Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Wednesday, 28 November 2018
Joint Oireachtas Committee on Arts, Heritage, Regional, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs
National Famine Commemoration Day Bill 2017: Discussion
The main item of business is the National Famine Commemoration Day Bill 2017, which provides for the commemoration of the Great Famine, the establishment of a national Famine commemoration day and related matters. It is a Private Members' Bill sponsored by Deputy Brophy and it was referred to this committee by the Dáil in 2017. At our meeting of 14 November, the committee decided to conduct a detailed scrutiny of the Bill. In accordance with the guidelines of that day, we will commence that scrutiny. To assist us in this matter, I am pleased to welcome Deputy Brophy and from the Department of Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, Mr. Conor Falvey, assistant secretary, and Mr. John Healy. They are accompanied by Professor Tommy Cooke, who is a member of the national Famine commemoration committee. Mr. Michael Blanch and Ms Olivia Blanch are also with us today.
Sula tosóimid lenár bhfianaise, ba mhaith liom a chur ar aird na bhfinnéithe go bhfuil, de bhua alt 17(2)(l) den Acht um Chlúmhilleadh 2009, na finnéithe faoi chosaint ag lánphribhléid maidir leis an bhfianaise a thabharfaidh siad don choiste seo. Before the witnesses address the meeting, I draw their attention to the fact that, by virtue of section 17(2)(l) of the Defamation Act 2009, they are protected by absolute privilege in respect of their evidence to the committee. However, if they are directed by it to cease giving evidence on a particular matter and they continue to do so, they are entitled thereafter only to qualified privilege in respect of their evidence. They 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 to the effect 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 advise witnesses that their opening statements and any other documents they have submitted to the committee may be published on the committee website after this meeting.
Members are reminded of the long-standing practice to the effect that they should not comment on, criticise or make charges against a person outside the Houses or an official either by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable.
Cuirfimid tús leis an gcomhrá. I remind witnesses and guests in the Gallery to switch off their mobile phones if they have not done so thus far because it interferes with the recording material here. I dtús báire, tugaim cuireadh don Teachta Brophy an Bille a tharraingt anuas agus labhairt linn.
I thank the Chairman for the speedy manner in which he has brought this matter to the committee. I appreciate the opportunity to outline my simple proposal for a Bill which would put a fixed date in place for commemoration of the Famine. The proposals at the heart of the Bill are to have a commemoration day which would occur on the second Sunday of May, that the commemoration would include civil, military and ceremonial elements and an interfaith service and that there would be a central venue for commemoration which would be the designated by the Taoiseach or the Government. I am bringing this forward to put a definitive date into the calendar and to put a definitive structure around the commemoration. I appreciate and acknowledge in advance that in recent years, much work has been done by the national Famine commemoration committee and there have been some excellent events commemorating the Famine but we have had a situation over a period of time where we have had no real certainty as to the date. It has moved around the calendar from the earlier part of the year to the autumn. What has really driven me with this Bill is that for something that is so central to the history of our country, that is part of what makes us Irish and that had such an impact on creating the country and the island in which we live, we should treat it with the respect it deserves and part of that respect is to have that fixed date.
By having a fixed date, the Bill would enable the development of a much greater process around the commemoration. It would particularly enable our schools to work to the certainty of a date and to develop programmes that would bring in a greater educational involvement for children.
It is a simple Bill and a simple proposal. I recognise in advance from conversations I have had on it that there are certain aspects of it which, for logistical reasons, could be tightened up or amended and I am open to consideration of that.
I thank the Chairman.
Go raibh maith agat. Iarraim ar na hionadaithe ón Roinn Cultúir, Oidhreachta agus Gaeltachta an méid atá le rá acu a chur inár láthair. Níl a fhios agam cén duine acu atá chun labhairt. I do not know which of the witnesses wishes to contribute. I call Mr. Falvey.
Mr. Conor Falvey:
I thank the committee and wish the Chair well in his new role. I am the assistant secretary in charge of the corporate affairs division of the Department of Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht. I am accompanied by my colleague, Mr. John Healy, head of the corporate governance unit, which among other things provides secretariat support to the national Famine commemoration committee, NFCC. The committee is chaired by the Minister for Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, Deputy Josepha Madigan. Also in attendance is Professor Tommy Cooke, a long-standing member of the national Famine commemoration committee.
On behalf of the Minister, I thank the committee for its interest in this matter and for the opportunity to present the view of the Department on this Bill. As the committee will be aware, the national Famine commemoration was initiated in 2008, following a Government decision to commemorate the Great Famine with an annual memorial day. The national Famine commemoration committee, chaired by the then Minister for Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs, Deputy Éamon Ó Cuív, was established to consider the most appropriate arrangements for an annual national commemoration of the Great Famine. The commemoration, which broadly speaking follows the format of the national day of commemoration, established by the Government in 1985, is part of the State’s annual programme of commemorations.
These events include the 1916 Easter Rising commemoration, held on Easter Sunday, the annual 1916 Arbour Hill commemoration, which is not a fixed date but takes place between the dates of the first and last execution of the 1916 leaders, usually on the first Wednesday after 3 May, and the Daniel O’Connell commemoration, which is held in Glasnevin Cemetery on the second Sunday of May each year, the Sunday closest to his death. The national Famine commemoration is to be held on the third Sunday of May, or its eve, I will come back to that in a moment, by a decision of the Government in 2018. The national day of commemoration is held on the Sunday closest to 11 July, which is the anniversary of the signing in 1921 of the truce in the War of Independence. There is also an annual commemoration of the Somme organised by the Royal British Legion, Republic of Ireland branch. It is held in the Irish National War Memorial Gardens in Islandbridge on the Sunday preceding the national day of commemoration.
