Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees

Tuesday, 16 July 2013

Joint Oireachtas Committee on Environment, Culture and the Gaeltacht

Heritage Council: Discussion

2:10 pm

Photo of Michael McCarthyMichael McCarthy (Cork South West, Labour)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

Tá córam againn agus mar sin táimid i seisiún poiblí. I wish to advise members of the usual warning about mobile phones as they interfere with the broadcast. Apologies have been received from Senator Denis Landy, who is detained in the Seanad.

We will now have a discussion with Mr. Conor Newman, Chairman Designate of the Heritage Council. Gabhaim buíochas le Mr. Newman as bheith i láthair.

I must read out a procedural point regarding the Defamation Act, which is for all witnesses. I wish to draw witnesses' attention to the fact that by virtue of section 17(2)(l) of the Defamation Act 2009, witnesses are protected by absolute privilege in respect of their evidence to the committee. However, if a witness is directed by the committee to cease giving evidence in regard to a particular matter and continues to do so, the witness is entitled thereafter only to a qualified privilege in respect of their evidence. Witnesses are directed that only evidence connected with the subject matter of these proceedings is to be given and are asked to respect the parliamentary practice that, where possible, they should not criticise or make charges against any person, persons or entity by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable. I wish to advise the witness also that the opening statement and any other documents the witness has submitted to the committee may be published on the committee website after the meeting.

Members are reminded of the long-standing parliamentary practice to the effect that they should not comment on, criticise or make charges against a person outside the House or an official either by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable.

I am delighted to have the opportunity to welcome Mr. Newman to the committee to discuss the work of the Heritage Council. Mr. Newman has been designated as chair of the council. It is not his first term and therefore he has a particular experience in that regard. I look forward to the interesting exchange he will have with the committee.

I note from the Heritage Council website that it takes an integrated approach to heritage, with responsibilities that include both its cultural and its natural aspects. I would like Mr. Newman to expand on that and give the committee some insight in terms of the way that mission statement can be extrapolated. The website states also that the heritage Acts provide a definition of "heritage" and its spread is truly comprehensive as it includes monuments, archaeological objects, heritage objects such as art, industrial works, documents, genealogical records, architectural heritage, flora, fauna, wildlife habitats, landscapes and seascapes; the list is almost endless. It is a wide range of responsibility on which Mr. Newman can expand in terms of the resources available to the council and what that means. We are in an era where we are almost driven demented by fiscal-speak in terms of constraints on resources but it is important that we take stock of our heritage.

This weekend, I had a beautiful experience on the beautiful island of Garnish off the coast of west Cork. It is a reminder of what is good about our country, how resilient we are and what we have to offer not just in terms of heritage but in terms of the tourism product, which is seeing a revival in terms of our economic fortunes. That is something of which we can rightly be proud. All too often in the public sphere, we can be critical of public administration and policy and how it is executed by Governments or various arms of the State but every now and then, it is important that we take stock and remind ourselves of what is good about that. I now ask Mr. Newman to address the committee and afterwards, we will go to a questions-and-answers session.

2:15 pm

Mr. Conor Newman:

I thank the Chairman and members of the committee for this opportunity to address them. In particular, I thank the Chairman for his opening words. I could not have put it better myself. As the Chairman mentioned, I have been chairman of the Heritage Council for the past five years so I have an intimate knowledge of it. In summary, I have steered it in the past year and a half through a successful critical review. The Heritage Council, along with quite a number of bodies, was reviewed thoroughly by the Department and we have come out of that with a clean bill of health. Perhaps most importantly in the context of today's meeting, I have steered the Heritage Council through the development of the current strategic plan which runs from 2012 to 2016 so, in a way, my fingerprints and those of the board are all over the strategic plan and it is perhaps not a bad place to start.

Before we begin, and I will develop some of the themes the Chairman has asked me to develop as I go through my presentation, I will introduce myself more directly to the committee. I am a senior lecturer in archaeology at the School of Geography and Archaeology at NUI Galway where I have worked since 1996. My main interests include the archaeology of royal sites and landscapes, most notably Tara, and I am currently co-directing an international project on the life and legacy of St. Columbanus, not to be confused with St. Columcille. Columbanus is the saint who made the major foundations in France and Italy at Bobbio where he died in 615. The Chairman was on Garnish Island recently, while I have recently been in Bobbio. There is a very strong sense of the permanence, durability and impact of Irish culture not just on our shores but elsewhere. The Heritage Council is very aware that this is part of our public face or "shop window". Archaeology is one of the cornerstones of heritage in Ireland with the result that my day job at NUI Galway and my position at the Heritage Council converge to the benefit of both.

