Dáil debates

Thursday, 21 May 2020

Covid-19 (Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht): Statements

 

7:15 pm

Photo of Josepha MadiganJosepha Madigan (Dublin Rathdown, Fine Gael)

This week, National Biodiversity Week, I am very pleased to have the opportunity to update the Dáil on the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on our built and natural heritage. The world we knew in February has changed utterly. Adjustment to the new reality is challenging each of us, and it places large and stressful demands on the way we live our lives and the way our society is organised. All organisations need to learn to adjust and survive in the environment we are in and to equip themselves for the society that will emerge from Covid-19. Adaptability, flexibility, imagination, foresight and courage are all the hallmarks of those who will rise to this challenge.

It is not without accident that many across the heritage sector are recognised as essential workers in response to Covid-19 in this country. Our national parks and nature reserves, for example, remain open and accessible to the public, albeit subject to the current 5 km restriction. They are and will remain major supports to our mental and physical well-being in these days of movement restriction, social distancing and cocooning. In the midst of this crisis, our heritage sector has been highly valued by our citizens. It will need our support as we emerge from the current situation.

Over the past 11 weeks, the heritage-based work of my Department has focused on providing the essential services of maintaining, protecting and continuing to provide access to our national parks and nature reserves, and, through Waterways Ireland, maintaining our inland navigations. I am engaging with stakeholders across the heritage sector to assess and measure the wider impacts and implications of Covid-19 on and for the sector and, of course, supporting all-of-government well-being initiatives through online services provided by the Heritage Council, Waterways Ireland and my Department’s National Parks and Wildlife Service, in addition to the National Monuments Service and our own built heritage team. Since the publication of the road map for reopening society and business, the Department has been working to implement it across all the public services we provide while also ensuring all necessary public health measures are in place.

Following the decision on 12 March to close our cultural institutions and tourism sites, all visitor centres at our national parks and nature reserves were closed to ensure physical distancing was observed. Over the following weeks, the parks and reserves welcomed an unprecedented number of visitors as people took the opportunity to experience and enjoy our natural heritage. To meet this challenge, the National Parks and Wildlife Service has erected public health notices across all sites, introduced electric variable message signs where feasible, introduced one-way systems and deployed additional resources at popular visitor locations. When we implemented the extensive public health restrictions on 27 March, the services provided by the National Parks and Wildlife Service, including the maintenance and protection of our parks and reserves, were identified as essential. The service is part of the law enforcement and prosecution architecture of the State as regards wildlife crime and is responsible for the protection of wildlife and the conservation of biological diversity.

This core work has continued over the past eight weeks. Wildfires have posed a particular threat. Eight fire danger notices have been issued by the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine. The setting of uncontrolled fires, which damage and destroy protected habitats and species in Natura 2000 sites and in our parks and reserves, has been a recurring problem over the years. It is, between 1 March and 31 August, an offence under the Wildlife Acts. Beyond being an offence, at this time when the full attention of our emergency services should be devoted to addressing the Covid-19 pandemic, it is a particularly abhorrent antisocial act. Since 24 March, there have been six fires in Wicklow Mountains National Park and the Wicklow Mountains special area of conservation and special protection area, and a major fire in Killarney National Park. I extend my gratitude to and appreciation for the fire services in both affected counties and the National Parks and Wildlife Service. They worked tirelessly battling the conflagrations.

Since midnight on 30 March, our inland navigations have been closed. However, Waterways Ireland has continued essential work to manage water levels and where required to undertake emergency repairs. Canal towpaths have remained accessible. I am aware that for many citizens living within 5 km of canals, formerly 2 km, towpaths have been an important amenity for exercise.

In protecting and conserving our built and natural heritage, historically we have sought to change the way in which we as a people interact with our built and natural environment to protect and even to restore instead of destroying and degrading and to harness our heritage to promote the individual and collective well-being of our people. An important component of this has been inviting visitors to historical sites and education centres, often located in rural communities. Since 12 March, all indoor sites have been effectively closed, which has severely impacted commercial income, not only for those who operate sites, such as my Department, the Office of Public Works, the Irish Heritage Trust and the Irish Landmark Trust, but also those ancillary services provided in communities close to the sites. My Department continues to engage with the Irish Heritage Trust, the Irish Landmark Trust and other bodies to establish the scale of loss of commercial income, having regard to the road map. The Heritage Council has undertaken a survey of heritage organisations and workers and is analysing the results in detail at the moment. The summary impacts identified by respondents include temporary closure, postponement of income generating events and lack of revenue streams. This is similar to the impact faced by the non-profit cultural sector, which I outlined to the House last week.

Despite these impacts, those involved across the heritage sector have repurposed the way they work to provide educational services in new ways. In my Department these efforts have been orientated towards supporting all-of-Government well-being initiatives. This work has drawn on existing services provided by my Department, such as the historic environment viewer, which makes the National Monuments Service's sites and monuments record and the National Inventory of Architectural Heritage available to the public in the form of an online map. Examples of online services include the Waterways Ireland online learning zone, which has been featured on RTÉ's Home School Hub, and Know Your 5K, which is an initiative of the Heritage Council and the National Museum that helps the public to use a wealth of online resources to find out more about the story of their locality.

This week my Department has taken National Biodiversity Week online, running a campaign under the hashtag #LoveNature to raise awareness of our country's biodiversity and nature conservation and to promote public engagement through digital resources. We are also encouraging people to engage with biodiversity in their immediate vicinity. For many, one of the unexpected outcomes of the public health restrictions has been a renewed engagement with our immediate surroundings and natural environment. This new awareness may be a moment for us collectively to reverse the unprecedented global deterioration in the health of our ecosystems which was identified by the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services global assessment report last year.

The time approaching is one of challenge, renewed purpose and recovery. It will also be a period of growth, renewal and resurgence. The economy will perform again and the constraints of recent months will be replaced by a converse and more constructive set of opportunities. Our heritage sector has a central role to play in this process. I thank again all those in the sector who have been working so hard since March. It is at times like these that we appreciate not only the intrinsic value of our heritage but also its importance in sustaining our national life.

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