At present, each of these commemorations is undertaken on the basis of a Government decision and none are provided for in legislation. To date, no Government has considered it necessary to propose the introduction of legislation in respect of State ceremonial events of this nature. Since the adoption of the current format in 2009, the national Famine commemoration has retained a high degree of continuity in its format. However, the artistic, cultural and other elements of the commemoration can and do vary from year to year at the behest of the local organisers. From an early date, May has been identified as a preferred month for the holding of the commemoration due to the second Sunday in May being noted as Famine Sunday in many areas and the likelihood of good weather. However, it should be noted that there is no specific date associated with the beginning, nadir or end of the Famine and also that there are Famine walks and commemorations in many communities on dates of local significance.
The commemoration has been held during May on six occasions since 2009. It has also been necessary to hold the commemoration in September and October to accommodate the local community or due to other pressures such as the availability of the Taoiseach or President. A key consideration in all years has been to ensure that the commemoration is held during school term to facilitate the involvement of schools. The Deputy has referred to that. At the request of the Minister for Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, however, the Government on 30 April 2018 “agreed to the designation of the third Sunday of May as the National Famine Commemoration Day with the arrangements for the holding a of State commemoration that is commensurate with the Great Famine’s historical, social and cultural significance on this day or the preceding Saturday to be decided each year by the Minister for Culture, Heritage and Gaeltacht following consultation with the relevant local authority and host community”. That is because some host communities may prefer not to host an event on a Sunday.
As a result of this decision, the 2019 commemoration will be held on the weekend of 18 and 19 May next year at a Connacht venue. This decision has given effect to one of the primary objectives of the Bill, namely, the identification of a fixed date while preserving a degree of flexibility to vary the day of the ceremony to Saturday in recognition of local community concerns, as was the case for the 2015 commemoration held in Newry. The national Famine commemoration is unique among State commemorations in that the venue changes from year to year. The ceremony programme comprises two parts. The first is a community event organised by the host community and local authority, with support from Department staff, which culminates in the keynote speech by the presiding officer, usually the President or Taoiseach. This is followed by the formal State ceremonial event, which includes military honours and wreath laying ceremonies.
The community programme generally includes readings in the Irish and English languages, music by local musicians and choirs, participation by local school children and prayers for the victims of the Famine led by representatives of various faiths and a humanist reflection. The precise form of each element of the programme may vary from year to year but is always subject to approval by the Minister to preserve the dignity of the event. As I have stated, while the Minister welcomes the interest and intention of the Deputy in bringing forward this Bill, she is appreciative of the concerns of the NFCC that the enactment of the legislation could lead to a number of unintended consequences which may unintentionally hamper the ability of communities to host a national Famine commemoration in future years. The issue of local communities hosting the national commemoration every year has been an important element because the impact of the Famine was felt in all corners of the country. These concerns primarily arise regarding the proposals that the commemoration should include military ceremonial elements and an inter-faith service.
As members of the committee will be aware, the Great Famine was a human tragedy of immense proportions but was in no way a military event. This renders it different to the other major State ceremonial events referred to earlier. While the NFCC has considered this issue, the practice to date has been to continue with the standard approach to ceremonial events of including military elements. No such elements, however, were included in the 2015 ceremony presided over by then Minister, Deputy Heather Humphreys, when a "no flags and no uniforms" policy was adopted. Nevertheless, the commemoration was considered a great success. In the event that a host community, either North or South, wished to adopt a similar approach at a future date with a view to emphasising the humanitarian nature of the tragedy, the imposition of a legislative requirement as proposed would require amending legislation even if the Government of the day was minded to accommodate an alternative approach to such ceremonies that did not encompass military involvement.
At any time, proposals that might inadvertently impact in a negative way on the capacity of any community on the island of Ireland to host an event of this nature would be a sensitive matter. In current circumstances, these sensitivities are particularly acute and the Department asks that the committee reflect carefully on this issue. The Department also points out that there is no legal definition of the term "inter-faith service". As this is part of the community programme, we have seen a number of different approaches taken over the years. Notwithstanding this, however, all of the major faiths in the country have been invited to participate in the commemoration, as has the humanist society. The inclusion of a term such as this in legislation would require careful definition to avoid imposing a legislative requirement with which a Minister perhaps could not, with certainty, comply. In addition, as Ireland becomes a more diverse country, including as a result of providing refuge to people fleeing often tragic events in their countries of origin, the Department would again request that the committee reflect carefully on the prudence of reducing flexibility for host communities on this issue.
In light of these concerns and the above mentioned possibility of wider implications for the wider State ceremonial calendar, the Minister asks that the committee, taking full account of the Government's decision of 30 April last year to give full consideration to the necessity of legislating for the Famine commemoration at this time. I refer to those key concerns of moving the venue from location to location and also the issues on the military involvement, or the military ceremonial event, and the interfaith service. I acknowledge what the Deputy said in his own contribution about being willing to look at elements of the Bill. That was very helpful.