The Heritage Council pre-dates its establishment as a statutory body in 1995 by about six years and so has played a central role in Irish heritage management, development and promotion for almost a quarter of a century so it is very much on the landscape. It has been a privilege to be associated with it for the past five years and to be considered for re-appointment. What I find so interesting is how the Heritage Council has managed to shape itself to the different ways people express, celebrate and value their heritage and to its extraordinary diversity. The body I was appointed to five years ago seemed at first sight to have evolved in a way that appeared quite organic but which I came to realise was actually very deliberate. It is a bottom-up organisation that has carefully mapped itself onto the phenomenon of living history. There is almost a tautology in that living history is like a contradiction in terms. It makes it very special and peculiar because of the nature of past and present converging in what we call heritage. For a phenomenon that is so ethereal, the strength of the ties between people and their heritage is remarkably strong and resilient, as the Chairman noted, probably because they are so personal and speak to communal values. Our common heritage is what makes us who we are when we meet together as communities. Yet it is also a remarkably fragile phenomenon and requires a light and sensitive touch, which is why the bottom-up approach is so important. Perhaps we can develop this later on in the questions-and-answers session. The Heritage Council has developed networks and support mechanisms that allow individuals and communities to care for and promote their own heritage not just in line with international standards but regularly setting them. For example, in the past six months, a major delegation from Kosovo came to visit the Heritage Council with a view to replicating it in Kosovo. At the time, I was supervising a Master's student from Kosovo who was funded by the European Commission as part of its efforts to help them rebuild their heritage infrastructure in war-torn Kosovo. It is quite interesting to see that the Heritage Council is an organisation that other countries are looking to replicate. As the Chairman mentioned at the start, one of the unique attributes of the Heritage Council is the combination of natural and cultural heritage. The fact is that they cannot be separated. The man cannot be taken from bog but I would argue that the bog cannot be taken from the man. We shape the landscapes around us and they in turn shape who we are. It is that combination that makes a visitor to our shores very aware that they are in Ireland. It is not just the people and their accent and language. It is the entire ambience that is created by the place we have created, warts and all, good and bad. The Heritage Council is one of the most networked statutory bodies, reaching into every parish in the country. That networking and the need for that type of networking given the phenomenon that is living history was one of the things singled out for commendation in the critical review. It was recognised from the start that this is eminently suited to the peculiarities of heritage. It is not an approach that can be replicated at Departmental level. In other words, a civil service per se would find it difficult to replicate that type of networking. Our connections go from other State bodies right down to individuals. That grouping of associations makes the work very interesting but complex and specialised at the same time.

Networks aside, one of the functions of the Heritage Council that I regard as particularly important is the development of policy. The Heritage Council has been an engine room of policy development concerning Irish heritage since its inception and I am glad to see that the critical review identified this as a core function. In respect of the wide purview or gaze of the Heritage Council, the Chairman mentioned the almost dizzying amount of things that can be categorised as heritage. Standing back from that and with that as its remit gives the Heritage Council a perspective across natural and cultural heritage and a type of expertise that is unique. It positions it really well to develop and recommend policy initiatives. One that the committee has undoubtedly been aware of is the development of a national landscape strategy. This is urgent because it speaks to a type of joined-up thinking about every aspect of the Irish landscape. If we achieve this, and I have every confidence we will, it will be a major milestone in the maturation of the governance of the Irish landscape and will be a box ticked in terms of our commitments as a signatory to the European Landscape Convention, which is a very important document. Many other countries are ahead of us on this curve and have developed what are called landscape observatories. This is something the Heritage Council is developing as I speak. I have already said that I have a particular in landscapes albeit archaeological ones but it is not possible to distinguish archaeological landscapes from all the other types of landscapes. Consequently, my interest specifically in landscape has meant that over the past number of years, I have been heavily committed to and involved in the development of the proposals coming from the Heritage Council in the direction of landscape feeding into the national landscape strategy. We are developing a viewer which will capture all the basic data that decision and policy makers need on the landscape - the state of the landscape - and I expect that this will be delivered within the next year.

One of the pitfalls of being so networked, however, is dissipation of profile. Due to the fact that the Heritage Council's philosophy focuses on support and capacity-building, so much of the work of the council occurs below the radar screen. Success for the Heritage Council is when a community identifies an aspect of its heritage that it wishes to promote, revive, enjoy and share and if we can help it achieve that, that is a success for us. They are small building blocks but they make a big difference to people's lives.

As a consequence we are very much behind the scenes.

This creates a vulnerability because it is too easy to lose sight of the fact that the Heritage Council's ability to assist is based on behind-the-scenes structures we have put in place and networks we have established and nurtured. Our ability to maintain these and support the communities they service has been sorely dented by massive cutbacks in our funding over the last five years from approximately €20 million in 2008 to just under €7 million in 2013. As a result, last year we were able to fund only 250 projects, and only modestly at that. This represents just 26% of the total number of applications for support from the Heritage Council. Approximately 75% of our applicants went away disappointed because we did not have the money to support them in doing what they do in their home localities where their heritage is visible and where they want to make something of it, make it more attractive and sustainable.

A key message from the Heritage Council just before I signed off as chairperson at the end of May was that if the grants are re-instated, at a cost of €1 million to €1.5 million, 250 to 300 communities around Ireland will benefit again. This is a priority of ours for 2014. This year, as a result of the cutbacks, we have had to cancel our grants programme and that was a very difficult decision to make. Many communities around the country were disappointed by that. They understand the circumstances in which we work but the situation is unsustainable and we must claw back that ground as a matter of priority.

It is ironic that the State spends millions of euro every year promoting Ireland as a tourism destination, with the usual emphasis on monuments and iconic landscapes, yet is cutting back wholesale on maintaining and developing those assets and the scientific research and on-going monitoring that is vital to the well-being of the Irish heritage resource. We must reverse this disconnect, particularly because today’s heritage tourist to Ireland is savvy. Notwithstanding the amazing weather we have at the moment, people tend not to come to Ireland for the weather but for the culture and landscapes. As a result of the evolution in thinking among people generally, a tourist coming to visit a place or object, such as the Book of Kells, is often as interested in how it is being cared for and looked after into the future and the science of that as he or she is in the object or the place itself. We call this shared stewardship, the sense that everybody has to roll up their sleeves and take some measure of responsibility for looking after the heritage assets we have. It is all over this morning's news that Fingal County Council had to fill 3,000 plastic bags with rubbish off the beaches in Portmarnock. Everybody has a role to play in this and the Heritage Council is one of the agencies of the State that is trying to get that message across. I will return to this later.

I spoke earlier about structures and networks, and these represent a nascent sector. The Heritage Council sees the need for a sectoral profile and identity for heritage in Ireland and to this end the Heritage Council networks the bodies under its wing, such as the National Biodiversity Data Centre, the Discovery Programme, the county heritage officers and the Irish Walled Towns Network. The Heritage Council tries to harness them together and make them greater than the sum of their parts. The professions we associate with heritage such as archaeology, genealogy, place names and ecology are all professions in their own right and can operate in their own professional bubble. However when one applies the word "heritage" to them it changes that because they have to start working in tandem and in partnership and reimagine themselves in this broader context of heritage.

