By Mark Lynch
Galway City Council has received enormous backlash after it passed a set of bye-laws regarding busking in the city centre. Last week, the bye-laws, which were passed by a resounding 12 councillors to 6, detail certain restrictions on buskers.
Among the more controversial elements of these bye-laws, set to come into play in January 2020, is the banning of amplification on the “protected streetscape”, namely Quay Street, High Street, Mainguard Street, Shop Street, Buttermilk Lane, William Street, Middle Street, Williamsgate Street, Abbeygate Street, and from Shop Street junction to Whitehall Close from 9am to 6pm. There is also a restriction on so-called “circle acts”, which attract large audiences that gather around them. Drum kits are now also completely banned, while buskers under the age of 16 must have a guardian present. Meanwhile, acts may not say, sing, perform or do anything that may cause offence to the public and they must only perform for 2 hours at a time in the one spot. There is also a €75 fixed charge for anyone who breaks these bye-laws.
The council has received massive backlash from all angles, including within the student community, for passing these bye-laws. The Students’ Union President, Clare Austick, has told SIN, “The new bye-laws are extremely restrictive and I fear that they will have a negative impact overall. There are also students who would use performing as an income to support themselves through college. The Executive Committee is not in favour of the bye-laws and will support the campaign to amend them”. Many prominent figures and groups around the city have also added their opposition to the bye-laws, with a growing feeling that they’re, perhaps, too harsh. Former Mayor of Galway and current councillor, Níall McNelis, voted against the bye-laws last week and defiantly stated, “There was absolutely no need to bring in this type of bye-laws to actually tackle what was going wrong with busking on Shop Street. There was an issue with some amplification that could have been addressed by, maybe, talking a bit with the buskers”.
His sentiment is shared by the Galway Busking Community, who feel the bye-laws are disproportionate to their necessity. “Understand that the Galway Buskers Community are not against reasonable and fair regulation of busking. We enacted our own voluntary Code of Conduct in the summer of 2017… If we had city hall to stand behind us and our code, we would have even greater compliance, even faster. We have asked repeatedly for their support and recognition, but we have been ignored every step of the way. The new bye-laws will be significantly less effective than our voluntary code. They have already created an ‘us and them’ environment between our community and the city”.
There is also a palpable sense of betrayal from the buskers, who feel the new bye-laws are an attack on them, despite busking being a key part of the campaign for Galway to become the European Capital of Culture for 2020. Cllr. McNelis was keen to emphasise that aspect of the decision, “Next year, we’re the European Capital of Culture and on Wednesday (September 18th), we’re launching the programme of events, so to bring in these stupid bye-laws (now) just makes no sense. I am (also) annoyed at the business community that love putting up photographs and videos of the buskers in the street and didn’t come out and support them”. The Galway Busking Community also questioned the timing of the bye-laws, with Galway 2020 just around the corner, “These bye-laws will also come into effect in January 2020, diminishing a huge and very recognisable, oft-lauded part of Galway’s cultural landscape at the very beginning of the City of Culture year”.
SIN also spoke to several councillors who voted in favour of the bye-laws. Among them is Cllr. Terry O’Flaherty, who strangely denied from the outset that there is any limit on busking in Galway City. Cllr. Alan Cheevers also voted for the bye-laws and stated, “It was personally a very difficult decision, but I have to vote with my heart and for what I think is best”. Cllr. Cheevers describes the bye-laws as compromise, claiming, “There’s a misconception that we’re against busking. This is totally untrue. We’re simply asking for compromise”. Outlining the reasoning behind the bye-laws, Cllr. Cheevers explained, “We have to think about the people who are working in the businesses and who own them. Imagine you’re working all day with someone outside playing loud music. Then, with the circle acts, they can restrict access for people with disabilities and people with buggies”.
Cllr. John Connolly was another councillor that formed part of the 12 in favour of the bye-laws. He played down their impact, expressing his regret at “the scaremongering that some have propagated regarding this issue”. He continued, “Removing amplification in certain areas creates a more equal arena for those who maintain the traditional acoustic methods of busking. The new regulation should also create an enhanced working environment for working people in the frontline of the retail industry, many of whom have welcomed the introduction of the regulation. The regulations will also make the protected streetscape more accessible for people with a visual or mobility impairment”.
Both Cllr. O’Flaherty and Cllr. Connolly maintain that the areas of Eyre Square and Spanish Arch are not covered under the bye-laws and are as free to use as ever. The Galway Busking Community, however, reply to that assertion, “any busker knows that there isn’t enough footfall in either place to make busking workable. There are no shops in Eyre Square or Spanish Arch, no spaces designated for busking in either area, and no plan to designate any before these bye-laws come in”. The buskers say they won’t be silenced, however, the question remains whether the powers that be will listen.