Mr. Michael Blanch:
The committee for the commemoration of Irish Famine victims, CCIFV, has campaigned for and created a national Famine memorial day. The CCIFV is a family community-based group. Over the years, it has had links and close partnerships and friendships throughout this island, the neighbouring island and globally. The Bill being discussed today on Committee Stage is another piece of the jigsaw in the gigantic picture that is an Gorta Mór. The Bill will give stability, certainty and an equal footing and recognition with Easter and July remembrance days, that have fixed days. The Irish people, home and abroad, will know when the national Famine memorial day will take place when the Bill is passed. It will also solve the annual headache for the Minister and the committee.
On St. Patrick's Day, Ireland and the world turns green. It will do so on the third Sunday in May, when the national Famine commemoration day beds in and becomes more known. The Bill will have a major part to play in this. Ireland is unique. We are the only country in the world with a Famine day in its national calendar.
Other countries would cherish the opportunity to have this day without the pain and loss. They will follow in support, spirit and solidarity with Ireland on Famine day. Famine and hunger are still a blight and constant foe for humanity today in a world of plenty. The international overseas Famine memorial day can and should be held on the same day, the second or third Sunday in May, wherever green is worn, like St. Patrick's Day.
The Bill allows the Taoiseach to select the location for the national Famine commemoration day, as can be done for the international day. There is not a blade of grass, a sod of earth, a village, town or city that has escaped the scars and wounds of an Gorta Mór; selecting a location will not be problem. Likewise for the international day, the Irish Famine global family has left a large footprint and casts a long shadow on the planet, with over a 100 Famine memorials remembering those dark times, days and years in Irish history.
With Brexit confusion reigning, the unifying cement of the national Famine commemoration is relevant as it is an all-island event crossing the Border, for example in 2015 in Newry. Members of the CCIFV were the harbingers for this happening in 2014 when we placed a marker at a paupers' and Famine mass grave at the old Newry workhouse, which today is the Daisy Hill hospital. The mass grave, like numerous other mass graves on or close to workhouse sites around the country, holds the bodies of Catholics, Protestants, dissenters and non-believers. One mass of humanity sleeping peacefully side by side: this is the universality of the great hunger. The 2014 Newry commemoration was multi-denominational and cross-community. The mayor of Newry officiated at the ceremony.
People at home and abroad are aware of the national Famine commemoration day and, like St. Patrick's Day, communities are holding an Gorta Mór events all over Ireland and overseas. London and other UK locations have held commemorations for a number of years, as have communities in America, Canada, Australia and other places of which we are not aware. The core of the national Famine commemoration day is remembrance of over 1 million innocent victims and another 2 million forced into exile. The nuclear-like fallout is still felt today, more than 170 years on. Ireland is the only country in the world whose population has not grown since the 19th century. This is not a statistic any country would wish to hold. The positives are the 70 million members of the Irish Famine global family who are proud to be Irish. If a small percentage of the many who to trace their Irish family ancestry, heritage and history come to Ireland, the tourism potential, if harnessed and promoted, could yield limitless revenue for the country as well as forging closer links with their adopted countries.
There are eight Departments and NGOs on the national Famine commemoration committee, all of which can contribute to planting the seed for future growth and promotion of the national Famine commemoration day at home and abroad. Education on the Famine in schools, although on the curriculum, is not compulsory. The CCIFV has the Lumper schools project, which is on the Department's scoilnet.iewebsite this year for the first time although the project has been running for five years. It is sponsored by Glens of Antrim Potatoes and is an all-island programme. The Lumper is a living artefact and a Famine history teacher.
When tourists or indeed Irish people, especially schoolchildren, call into the National Museum of Ireland there is not a plaque on a wall to recognise or honour the loss of so many in this important part of our history that changed Ireland and the world forever. An Gorta Mór gave the nation our national flag through the Young Irelanders' 1848 Famine rebellion led by William Smith O’Brien at the Ballingarry Famine Warhouse, which is now a national monument. That was the first time the Tricolour flew in battle. It was the birth and creation of the Irish Republican Brotherhood, IRB, and the catalyst for the 1867 and 1916 rebellions that gave us our independence. An Gorta Mór has been buried like the victims in omission, silence and denial in the National Museum of Ireland since the State's foundation and we are now coming up to the State's centenary.
The vision and opinions of the CCIFV are lengthy but need to be considered. I will now share our condensed proposals for amendments to the National Famine Commemoration Day Bill 2017. The rotation protocol around the four provinces is to be sacrosanct. It is not to be broken as was done this year when the commemoration was kept in Munster for two years in succession at the expense of all the four provinces, to accommodate a Cabinet meeting - a first for a university to hold one - and to launch a book online. The national Famine commemoration day is bigger than both of these.
The international Famine commemoration day is to be held on the second or third Sunday in May in conjunction with the one at home. This is to bring the Irish global Famine family into unity and inclusion. We will all stand in remembrance of the victims and in celebration of the exiles and survivors on the same day, the second or third Sunday in May, Famine day. On St. Patrick's Day, the Irish global family at home and abroad unites as one and the same should happen on the national Famine commemoration day.
The doubt and uncertainty attached to the timing of both the national and the international day since inauguration in 2008 will finally be consigned to history with the passing of this Bill. It will bring clarity, certainty and stability for the Irish people and communities home and abroad who hold commemorations and the Taoiseach, Minister and the national Famine commemoration committee will be able to plan years in advance. The Bill is an important part of the holistic story and history of an Gorta Mór. Gabhaim buíochas don choiste. I am grateful to the committee for giving the CCIFV this opportunity for community involvement.