Although heritage is an old word and concept, it is comparatively new in terms of the management of what we would previously have called monuments, buildings and special areas of conservation. It includes our landscapes. Trying to get a sufficient number of practitioners in each of these disciplines to see themselves as operating under the umbrella of heritage is a way of creating a sectoral identity. That is important for everybody because it results in a much closer proximity and dialogue between the general public and practitioners and makes the heritage and the language more accessible. As a result it begins to engender a sense of shared stewardship and people begin to feel this is their own heritage and they can participate in its well-being and enjoy that process. It has taken time to build up this structure, and protecting it and the 70 mostly non-public sector jobs has been our priority in making that decision concerning our budget distribution last year, but, as I said, our priority for 2014 is to re-establish the heritage grants.

So many of the benefits of heritage are immeasurable, and rightly so. Local heritage projects around the country generate tangible and intangible benefits. Sometimes the way they support local jobs is visible, sometimes it is not. This makes it difficult to ascertain the value added by investment in heritage. Two years ago the Heritage Council commissioned research into one of the more measurable aspects of heritage, namely built heritage, meaning historic buildings, houses, castles etc. The results demonstrate that approximately 37,000 full time equivalent employees exist around built heritage alone. Some 24,000 people are directly supported by the built heritage of the country alone. Irish tourism benefits to the tune of about €700 million out of a total of €1.5 billion to the nation’s gross value added. These are serious figures that highlight the economic importance of heritage and the jobs associated with it and tell us it has not reached capacity. If I leave the committee with no other message it is that there are employment opportunities around heritage, directly and indirectly. If the money is there and is invested carefully in a sustainable way we can deliver more jobs on the back of this amazing resource we have been gifted by history here in Ireland.

Perhaps it is because I am a university lecturer, or perhaps because I am a parent, that I see the wonderful classroom at hand that is our heritage. It takes a gifted teacher to hold the attention of a child, or even a third-level student, for ten minutes in the classroom. If that classroom is a seaside rock pool, castle, worm farm, tenement re-enactment or hedgerow in full bloom and humming with insects, it is hard to drag them away from it. I wanted to finish by talking about education lest I leave the impression that I see heritage primarily as a tourism resource. I do not believe that is the case because first and foremost it is ours to benefit from and share. If we do not look after it nobody will. We can harness so much from it. It is a huge outdoor classroom available to us and we need to exploit that. The Heritage Council does to an extent through its heritage in schools programme. This has reached capacity, not in terms of the number of schools asking for it but in terms of the budget available to us to develop it. We need to be able to pump more money into the heritage in schools programme because everybody is benefiting from it. It is creating jobs for the people who deliver it and really interesting and lasting educational opportunities for children.

Heritage Week is coming up at the end of August. There were approximately 1,600 Heritage Week events last year. A few weeks ago the co-ordinator told me she had turned Heritage Week from an event into a campaign. She meant the spirit of shared stewardship and partnership permeates every event so that the hundreds of thousands of people who attend Heritage Week events are not just entertained but leave with a better understanding of what heritage is. That is why it is important to look after it. It grows every year. The success of Heritage Week speaks louder than any other voice of the importance Irish people attach to their heritage and the Heritage Council plays a role in making that voice heard. It would be an honour to remain part of it.

2:35 pm

Photo of Catherine MurphyCatherine Murphy (Kildare North, Independent)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

I welcome Mr. Newman, who has a very impressive CV. It is quite difficult to pin down one aspect because the remit is so wide, so I will just ask some questions to tease out the issues.

Mr. Newman referred to the Heritage Council's sectoral role and the heritage network. I am very interested in this because, clearly, some aspects are very fragmented. Mr. Newman would obviously have a role in terms of the archives. Anyone having experience of either formal or informal records can see there is a huge missed opportunity in this regard. For example, even the railway records are a substantial set of records which are maintained by a voluntary archivist, and then there are the major archives maintained by the General Register Office, GRO. How would Mr. Newman envisage pulling all of that together or is this possible? Would money be available from the Ireland Fund of from philanthropy? This is not just about our heritage for those living on the island but it is also very much that those records belong to the people who emigrated and who want to reconnect with that sense of place that can be created when they find a location to which they are connected. There is a huge opportunity but we are not exploiting it, except in a piecemeal way. For example, the GRO records could be a very good census substitute if they were searchable online, and this is an opportunity that could be cost-neutral.

Reference was made to the work of the Irish Walled Towns Network. The history of the walled towns is fascinating but it has largely gone unnoticed up to the recent past. Does the Heritage Council have other initiatives which would be packageable in the same way as that network? It is useful to see what can be done but what we have not been able do because of the lack of funding. I am shocked by the reduction in the amount of money available to the Heritage Council as I had not realised it was that much.

With regard to the area of planning and the national landscape strategy, during the Celtic tiger madness it was a rearguard action to try to keep things that were worth keeping, and I found myself in that position on several occasions. In terms of getting people to buy into the landscape strategy, how does the Heritage Council develop policy whereby people actually value something in its own right before it gets rezoned because there is a lovely landscape or a gorgeous building? Will there be engagement in that policy formation in a wider sense? Clearly, if one develops a landscape strategy, there will be limitations, and it is these limitations that often come into conflict.

I was very impressed with the number of people employed. When one thinks of the Guinness Hop Store and the Cliffs of Moher centre in County Clare, we can see why there would be both private and public sector employment. I am curious about the engagement with philanthropy and the prospects for the Ireland Fund, as well as the potential for developing the sectoral role to a greater extent.

Photo of Marcella Corcoran KennedyMarcella Corcoran Kennedy (Laois-Offaly, Fine Gael)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

I wish Mr. Newman the very best in his new role. From his CV, he appears to be eminently qualified. Given the value the county councils' heritage officers bring to their role of raising awareness of heritage, in particular the various surveys they have conducted, I am anxious about the question of funding. I know they did outsanding work in the past and I would like to see them retained, so I hope every effort is made to do that.

