Belfast rap group Kneecap are planning to sue the UK government after Business Secretary Kemi Badenoch blocked funding via the Music Export Growth Scheme because of the politics of their output, in particular their support for a united Ireland.
MP Colum Eastwood has also raised the matter in Parliament, stating that the move could be a breach of the Good Friday Agreement and adding, “It would be unacceptable if the British government had instituted a policy of defunding groups because they support Irish unity".
The group themselves retweeted a post from legal firm Phoenix Law which stated, "We have been instructed by Kneecap in respect of the recent decision by the Secretary Of State. She has today been put on notice that her decision is unlawful and legal proceedings will follow".
Kneecap - who perform in Irish and English, and often reference their support for a united Ireland - have frequently courted controversy with their music and other creative output. When criticised, they have argued that art should be challenging, while also insisting that much of their music is tongue-in-cheek. "There's a lot of playfulness and a lot fun and craic", they told the BBC last month, "if you're offended by it then you're just not getting the joke".
Their bid for funding from MEGS - the government-funded programme to support independent artists and labels pursuing opportunities in new markets - was approved by the music industry committee that oversees the scheme.
However, each grant has to be rubber stamped by Badenoch's team at the Department For Business And Trade. A spokesperson for the minister said they did not want to hand taxpayers' money "to people that oppose the United Kingdom itself".
MEGS is run by record industry trade group BPI, which said in a statement that it was "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".
"While it is for government to speak to its rationale for making this particular decision", a spokesperson added, "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".
Colum Eastwood is leader of the Social Democratic And Labour Party, one of the political parties in Northern Ireland that supports reunification with the Republic Of Ireland, and is currently MP for the Northern Irish constituency of Foyle.
He is quoted by the Belfast Telegraph as saying, “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".
Not only that, he added, but Badenoch blocking the grant could be a breach of the British government's obligations under the Good Friday Agreement, which was signed as part of the Northern Ireland peace process in 1998. The agreement, he said, includes "a commitment to exercise power on the basis of parity of esteem between communities in the North".
“Art is meant to be challenging”, he went on. “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”.
Kneecap have been building an international audience in recent years, with a tour of the US and Canada planned for next month. Their story is also the subject of a new film that premiered at the Sundance Film Festival last month.