I welcome Mr. Blanch. I am very confused, not because of what I have heard but because the Minister for Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht and the Government agreed to the designation on 30 April 2018. Now I am told it is being questioned in a sense. There is an obfuscation given the heightened sensitivity of the North and military issues. I do not know where I am. The first thing I would like to ask Deputy Brophy is where we stand. Does the Minister agree with it or not? Has she sent it out here for us to find what the problems are or obfuscate on it? Can Deputy Brophy provide specific reasons for wanting it fixed? What are things he would seek to tighten up? Does Mr. Falvey agree with the Bill. I like Mr. Blanch's point about not corralling it to suit the suits. What he says is very real. When I look at Yemen and Syria, I think, "My God, my God." Where do we stand? There are people starving and we are not even paying attention to them.
Are we with the Minister? Is she with us but not really? Has this all been handed over to the committee as a kind of obfuscation or insurance policy? I have read all the literature and I am confused. What started off as something quite simple has grown a few tentacles to the right and left and is not so simple any more. That is why we are all here.
To try to bring it back to a simple approach, a timeline might help. This Bill has been around for a while - since 2017 - and that is one of the problems. The Government made a decision subsequent to the introduction of the Bill. I like to think the decision was probably partly made because the Bill was there. My clear understanding and indication is that the Government allowed the Bill to go forward and that the Minister has absolutely no problem with my Bill. The indications are the small ones, to answer the Senator's other question, of what I want to tighten up. These issues were mentioned by the Department officials. I have no problem with moving the day. The Bill provides for the second Sunday but I have no problem with it being the third Sunday. I have no problem with an amendment to the effect that instead of saying "shall include civil and military", the text would read "can include". That would allow flexibility if the event was being hosted in a location where there would be a problem with a military involvement.
I have no problem with those types of changes but I am trying to achieve a strong, interdenominational, interfaith basis for this. I am open to looking at what wording there could be to achieve this but I want to ensure that it happens.
A committee should work out, with the community, what flexibility there should be regarding what takes place on the day. However, let us call a spade a spade. It is not acceptable to have a randomly rotated date in order, as was stated, to suit the suits. I do not believe there is a community in Ireland which could suggest to the Government that it hold St. Patrick's Day in July. That is not an acceptable point. I welcome the fact that the Government has decided to hold it on the third Sunday in May. However, in the absence of this Bill, that decision could be adjusted easily by a new Government and a new Cabinet.
I was disappointed that the Department asked if we needed this at all and suggested that we leave matters as they stand. As a result of what happened in the past, when we moved the date to suit the diaries of people who might have attended or a group which wanted to hold it, we need to underpin this by saying we will hold it on the third Sunday in May. I am absolutely open to the idea of holding it on the eve of that day but I am not open to not going ahead with the Bill or allowing it to be adjusted again at a whim. Without copper-fastening this point in the Bill, this that it exactly what can happen.
These are the small specific things I am willing to change. I believe there is cross-party support for it and support from non-party Members of the House. I hope we can progress if fairly quickly with the assistance of the committee.
Mr. Conor Falvey:
The answer to Senator Marie-Louise O'Donnell's question is "No", at least as it is currently drafted. The Government decision was made in the context of there being Private Members' legislation under consideration by the Oireachtas. When dealing with host communities and when we want to involve schools in what might be outdoor events, there is a narrow window when the schools are open and the weather might be good enough, which is why the time between May and September is suggested. There may be a local consideration and some communities might have other stuff going on in May, and want to move it as a result. I appreciate that Oireachtas Members may have a view as to whether that is a good idea. The tendency has been to facilitate that, which means September. I have not been involved in every event since 2008 but this tends to be the reason, rather than a particular person being unavailable. Having said that, the Government was clearly convinced last April of the wisdom of settling on a date. This is the basis on which all State ceremonial and commemorative events take place but, ultimately, it is a matter for the Oireachtas to decide as to what legislation it is going to provide. We can only ask that, in doing so, it reflects on these different elements to decide whether it is appropriate to legislate for them.
The process is that we have to give it detailed scrutiny and then we will send a message to the Dáil as to whether we believe the Bill should progress. If the Dáil agrees, we will come back here on Committee Stage, which will mean amendments from interested parties.
It will be our decision. We are the members of the committee. We will also need a money message from the Government but I cannot foresee any major problems as regards money because it is expenditure. A lot of Private Members' Bills are stuck at various stages and this could be one such Bill.
I have just been informed that we have a money message on this so we can progress all the way to full legislation, with the agreement of the House. The officials and Deputy Brophy are here to explain the Bill and to suggest the areas that we need to address. It is also necessary to determine that the Bill is not fatally flawed and will not cause undue harm to something else, in which respect we seem to be okay.
I welcome Deputy Brophy, Mr. Blanch and the other guests. Mr. Blanch has campaigned tirelessly on this and he met Mr. Falvey and Deputy Tóibín in my office on the matter.
This period was a catalyst for our influence around the world and, by 1850, we made up one quarter of the populations of Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Buffalo and Baltimore. The influx of Irish people into these cities, over a period of just five years, must have caused a lot of upheaval but they ultimately benefited American society and that teaches us lessons on how generous and open we should be to fleeing and struggling people around the world. This is an important holiday for many reasons.
I have no problem with legislating for this and I have no interest in the Department's concerns in that area. My preference would be for the Title to be as gaeilge across the Bill, and for it to refer to an Gorta Mór. I have no problem with amending the date as the Oireachtas sees fit but it is right to set it.