Heritage Week is a fantastic opportunity for the wider public to think about their heritage. With regard to the schools, we have perhaps lost a little of the value that should be placed on our heritage and perhaps our young people do not value enough what we have. What are Mr. Newman's thoughts on how we move forward with this, rather than just teaching history, given there is so much more to it?

The national landscape strategy should have been published by now. What are the reasons for the delay? There should be a sense of urgency when we look at the evolving requirements for renewable and wind energy, the memorandum of understanding between Ireland and Britain and the plans in that regard. I would like to hear Mr. Newman's thoughts on that.

Mr. Conor Newman:

I will take the questions in the order in which they were asked. On the future of the archives, Ireland has a very mixed track record of looking after its archives, and some of them are literally rotting before our very eyes while others are in an excellent state of preservation. We are fortunate we live in an age where digital technology allows us to digitise so much so much of our archives, and in particular to digitise them in searchable ways. For example, a number of projects are going on in the Digital Hub or with regard to digital humanities. At this stage, the technology is available to us and it is a question of personnel and resources, which obviously boils down to money. We need to be able to harness those in a way that does not damage the archive itself but turns it into a digital format in a way that is accessible.

There are obviously difficulties with the integration of all of those different digital formats. For example, we all have old computers and disks at home that we can no longer use because of their obsolescence. It is an ongoing commitment. Digitising an archive is not the end of the job; in fact, it is the beginning of a long-term commitment. If we are going to go down that road in Ireland, which we already have done to some extent, we have to do it with our eyes open as to the long-term commitment.

The Deputy is right to point out the interest in the archives of all kinds of bodies, from the religious orders down to organisations like railway societies and so on. There is an extraordinary compendium of information out there and an amazingly diverse audience of interest all over the world. It is ironic that people often become more interested in their roots and history when they leave these shores, as they are at the moment in their droves, than when they are on them. There is an opportunity there for philanthropic investment in archives. The Heritage Council is actively looking at this at the moment. We have just established a working group to look into the whole area of alternative avenues of funding, partly as a reaction to the huge cutbacks we have suffered in recent years but partly also because it is a way of getting a bigger buy-in from a wider audience. If I have not fully answered the Deputy's question, we can come back to it.

I thank Deputy Murphy for mentioning the Irish Walled Towns Network. It is a network of towns in Ireland that started life as, or at least at one point in their history became, walled medieval towns. We tend not to think we have them in Ireland, and we tend to visit them when we are on holidays in France. However, we have walled towns in Ireland, including some quite spectacular ones. It is very important they are looked after and even creating a network in and of itself has raised the profile of towns and what it is one has to do to preserve the sense that one is in a walled town. A walled town has a very particular sense. There is a sense of being outside it, because one is extra-mural, and then inside it. The way that spatial development and planning happens both inside and outside the walled town is terrifically important to the maintenance or recreation of the ambience of a walled town.

Deputy Murphy asked whether we have other rabbits in the hat, as it were, that we can pull out and that would be networked in that sort of way. At the moment, no, we do not, although I am sure the Deputy is aware of the pilot project in Rindoon, County Roscommon, which involves an extraordinarily well-preserved deserted medieval town.

Using a slow sustained approach we have put it on the map and it attracts tourists. A body of people is interested in these deserted medieval villages and it may well be something we could consider for the future. When the Heritage Council identifies a motif such as the Irish Walled Towns Network we try to develop a number of pilots which lead to a template which others can follow, so rather than a bunch of communities waiting for the Heritage Council to arrive on their doorstep and deliver it for them, they learn how to do it from others and share the experience.

The question on getting buy-in to the national landscape strategy is very apposite. As I stated during my presentation, this is with regard to the incredible delicate phenomenon of living history. People have interesting and complex ways of attaching to their heritage and expressing these values. These values are not static; they constantly evolve and change as we re-examine history and look at it from today's perspectives with new insights. The key to getting buy-in is a combination of time and humility. The worst one can do is arrive and state we will solve everything, tell a community it has brilliant heritage, what that heritage is and how to manage it. Immediately the community will stop listening and will become slightly divorced from its own heritage because the people no longer feel it is theirs because it is being spoken about it in unfamiliar language with values which are also unfamiliar. The key to the national landscape strategy is giving it time, listening to people and using the opportunity for education.

The question was asked as to whether education per seis valued enough and it was stated there is more to heritage than simply history. This is correct, which is why I stated the Heritage Council would like to achieve a sense of sectoral identity, but this is management talk which forgets our sense that heritage is something in and of itself and is a combination of many things. In Ireland we need to move from a situation where heritage is a minority interest to where it is more common and routine for people to speak of it, and understand that heritage speaks to an integration of various value systems and areas of interest and that we educate people about this. The heritage in schools programme is very valuable but it is still at the mercy of school teachers and whether they are interested in having an expert speak to the children in the classroom. If possible we would like very much to introduce it as a more routine dimension in the curriculum at primary and second level, so whether the pupils continue to third level education or not they emerge with a sense of what it is to belong to this country and the way it works. They would have a sense of the plate to which they need to step up to preserve and maintain the values they have inherited, and see it not as the chains of history but rather steps on a ladder to a brighter future with an Irish gloss.

The submission from the Heritage Council to the national landscape strategy emphasised repeatedly the importance of public consultation and public buy-in. It will not work if the public is not on board. It cannot be rushed. It is quite correct to ask why it has not been published but I cannot give the answer. The Heritage Council has pushed for it. Much progress was made two years ago and then we went into a critical review process. I understand the development of the national landscape strategy was held in abeyance until this process was complete because the same office was carrying out the critical review and it was simply a question of not being able to do everything at the same time. It has kick-started again and it will be interesting to see how it emerges. My desire is that the national landscape strategy will have at its core the principle of public engagement on an ongoing basis, and not just public consultation, which is easy, but public engagement with a sense of ownership. This is because in Ireland we desperately need a sense of ownership of the landscape with a sense of generosity rather than being closed.

