Belfast rappers Kneecap are threatening legal action over a decision by the UK government to block “significant” funding it had been allocated.
A grant had been due to the Irish-language rap trio through a scheme administered by the British Phonographic Industry (BPI) before being refused by the UK Government.
SDLP leader Colum Eastwood said the decision to overturn the award was “highly irregular”, and could possibly be in breach of a treaty signed after the Good Friday Agreement.
The rap group said on the social media site X, formerly Twitter: “We’ve just been informed that our application to the Music Export Growth Scheme was independently approved and signed off by selection board.
“It was then blocked directly by the British Government who overruled the independent selection board.”
The Music Export Growth Scheme aims to help UK music groups market themselves abroad.
A spokesperson for UK Business Secretary Kemi Badenoch is reported to have said they did not want to give taxpayers’ money “to people that oppose the United Kingdom itself”.
The music group, who had a 2019 tour entitled Farewell to the Union, said that the decision effectively meant it was “blocked from receiving significant music funding because a Tory minister doesn’t like our art”.
Law firm Phoenix Law said on Friday afternoon that it had been instructed by Kneecap over a decision by the Secretary of State, who had been “put on notice that her decision is unlawful”.
We have been instructed by @KNEECAPCEOL in respect of the recent decision by the Sec of State. She has today been put on notice that her decision is unlawful, and legal proceedings will follow. Our @darraghmackin is instructed acting with @JoeBrolly1993 & Mr Ronan Lavery KC.
— Phoenix Law Belfast (@PhoenixLawHR) February 9, 2024
Mr Eastwood suggested the decision may also not comply with the British Government’s obligation to exercise power on the basis of parity of esteem for communities in Northern Ireland.
He said: “It is highly irregular for a secretary of state to intervene to overturn the decision of an independent assessment board to award funding to an artist on the basis of their political aspirations.
“It would be unacceptable if the British Government had instituted a policy of defunding groups because they support Irish Unity, Scottish Independence, Welsh Independence or any other change to the constitutional status quo.
“Worse, in the context of Northern Ireland it may represent a breach of the British Government’s obligations under the treaty signed after the Good Friday Agreement which includes a commitment to exercise power on the basis of parity of esteem between communities in the north.
“Art is meant to be challenging. You don’t have to agree with an artist or group to understand the importance of funding creators who challenge the status quo and the establishment.
“I have submitted a number of parliamentary questions to establish what has happened here.
“If there has been a change of funding policy to make that more difficult then Kemi Badenoch needs to come clean about it.”
The BPI said in a statement to the PA news agency that it was disappointed that the UK government did not approve the grant to Kneecap.
The statement said: “The Music Export Growth Scheme (Megs) is an important partnership between industry and Government, and we greatly appreciate the Government’s support including its recently increased levels of funding.
“This long-term commitment has shown itself to be vital to hundreds of independent artists in developing their international careers – adding to the UK’s cultural power and driving export success through music.
“However, as the delivery partner of Megs on behalf of the UK music industry, the BPI is disappointed at the Government’s decision not to approve a grant to the band Kneecap after our independent selection board had voted for it as part of the latest round of funding applications.
“The public funding element of the scheme makes it appropriate for colleagues in Government to have a say on any grants awarded by the Megs Board, and it has been their decision alone to decline the application made by Kneecap’s representatives.
“While it is for Government to speak to its rationale for making this particular decision, we firmly believe in the importance of freedom of expression, including artistic expression, and look forward to discussing further with Government how any decisions involving potentially controversial matters will be handled in future.”