My preference would be to remove section 3, which states that the commemoration should include civil and military ceremonial elements and an interfaith service, and I would leave these things up to the discretion of the Department. I would also change section 4 to allow it to be designated by the Department and the Minister for Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht. I am uncomfortable with any faith element at a ceremony, such as there was at the recent presidential inauguration. My own preference would be for no faith to be there.
As members will be aware, Ireland has only nine public holidays whereas the standard number across the European Union is 11. Will the Government run with and take ownership of this by perhaps setting a public holiday that could bring many other benefits to the commemoration?
I have a reservation about that. I am not saying this could or would happen but I would be very disappointed if the day of commemoration became a public holiday that was exploited in a certain way that quickly became something we were not proud of.
Something like that happens around St Patrick's Day already, which many of us regret. At the heart of this is that it is a day of commemoration and I do not want to get into the issue of making it a public holiday.
I am not opposed to having an interfaith element. I think this should be part of the commemoration. I take on board Deputy Ó Cuív's comment, although I am not so sure this was not historically part of inaugurations. If the Bill moves to the next Stage, I will be open to changing that section to allow for greater flexibility in terms of how the commemoration is organised. However, I do not have a problem per sewith having an interfaith element and I do not agree that we should not have any faith-based element to it. One must be respectful of people who have faith as much as one must be respectful of those who have no faith. The moving of the pendulum too much one way or the other is not the answer.
Professor Tommy Cooke:
I thank the committee for inviting me to today's meeting. I have had the pleasure of being on the national Famine commemoration committee for nine years. It has been a great honour for me. I have seen the commemoration evolve over those years. There are three main thrusts of the national famine commemoration committee. The first is to facilitate the national and international commemoration of the Famine. The second is to reach out and try to engage the diaspora in whatever way we can. The third is to increase awareness of hunger worldwide in whatever way we can.
There has been significant community involvement in the national element of the commemoration. The event rotates to a different province each year. In the past, various towns sent in applications and competed to host the event. Each community addressed the event in different ways and that was a big part of the success of the commemoration within the community.
We have probably not been as successful with the other two parts, namely, reaching out to the diaspora and improving awareness of hunger issues worldwide. However, we have moved some way towards resolving that with the development of a marvellous website by the Department in conjunction with University College Cork. This is a research tool that allows us to look at the evolution of the Famine from 1841 to 1851 and the changes in demographics and various statistics over the period simply by moving a cursor across the screen. The website can be further developed. My vision for it, in conjunction with members of the national famine commemoration committee, is that we could engage the diaspora in innovative ways by developing the website as a repository. People from around the world could submit their stories, photographs of artefacts or whatever else to a managed system. The website is also being used by schools. When we started to develop the website schools in Northern Ireland showed great interest in becoming involved.
The military element could be an issue when we are talking about the North. We involved the North and its turn to host the commemoration will come around again. The Protestant Famine communities in the North were equally affected as many Famine communities down South.
To be blunt, the interfaith service in some of the previous commemorations went on for too long and in some ways caused people to disengage from the reflective event that had been organised with music, poetry, enactments and so on. It is hard to get back into that zone again. For this reason, I would be worried about prescribing an interfaith service as part of the commemoration.
I am interested in hearing the thoughts of the witnesses on the title of the commemoration. It has been suggested that we run with the title as Gaeilge. It is somewhat outrageous of Deputy Brophy to suggest that if we have a public holiday, everyone will go on the piss.
I did not actually say that. Apart from Senator Warfield's choice of words, I did not say anything in that regard. He asked if I was in favour of having a public holiday and I indicated, for the reasons stated, that I was not and that it would be more appropriate to have a commemoration day.
In response to his second question on the title, while an Gorta Mór is correct, I do not think there is a problem in using both languages. We want to make the commemoration an international day. I do not want to get bogged down, as happens with legislation sometimes, unfortunately. I want a simple, straightforward Bill that puts something in place that people have sought for a very long time. At the heart of it is to lock the date for commemorative purposes each year. I am very open to working on Committee Stage to facilitate all the other aspects of the issue and to be as inclusive as possible, taking into account people's experience in organising commemorative events in previous years and the practicalities such as whether to have a military aspect or an interfaith service.
I have been intimately involved with this from the beginning. The question that arises today is how best to have a Famine commemoration. To my knowledge, there is no opposition to having a Famine commemoration, so I do not think there is any danger of a Government saying we would not have one. A much more fundamental question arises in terms of whether one just does it or whether one provides for it in legislation. There are upsides and downsides to having it in legislation.
I often complain European legislation can be awfully constraining and can have all sorts of unintended consequences. There can be extreme interpretations by courts and so on that were never intended by the legislators. The problem that arises when legislation is introduced at such a remove and then set in stone without getting the whole of Europe to change, is that it becomes immutable and impractical. We are finding every day of the week, certainly west of the Shannon, that a great deal of European legislation has bizarre consequences. When we pass legislation in the House and find there is an unintended consequence or an unforeseen circumstance there is nothing that can be done except introduce further legislation. If the legislation is the result of Government decision and popular acclaim and flexibility is needed, one can go back at any time and make whatever change is needed.
I welcome the Government made a decision about the date of 3 May. I remember the debate when we started this because there was no obvious or specific date, as there had not been a rising. The first commemoration was held in Skibbereen at the end of May. The reason we did not set the date at that stage was very simple. We were wondering if we had forgotten something or whether there would be a big row or something else going on at the time. We could not think of anything. It has been held on a date other than in May twice for various reasons.