I briefly mentioned philanthropy in respect of the future of our archives and the Heritage Council is looking into this at present. Typically philanthropists are interested not in funding day-to-day running costs but in funding particular projects. When the group meets in the Heritage Council one of its jobs will be to examine specific projects which might be able to attract the attention of external and philanthropic funding. The type of projects likely to succeed are particular conservation projects or heritage motifs of which a philanthropist can see the beginning, middle and end, and its configuration. One of the council members, Dr. Henry J. Lyons, who will leave the Heritage Council next week as his term has come to an end, has much expertise in philanthropic funding. He is one of the people behind the Jeanie Johnston project and the restoration of the Blennerhassett windmill in County Kerry with which some committee members are familiar. All of this was funded through philanthropic funding. We hope to be able to avail of Dr. Lyons's expertise in this regard when we reconvene.

I share Deputy Corcoran Kennedy's praise for the heritage officers. It is a most extraordinary network and they are an amazing bunch of people. We need more of them. We do not have a heritage officer in every county. I am not as concerned as the Deputy is about the future of heritage officers because local authorities really value them and over the years they have developed a strong sense of the value of having a heritage officer on board. Some counties are big and complex enough to merit more than one heritage officer and I would like to see the numbers increase. I cannot see it happening in the short term but in the medium and long term we ought to think about it because as the sense of public ownership of heritage evolves there will be a greater demand for local authorities to roll up their sleeves even further in this respect. The Heritage Council is fully committed to maintaining the heritage officer programme. Funding is probably what the Deputy considers to be the one item which is likely to be a threat to the future of the programme, and all we can do is remind the House of the value of the heritage officers and the amazing work they do in local communities. It is something we simply cannot afford to reverse and it needs to be grown.

2:45 pm

Photo of James BannonJames Bannon (Longford-Westmeath, Fine Gael)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

I welcome Mr. Newman and wish him well in his new role as chairperson of the Heritage Council. There has been an interrelationship between people and the landscape since the earliest times and regrettably many monuments, such as ring forts, have been destroyed in some parts of our country. The management of our heritage depends very much on public awareness and education giving people an insight into what should be preserved and how to properly conserve our landscape. Mr. Newman spoke about Heritage Week, which has been a great success and has been running for the past ten years. However, it does not seem to change.

Many artifacts relating to the folklore and so on of areas are stored in damp rooms around the country, particularly in this city. They should be returned to communities so that they could create a greater awareness of their areas. Perhaps this possibility could be considered during Heritage Week, as could the possibility of making available grants to support heritage week.

When I was growing up, there were 26 or 28 thatched houses in my locality. This number has reduced to three because they are expensive to maintain and rethatch. The grant for thatched houses has not increased in line with inflation. It remains at €2,000 plus. This issue needs to be examined as soon as possible. Otherwise, thatched houses will be a thing of the past and will only be seen on postcards, in magazines, etc.

We also need more heritage trails. Walking has become a wonderful pastime for people in recent years. By publishing brochures and selecting built and cultural heritage sites along routes, this sector could be developed.

We need a holistic approach to the development of the River Shannon, which is Ireland's central heritage monument. The River Shannon callows are important to our natural heritage and should be viewed along the same lines as set-asides, in that farmers should be compensated. Their lands are often flooded during the winter and they should receive grant aid to leave them unused. The Heritage Council could work with the Office of Public Works, OPW, on this suggestion.

I wish to discuss an issue that has been raised with me concerning the council's website. I live in a house that is nearly 300 years old.

2:55 pm

Photo of Noel CoonanNoel Coonan (Tipperary North, Fine Gael)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

A thatched house.

Photo of James BannonJames Bannon (Longford-Westmeath, Fine Gael)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

People who visited to photograph old houses, traditional farm yards, etc., did so when those areas were not in the best of condition. They do not like to see that. Perhaps the website could be redone. The owner could be co-operated with on the day the photographer visits. People were surprised to find their properties on-line without being notified, particularly their back gates, back gardens, etc. Could the suggestion of tax rebates for those who are genuinely committed to preserving our culture and heritage be considered?

How does the council determine whether a monument is of national, regional or local importance? With the best intentions in the world, councillors often submit structures to their respective county development plans. A building that has existed for 300 years could be wiped out within half an hour, yet no action has been taken. Will our guests elaborate on this issue?

Photo of Michael McCarthyMichael McCarthy (Cork South West, Labour)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

Deputy Coonan is next. I am conscious that two other groups must present today. One will provide legal advice on climate change and the other is the Commission for Communications Regulation, ComReg.

Photo of Noel CoonanNoel Coonan (Tipperary North, Fine Gael)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

Ba mhaith liom comhghairdeas a dhéanamh le Mr. Newman. I welcome him to the meeting and wish him well in his role. I was interested in one of his opening remarks, that being, one can take the man from the bog but one cannot take the bog from the man. Bearing this in mind and speaking personally or on behalf of the council, will Mr. Newman outline how important is the preservation of bogs to our heritage?

One of the problems with the subject of heritage is that it seems to overlap various Departments and bodies, for example, the OPW, the National Parks and Wildlife Service, NPWS, and the Heritage Council. Mr. Newman referred to cutbacks and how he would like the council to have more money. We all wish we could be in a position to provide more, but can the council achieve better value for money? In some cases, bureaucracy and excessive regulation are applied to local communities that are undertaking projects. Local councils' heritage officers do a great deal of valuable work, but there are many areas that they do not reach. I have in mind Loughmore Castle and St. Cronan's Church in Roscrea, where a wall was dangerously close to falling down. For a community to preserve the buildings in question, they would need to engage in-----


Photo of Michael McCarthyMichael McCarthy (Cork South West, Labour)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

I am sorry to interrupt, but someone's telephone is switched on near a microphone. The person might switch it off if possible.

