legislation for a music quota decades ago. The sad fact is that we were given such licence by the relevant EU authorities in the final years of the last century but we did not act on it.

After independent commercial radio stations were given licence to operate in Ireland the percentage of Irish music of all genres starting to plummet. A former chairman of the Irish broadcasting authority is on record as stating that the levels in some Dublin stations dropped to as low as 3% despite the fact that an edict had been put in place by the Government broadcasting authority that a 30% quota should be applied. In an effort to counteract the near extinction of Irish music from the Irish airwaves, the same chairman of the broadcasting authority and his chief executive officer approached Brussels to propose enacting an Irish music quota through legislation. They came up with a wording for inclusion in the current Broadcasting Act that was eventually accepted by EU authorities. However, this was never implemented. Since that failed attempt to introduce legislation to enact an Irish music quota on radio at the end of the last century, the level of Irish music being played on Irish radio has continued to drop, especially in our cities and larger towns. Literally thousands of fine Irish musicians are being excluded from our airwaves simply because we have allowed ourselves to be steered into the current situation by musical trends and fashions primarily constructed in the US and Great Britain.

We need more northside bands.

Next year, no doubt, Irish radio will pull out all the stops and do what they do every St. Patrick's Day. As Mr. Duhan put it, they will fill the prime time airwaves with an array of the best Irish music that we have to offer.

Given that 2016 marks 100 years of Irish independence, the radio bosses that control our airways may even extend the remit for Irish music to be included in prime time playlists during the entire centenary year.

If we do not apply ourselves to enacting legislation to maintain a quota of 40% in the near future, things will not only revert to the way they are now, but practically no Irish music will be played on our prime time airways. Things will get much worse. We need to draw on the kind of courage that the men of 1916 found in themselves when they set out to forge an independent Irish republic so that we, in our time, can start to build a true national music culture, informed by the cultures of other countries, but forged primarily from the wealth of our own rich heritage. Our forebears would expect this of us and our descendants are entitled to no less.

Is the Bill opposed?

Question put and agreed to.

As this is a Private Members' Bill, Second Stage must, under Standing Orders, be taken in Private Members' time.

I move: "That the Bill be taken in Private Members' time."

Question put and agreed to.