From the very beginning, the commemoration was supposed to be marked on a 32-county basis. If the people of Belfast or Derry said they would like to have it in September, it would be a little insensitive for the Department to refuse. Is there an advantage in setting a date in stone? Is there a big risk involved in not doing so? Would setting a date be a constraint?
I am in favour of including a military element for a very simply reason. The military will not be about guns and so on until we get involved in a common European defence. Until such time, our military is a force for peacekeeping and internal State security. It represents the State in a very formal way. When we discussed including a military element, the idea was to show that an independent Irish State recognised the citizens who died in the Famine. However, this poses a difficulty across the Border and we have to be flexible in that regard.
I made a comment about the religious service which I probably should not have made across the floor because we are supposed to speak at all times through the Chair. Gabh mo leithscéal faoi sin. I do not like the present arrangement for the presidential inauguration. The inauguration of Douglas Hyde and some subsequent Presidents used to involve the President-elect attending a service in the church of their choice. In the case of Douglas Hyde, it was in St. Patrick's Cathedral. Anybody who did not want to go to the religious service skipped it. It was a religious service to pray for the success of the Presidency and nothing to do with the State ceremony which is the inauguration. It was a service, whether religious or humanist, which took place off site. When it came to the inauguration proper, which always took place in St. Patrick's Hall in Dublin Castle, there was no religious element because there was a total separation of church and State. We think we have moved forward but we have moved backwards by bringing the religious element into Dublin Castle and having 30 or 40 different religions. The number of religions is growing every year and I have no problem with it. I think it is great to have various groups making some kind of statement. However, I agree with Professor Cooke. After a while one sees people's eyelids dropping. I do not think that should be in the Bill. When we start stripping the Bill down to allow for contingencies, are we left with anything and do we really need the Bill? That is a decision the committee will have to make. We would need a Bill very urgently if the Government was even half thinking of dropping all of this. However, there is a snowball's chance in hell of that happening.
A national commemoration will take place somewhere in Ireland, preferably on 3 May, and that date has been fixed by the Minister. Whoever mentioned moving St. Patrick's Day has a point. In many American cities, for practical reasons St. Patrick's Day is celebrated on the Sunday before or after 17 March, depending on the day it falls on, because the streets cannot all be closed to have a decent parade on 17 March. The world is funny and very rarely black and white in terms of what a law does. That is why we should always be sparing in law.
I have given my view on both the religious issue and the military issue. I want the military included in all the national commemorations. However, I now find we would have to write in more clauses providing that in the event of the commemoration having a Northern element or any other sensitivities like that, the military element must be left out. I am wondering what will be in the Bill in the end. This is the issue the committee will have to address.
I would like an absolute affirmation from the Department. We had the international commemoration and I remember having it in Toronto and Grosse Isle. Grosse Isle was absolutely extraordinary. It is the island all the immigrants came through on their way to Canada. It is an extraordinary place. I was a little amused. I must mention a monument built in cloch eibhir. The stone used was transported 300 miles down the St. Lawrence River 60 years later to raise an extraordinary cross. What is also interesting is that some of the people who arrived in Grosse Isle were so poor they had nothing. Their involvement in raising the monument 60 years later shows the ability of the Irish to rise from nothing. There was an inscription on the monument in Irish, English and French. The Irish version was wrongly translated. There is a secret code in the Irish version, "Go Saoraigh Dia Éire", which people translated it as "God save Ireland". That is not what it says because it means, "May God free Ireland". Obviously the former Famine victims who raised the cross had great political aspirations but decided to keep that to themselves by having this inscription written in Irish and not in English or French. I thought it was very curious. It is a very stark message of their political dreams. This goes back to what I said about the military ceremony. It epitomises the aspirations of those people even in the most desperate of times that they would have control of their own destinies.
We have a difficult choice to make. It is not anything to do with the Famine commemoration. A lecture was delivered abroad as part of the commemorations and the possibility of a lecture being delivered here was also discussed. I am not sure if that lecture is still given. I am glad to hear about the website. It is absolutely fantastic. The committee does a great job. The people we have to suit are those in the communities. It is the all-Ireland dimension that makes this a little trickier. We should try, when the commemoration is held in Ulster, to ensure all nine counties are involved in the debate, not just the three counties here.
I thought it set a bad precedent and was bitterly disappointed when it was decided not to continue the rotation. I was assured by the Department it was intended to return to that practice.
I do not care what bid UCC submitted; I still think it was a major mistake. The Famine belongs to the people and the small places of Ireland, the likes of Murrisk and Skibbereen. That is why we started in Skibbereen. It belongs to the people in every part of the smallest rural communities, many of which were heavily populated at the time. Some of them were hugely affected and have now been totally depopulated. I hope the committee will resist the temptation to focus on the most powerful and biggest communities, towns and cities. This is the one national commemoration that belongs to every community because every community was affected. As I said, some of them are very rural. We know, for example, about the Famine village on Achill Island. There are good reasons to hold it there. One of the things we found was that when we brought it to the more rural areas, the areas where the folk memories are still alive, which is always the case when a population is less mobile, the enthusiasm in organising at a local level compensated for any lack of population. I have an open mind and believe we should keep an open mind until we debate the matter privately.