Photo of Noel CoonanNoel Coonan (Tipperary North, Fine Gael)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

A community would need to get an archaeologist's report, which would cost a great deal of money. Local communities have suffered cutbacks as well. Could the Heritage Council make it easier for communities and people to engage in projects? Many valuable or worthwhile monuments, buildings and so on are falling down, but there is no money to preserve them. Local communities can help, but they are prevented from doing so by excessive regulations that lead to heavy costs. This deters them from undertaking preservation projects. Could the Heritage Council take a more commonsensical approach?

I do not want to rehearse other members' comments. As Mr. Newman sets out in his role, does he have a specific project in mind? How would he like to be remembered when his time on the council comes to an end?

Photo of Sandra McLellanSandra McLellan (Cork East, Sinn Fein)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

My apologies for being late. I wish to take this opportunity to wish Mr. Newman well in his role. His curriculum vitae speaks for itself and highlights a life dedicated to protecting and learning about our heritage. I am glad that we have opportunities like this to discuss appointments, as members are afforded the chance to ask questions and consider appointees' suitability. It is a transparent and appropriate approach. Previously, the Minister appointed numerous people who had not even expressed a formal interest.

I wish to address the cutbacks in funding and grants for the Heritage Council. Will the grant schemes ever be reinstated and is there a timeframe for same? Would the implementation of the Hunt report on further education and training have ramifications for the area of heritage, particularly in terms of employees? What is Mr. Newman's opinion of medieval festivals and their economic value to communities?

Photo of Michael McCarthyMichael McCarthy (Cork South West, Labour)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

Mr. Newman might respond to those questions. Many viewpoints were expressed, but answering the questions might be a more efficient use of our time.

Mr. Conor Newman:

I will try to answer as best I can. Deputy Bannon referred to how, notwithstanding the success of heritage week, monuments were being destroyed around the country on an ongoing basis.

The only answer is public awareness and education and placing a greater emphasis on conservation in the course of schooling. The implication of what the Deputy said is that our generation was not exposed enough to such thinking. I mentioned in my written presentation - although I did not read it into the evidence - that we could all benefit from returning to the classroom to learn about the vulnerability of monuments.

Some monuments appear to be more vulnerable than others. As the Deputy mentioned, ring forts are being destroyed on a regular basis and part of the problem is the definition of monuments. He asked how does one define a monument? I shall segue and ask why is no action taken when a monument is destroyed? In this regard I cannot answer the Deputy's latter question. I do not know why more punitive action is not taken when monuments are destroyed. We have a poor track record for doing so. The Heritage Council is not the regulatory body and, therefore, it is not our function to rap people on the knuckles for destroying a monument. It would be nice to see the regulatory body, the National Monuments Service, being encouraged to be more proactive in terms of punitive interventions in the case of reckless destruction.

The solution is difficult because often the people who are involved in and responsible for the destruction are not going to be changed. These situations must be handled carefully because we do not have the people power to monitor the monuments and landscape all of the time. Even national monuments are not monitored on a 24-hour basis. As the committee will know, a couple of years of ago the Lia Fail standing stone on the Hill of Tara was damaged with hammer blows and, again, nobody was monitoring the site. Trust and faith are greatly important principles behind the preservation of monuments and landscape but they must be underpinned by education. The Heritage Council is trying to provide such education and the State services could lend more weight to that agenda.

Deputy Bannon suggested that more local material should be made available to local museums and so on. That scheme is evolving but slowly. The Heritage Council introduced a museums standards programme quite a number of years ago. Local museums can go forward for accreditation and are chaperoned and tutored through the process of improving every aspect of their offering as a museum. That includes recording, security and emergency measures, lighting and all of the different things that make up a certifiable museum. The success of the programme has resulted in better museums being distributed around the country and, therefore, the national collection being accordingly distributed to those museums.

The National Museum of Ireland is the primary repository of archaeological material. With the standards of museums improving it is more willing to lend material. The worst thing that can happen is that objects are lent or given to museums that are not in a position to look after them so they can be lost or whatever. These are the things that we need to be careful about. I agree with the Deputy that every county should have its own museum which should be the primary port of call for people living in and visiting the county who want to get a sense of its history and vernacular. It is a subject where the Deputy and I would share common ground.

Like the Deputy, I live in an area that has thatched houses. They are disappearing bit by bit. It takes a lot of commitment on the part of the owner-occupier to preserve them. I agree with him that we need to spend more money on preservation. The Heritage Council has very little money but we match the grant provided to cover the cost of thatching. The council has its own rubric. It wants vernacular thatching designs and techniques used so that a project does not just look like a thatched house but has genuinely been thatched in the manner that is appropriate to its region and county and also, as far as possible, local materials are used. Our insistence of that does not just keep authenticity but generates employment. As the Deputy will probably know, quite a lot of the reeds are imported from Turkey. Ireland is capable of producing its own reeds and there is a small nascent industry developing in the River Shannon callows, particularly down the south east aspect where people are harvesting and growing reeds, in so far as one can grow a natural product.

The Deputy is right. Thatched houses are also a concern of mine. I would hate to see them reduced to just photographs on John Hinde postcards because that would be the last of them. They are part and parcel of who and what we are and they are beautiful. The Heritage Council is very aware of the problem. One of its newly appointed members is Dr. Fidelma Mullane and she is an expert in vernacular architecture and thatching and has been an inspector of thatching for a number of years. The Deputy can be confident that particular ball will not be dropped by the Heritage Council. If we can promote and develop it then that is exactly what we will do.