Mr. Michael Blanch:
Deputy John Curran stepped in for the Deputy on the day. With reference to the Department, it could be argued that community involvement is the reason there is an attempt to erase the record of the inaugural event at the Customs House in 2008. On 21 May the Taoiseach said in the Dáil that a community event was happening on that day. He did not mention the CCIFV; he just referred to a community group. In 2016 six weeks notice was given to the people of Ireland by the National Famine Commemoration Committee of the event to be held in Glasnevin Cemetery. There was no community involvement. Do we have to expunge that commemoration as only six weeks notice was given and the Dáil was in recess? The schools were only back one week, which is why they and the community were not involved at Glasnevin. We either expunge it from the list of National Famine Commemoration events in terms of the criteria laid down by the Department or we start to set the record straight from now on. As I said, if one goes to the primary source, the Taoiseach referred to it in the Dáil and the event took place at the Customs House in 2008 and it was not a figment of my imagination because I was there.
I wish to comment on a couple of things Deputy O'Cuiv said. There is a lot more agreement on this issue than we think, although one can look for disagreement. The heart of the matter is that there should not be a competing set of priorities. We must work together on the issue. I accept that communities should be at the heart of the event. I agree with Deputy Ó Cuív that it works better outside the major urban centres and in smaller communities. Having attended several of the events, I certainly agree that it works far better in such an environment.
For me, it is about commemorating the most important event that formed modern Ireland and the island of Ireland and whether it is worth overriding considerations in fixing a date and not building flexibility around it. I fully accept that we can envisage a scenario where some community will state it cannot do it on a particular date. However, we owe it to the millions who died and the millions of families who lost members through emigration to set a date. I do not buy the argument that in America they move the date of celebration of St. Patrick's Day. That might be the case, but the Americans do not move the date of celebration of the 4th of July or Thanksgiving. What a country decides to lock down in setting a sacred date says a lot about it. That is what drove this. In lots of ways, one would like to think it is not necessary to have this legislation, but, unfortunately, while we had a very good start with the work done by Deputy Ó Cuív and many others on the issue of Famine commemoration, this is just another small step and not over-prescriptive. As I said, on the smaller, more technical points I am willing to work with the committee and other Members of the Houses to ensure we will have a Bill that will garner full support.
Basically, the Deputy is saying we will have it, which I do not think anybody is disputing. He said the second Sunday presented a difficulty but that he was agreeable to the third, which is fine. Then we have the military and interfaith service, about which there is no problem. Then the Bill states the central venue for the commemoration "shall be designated by the Taoiseach". The problem I have with that is that, technically, the Taoiseach could decide whatever date he or she wanted. Even if we were to replace the Taoiseach with the Minister, it would still be problematic because it was designed at the beginning to involve an advisory committee. In principle and practice, it was never envisaged that anything would be decided without the involvement of the advisory committee, with the Minister as chairperson. When drafting the Bill, I suggest the advisory committee be included in order that the Taoiseach would designate a venue on its advice. Technically, according to the Bill, we could destroy what is in place already. We could take out the reference to the advisory committee and leave it to the Taoiseach of the day or the Minister to decide, if amended thus. There is no mention of either the Taoiseach or the Minister having to seek the advice of the advisory committee, but that is actually the key element of how the decisions were made. They were not made by an individual on a unilateral basis. They were made by an advisory committee that was very broad ranging and included current day Famine interests, including Trócaire, Gorta and so on, various experts, as well as officials from the relevant Departments. This key element is actually missing from the Bill.
Mr. Conor Falvey:
I acknowledge everyone present in the room and his or her bona fides in terms of their interest in and commitment to this issue. That is welcome from the Department's perspective. I had the privilege of accompanying the Minister of State, Deputy Patrick O'Donovan, on a trip to Melbourne in October to attend an international Famine commemoration event which was held in Williamstown, where some of the great great grandchildren of the orphan girls who travelled on the Earl Grey ships in the late 1840s up to 1850 laid wreaths at the memorial stone and a message from President Michael D. Higgins was read. It was a much more moving and emotional event than I had anticipated. An academic round table discussion followed which was facilitated by the chairs and professors of Irish studies in various universities. It was a standing room only event which was also very emotional for all those who attended in discussing the Famine and also the more recent experiences of Irish emigrants in Australia.
It provided a forum for that which I think people had been seeking.
As for the locations for events, I can only say that the rotation, on the advice and in the view of the committee, as I understand it, is backed fully. The departure this year was a once-off, and Deputy Ó Cuív has made his views known on this on a number of occasions. The website to which Professor Cooke referred earlier tells this story about the impact of the Famine very clearly and graphically. One can see the people in the worst classes of accommodation in rural areas engaged in agriculture, the absolute destruction of those communities and the way in which towns and communities which existed before the Famine were gone by 1851. If it were of any interest to members of the committee, we could perhaps ask UCC to facilitate a demonstration at some stage. To come back to the basic point, though, a Government decision is now in place on the holding of the event on a specified weekend. The point has been made that this can move, and anything is possible. Given the nature of Government decisions, however, Government does not vacate them very quickly because they then have less weight and magnitude as a result. There is no intention to dilute any of the supports in place at present for commemoration of the Famine.
I will ask a few questions but first I thank, in particular Mr. Michael Blanch, who has been dogged in this, to the extent sometimes that the question is asked, "What now?" It is brilliant when something comes from the grassroots up. The logic is there. I do not think anyone disputes Mr. Blanch's logic. Time and again, when other things that we thought were too important came across our desks, Mr. Blanch was there to ring us up and remind us.
I have a question about the website. Can a link be provided to the Lumper project that Mr. Blanch initiated? A link is now on the website of the Department of Education and Skills, but could one be provided on the existing sites? The link gives the history and explains how the planting and so on was done subsequently. It is an area of history in which I am very interested.
I refer specifically to the commemorations. I agree with this legislation. There are two Private Members' Bills, and it is very strange that one man managed to get two Deputies in different parties to produce Bills on this at around the same time. It is key that this date is fixed, and the only way of fixing dates thus far has been to tie them to a bank holiday. I will not go down the route of this argument. I have my own views and my own legislation on an independence day so I will not delay a Bill by adding to it and having this debate. I will have my own debate on this in the future. This legislation's proposal of a fixed date also serves the purpose of a national holiday, public holiday or bank holiday because it is fixed in time, whether it be the Friday, Saturday, Sunday or Monday. The important thing is that we know on which week this will take place. Furthermore, to prevent any confusion, the venue should be announced on the conclusion of the commemoration. This would be useful because it would allow the communities to put in their bid and allow the committee to have its role and, if at all possible, to make an announcement. If one is planning what is basically an international event, even though it is in Ireland, this is important.
Regarding the schools project or the community project, the only problem with the date is that one will not get secondary schools involved because on the third Saturday most secondary school pupils are doing their exams, and those who are not are facing into their junior certificate or leaving certificate courses. I know some of them will get involved because this is on their curriculum. If the project is in one's locality or in a small rural town, I can guarantee the witnesses people will be there because it could be the biggest event in one's lifetime if it is done properly, as it has been. This highlights a problem we have, which is that history has been slowly removed.
I know, and we had the argument. The Department is reviewing the decision, thank God, and it is to be hoped it will come out on the right side. The schools programme is key, and it is important it is not just in the province it is in but that it is right across the board. It is on the curriculum.
I am agnostic about the military service side. It adds to some events; it detracts from them in other ways. As for the interfaith element and so on, all events run by the State should be non-sectarian. This allows for a religious element, but if one goes down that road one must represent all religions. The easiest way is not to have any represented. To respond to a comment Deputy Ó Cuív made, one can have an event in a church, hall or something prior to the principal event if that is what the community wants.
I agree with Deputy Ó Cuív about ensuring that the community and the commemoration committee are mentioned somewhere so it is not just the Minister. Perhaps the Taoiseach could announce the date on foot of a report from the committee. This would cover one because it would be said that the committee exists.
Given much of the talk today, I feel amendments coming on, but they would not be against the spirit of the Bill, which has been reflected here today.
Anyone who wishes to respond to my ramblings should feel free to do so.
The Chairman did a very good job encapsulating the matter. There is no problem with amendments. The spirit of the Bill, as he said, is there, and there was a very good exchange today, including what the Chairman has just outlined, with which we can work to progress the Bill after the committee makes its decision.
Mr. Conor Falvey:
I wish to outline one practical consideration. A suggestion has come from a number of quarters about potentially putting the committee on some kind of statutory footing. From the point of view of complexity, the Department has not given any consideration to what this might involve. I just wanted to point that out. It will just add a little time to trying to figure out how we might do this in a way that reflects the wishes of the Oireachtas.
If the Department does not put it on a statutory footing, it is to a certain extent taking the power away from the committee that is, de facto, there at present because no one would dream of doing without it. The Minister can baldly make a decision on it - it is being suggested the Taoiseach can make a statement and a decision, and good luck to him - and there is no mention of any consultation with anyone.
May I make a point beforehand, since Deputy Ó Cuív has been speaking for quite a long time? I was very taken with what Professor Cooke had to say about how the interfaith element has now taken over to the point of artistry getting left behind. I wonder whether all the artistic, creative, literary and historical aspects of this could not be incorporated somewhere in the Bill as a grounding because that is the thing that brings it alive. I completely agree with Deputy Ó Cuív, which is rare, about the military. The members of the military bring such respect and honour to this country as a Republic and I am very proud when I see them. If anyone moved on the 1916 celebrations and commemorations, it was our military. It was brilliantly done. They have such manners, respect and grace for who and what we are and can communicate it so well. Perhaps this could be a part of it because I am in agreement with Deputy Ó Cuív. It is just a matter of getting it right.
I must go because without my vote, the Government might fall.
There is another Bill before the House to do with island voting, and I am in discussions with the Department in this regard.
We discussed these and there is not a big difference between myself and the Department on the amendments because they were recommended by the committee. If the Minister brings them forward, the money message issue does not arise.
If we are going ahead with this Bill, the committee has to be engaged in some form of consultation process. One cannot just have a bald statement as that would be crazy. We are doing this to make it better but then we taking out consultation with anybody. Before we undertake further consideration, I would like to know if the Deputy, in consultation with the Department, has draft amendments that can be brought forward to deal with those issues, because otherwise the Bill is highly flawed.
I am sorry but I am suggesting that the Deputy talks to his Minister, Deputy Madigan, on the basis that if he or the committee bring it forward, we will get caught with the money message issue. If the Department agrees it with the Deputy and if the Minister brings it forward, she will not face any such technical difficulties.
Táimid críochnaithe agus ba mhaith liom mo bhuíochas a ghabháil le gach duine a ghlac páirt inniu, leis an Teachta Brophy, leis na hionadaithe ón Roinn, John Healy Uasal, Conor Falvey Uasal, leis an Ollamh Tommy Cooke, agus leis an mbeirt eile Michael Blanch Uasal agus Olivia Blanch Uasal as an gcuidiú a thug siad don choiste inniu.