Deputy Bannon also called for more heritage trails. We do need more access to the Irish landscape. We have had a couple of really shining success stories in recent years. For example, the Newport-Mulranny cycle track that has now been extended to the Westport-Achill cycle track. It has opened up a big chunk of the landscape and part of it utilises a disused railway line. A lot of visitors have used it. I have cycled it twice and my daughter has cycled it three times. If one goes to the Headford Road, near where I live, on a weekend one can see that every second car driving in the direction of Mayo has bicycles strapped on its back or roof-rack. Mr. Manchan Magan has written eloquently on the economic benefits to be gained from the cycle track. Galway County Council, for instance, is planning to extend the cycle trace the whole way around Lough Corrib and back into Galway. The plan is afoot as we speak. That is just one example.

People have a great appetite for accessing the landscape. Many of the applicants to the Heritage Council are developing trails and now forms part of what they approach us for. Of course the more money that we have then the more trails can be developed in a sustainable way.

Sustainability is one of the things that we need to be careful about, an aspect I mentioned in my presentation. If we are going to spend so much money advertising Ireland as a tourism destination then we must ensure that tourist activities are managed in a quiet way so they do not destroy the very thing that they come here to see. Bringing a bit of science and research to bear on trail development and so on is very important because it will protect it into the future.

The committee may be familiar with Croagh Patrick, which I climbed last year. The trail of destruction along its side is of genuine concern to everyone who lives there. We must figure out ways to allow people have as much access as they want while preserving the site. That involves a bit of science which in turn involves investment, both of which we need urgently. We cannot tart up places and bring tourists in but let them act as agents of erosion and destruction. For example, I see the erosion and so on at the Hill of Tara on a daily basis.

Deputy Bannon suggested that we adopt a holistic approach to the River Shannon and I agree with him. If I could I would give him a job in the Heritage Council because he speaks our language and has raised our exact concerns. A couple of years ago I attended a conference on the management of its river basin. About 15 local authorities are responsible for different areas of the River Shannon. County boundaries run down its middle so different local authorities are responsible for opposite river banks. Consequently, the way the River Shannon and any major river is managed must be holistic, draw on the entire catchment area and be integrated. The Deputy also mentioned the Shannon callows, which is a valuable tradition.

A couple of years ago those of us who live in the west became aware of what happens when one mismanages water and there was massive flooding all over the countryside. That speaks of a lack of and forgetfulness about looking after groundwater. Allowing groundwater to do what it normally does is all part and parcel, not just of our heritage, but our engineering and survival into the future. The Deputy and I speak the same language on this issue as well.

How does one define a national monument? One will see a definition of a national monument in the National Monuments Act 1930. However, fewer monuments today are being declared a "national monument". It seems from my examination a couple of years ago, that there was a rush to declare monuments as a "national monument" around the decade of the foundation of the State. Some of the monuments on the list of national monuments would find it much more difficult to qualify as a "national monument" nowadays. I think we raised the stakes a little bit too high, but in some sense there is this part of me that thinks we should not declare artefacts to be national monuments because that focuses too much attention on one thing to the detriment of other things. I take a more holistic approach which is to encourage the evaluation of everything without special attention to any particular one thing. That is the better way to go because once one designates something as a "national monument" one is automatically stating that something else is not. That can be alienating for people who feel a sense of attachment to the other.

3:15 pm

Photo of Michael McCarthyMichael McCarthy (Cork South West, Labour)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

Deputy Bannon has already spoken for six minutes and the reply extended to 12 minutes, giving a total of 18 minutes. There are two other groups of visitors to come in yet.

Photo of James BannonJames Bannon (Longford-Westmeath, Fine Gael)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

We should designate a day to our heritage.

Photo of Michael McCarthyMichael McCarthy (Cork South West, Labour)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

We can discuss that under 'any other business'.

Photo of James BannonJames Bannon (Longford-Westmeath, Fine Gael)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

Heritage is important, although it is relegated to the hind tit in contrast to the environment.

Photo of Michael McCarthyMichael McCarthy (Cork South West, Labour)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

Point taken. Will Mr. Newman respond to the points made by Deputies Coonan and McLellan?

Mr. Conor Newman:

Yes, I will. Committee members are always welcome to visit the Heritage Council offices in Kilkenny. We would be delighted to have any or all committee members visit. Should the committee decide to dedicate a day to that visit, it would be music to our ears.

Deputy McLellan raised concerns about the funding of the Heritage Council. We are also concerned because our funding has been drastically cut. We lost a great deal of ground in 2009. Our budget was cut by upwards of 70% in 2009 and we have not recovered. Part of the reason we have not recovered is the background economic crisis in the country. As I have mentioned in my presentation, the problem is that we are beginning to lose ground. If one looks at the natural resources in Ireland we have a mosaic that we have not looked after with the degree of urgency we need to. The Heritage Council has a very small staff and a modest budget, with which it does amazing work. I say that as a private individual not biased by my role as chairperson. We need more funding in order to be able to continue the work we are doing. There is an enormous appetite among the public and we are not able to service it. If there is anything this committee can do to help lobby for more funding - the reinstatement of our grants programme for 2014 would be a major step forward in that regard - it would be very welcome.

The Hunt report on Further Education and Training was raised. I mentioned already that we need to introduce heritage as a concept in and of itself. The integrated thinking that is represented by the word "heritage" itself is something that we need to bring into our education system. As a person who works in the third level education sector, one of the things I see among first year student coming to college is that they tend to think in silos, they think in terms of biology as distinct from history as distinct from English. They do not cross-pollinate that knowledge in the way that is needed at third level, and not just at third level but as a society we need to be able to cross-pollinate from things we know in one arena into another so that we do not make the mistakes that we have made in the past.

I live near Athenry which has a famous medieval festival. They are important and there is a company that specialised in equipping people with all the gear, right down to the weaponry they might need. They will also rent out a horse for the day. They are very important and they are part and parcel of what the Irish Walled Towns Network is trying to promote. They are good for people and are good for tourism.

Deputy Coonan was interested in the preservation of bogs and the importance to our heritage of our peatlands. The Heritage Council has made a presentation in this regard to the National Peatlands Strategy in April 2011. We speak from the perspective of heritage and we rely on others to speak from other perspectives per se. To come back to the adage, "You can take a man out of the bog, but you can't take the bog out of the man", we have some extraordinary peatlands. Our ancestors have had to deal with peatlands in lots of different ways, both from a cultural point of view, from a religious and mythological points of view. There is enormous archaeological potential in our peatlands that we are not looking after to the extent that we might. There is of course the living heritage of the bogs. It is terribly important that we do not lose sight of that. While there is a biodiversity imperative, and the management of the water base and so on is of great importance, but so also is the living heritage of our peatlands as well. A balanced approach which recognises the heritage value but also the biodiversity and scientific value of our peatlands is the way forward.

My answer will be similar to the answer I gave in respect of the national landscape strategy, it will take time. This is something that will have to be thought about, people need to educated much more about what the peatlands are. When people talk about biodiversity and ecological services, one may ask what does that mean? Every third mouthful of food we eat has been pollinated by an insect. When members are driving back to their homes, count how many insects are plastered onto the windscreen of the car and I wager one will find that it is a fraction of what it was ten years ago. We are losing our insects because we are losing our habitats. Insects pollinate the fruits we grow. This may sound like a green agenda, but my point is that biodiversity is actually critical to our species. We cannot differentiate ourselves from the natural ecology. We rely on it. Our bogs are very important in that regard, to the extent, that a group of people in Holland use their own personal finance to buy Irish bogs and donate them to the Irish people. I am not sure if members are aware of that. All the bogs in Holland have been lost and these people know the consequences and they know we have bogs in Ireland. They research them, they buy them and then present them but with conditions that they are to be enjoyed but are not to be tampered with.

I was asked if heritage overlaps with too many different things and whether better value for money could be gained if excessive regulations were relaxed. That is a complex debate and I am not sure we have the time to go into this issue. Let me return to the principle of shared stewardship, which is very important. It is very important to have regulation. The authenticity of the heritage resource, and the preservation of that authenticity is very important, it cannot be a facade but must be truly authentic. That is why professionals are brought to bear on this. Not all of it is rocket science and consequently I would like to see a situation evolve over the next decade or so where there is greater public participation in the conservation of our heritage. If that were the case, then we would find ourselves in step with the most recent of the European conventions on cultural heritage, the so-called Faro Convention, which is a short document. Its appeal to professionals lies in its acknowledgement of the fact that their work in cultural heritage is public property and consequently if one is privileged to be qualified to work in it one must do so in a way that the public good, which involves participation, is manifestly clear.

I was asked about how I would like to be remembered. I would like to be remembered as the person who might have been able to claw back some of the financial losses that the Heritage Council has suffered during the course of the past five years so that we can begin to reclaim some of that ground and service the communities around the countryside. One of the things I have found most extraordinary in the past five years of travelling around the countryside, wearing my hat as Chairman of the Heritage Council is the number of people in every second townland who has benefited from the work of the Heritage Council.

It has provided an extraordinary legacy and it is painful to see that we are being compromised in our ability to pursue that, particularly because we have created momentum and appetite among the public for the work we do, but are not able to fulfil that to the extent we want.

3:25 pm

Photo of Michael McCarthyMichael McCarthy (Cork South West, Labour)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

Thank you. Deputy McLoughlin has a final question, but we must then move on.

Photo of Tony McLoughlinTony McLoughlin (Sligo-North Leitrim, Fine Gael)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

I thank Mr. Newman for appearing before the committee and wish him well in his new position. I have a question with regard to the Heritage Council and the relationship between it and local authorities. Many local authorities have heritage officers. What does Mr. Newman see as their future role with regard to the Heritage Council and the local authorities? Also, what is the Heritage Council budget for the year?

Mr. Conor Newman:

We are currently operating under a budget of just under €7 million. The funding comes in three tranches, one of which is the Vote. Some €1.5 million comes from the environment fund, but this year that was less than €1 million. We also get some money from the National Parks and Wildlife Service in respect of the operations of the national biodiversity data centre in Waterford. Our funding situation is critical. As I mentioned, we had to cancel our grants programme for this year, but we cannot sustain that. Our priority for 2013 was to try to preserve the infrastructure we had put in place, such as the national biodiversity data centre discovery programme and so on. If we lose those, we will not see them back in our lifetime. Also, there are 70 jobs directly associated with that. It is much more difficult to calculate the number of jobs that are influenced or affected by our grants programme. We felt the grants programme could probably, just about, withstand one year of cancellation, but not two. Otherwise, we begin to lose people's confidence and momentum. We cannot afford for that to happen into the future.

With regard to local authority heritage officers, we have a tug of war of love between the county councils and ourselves because we pay part of the salary of the heritage officers, on a sliding scale. When a county council takes on a heritage officer, we pay the bulk of the salary, but as the years pass, the ratio changes and eventually they become funded 75% by the county council or local authority and 25% by the Heritage Council. Most heritage officers have been in place for a number of years now and they are well embedded and regarded by the county managers. Any of the county managers I have met over the years have nothing but praise for their heritage officers and the work they do. They are a very committed bunch of people and have an interesting range of qualifications, everything from archaeology to botany. There is also an anthropologist among them. They work well as a group and we are very careful to ensure they have ongoing training at the Heritage Council and that they get together regularly so they can exchange ideas. I think the future is very bright for the heritage officers. We are deeply committed to that programme and would like to grow the portfolio if we could.

Photo of Michael McCarthyMichael McCarthy (Cork South West, Labour)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

That is great. I thank Mr. Newman for his engagement with the committee, which has been important for us. We appreciate his contribution. We will send a note to the Minister to inform him we have concluded our discussion with Mr. Newman in the context of his designation as chairman of the Heritage Council. Is that agreed? Agreed.

The joint committee went into private session at 3.45 p.m. and resumed in public session 4 p.m.