Thursday, 21 May 2020
Covid-19 (Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht): Statements
Niamh Smyth (Cavan-Monaghan, Fianna Fail)
Fianna Fáil welcomes the opportunity to address the House on heritage during National Biodiversity Week and having just celebrated World Bee Day yesterday. UNESCO has pointed out that 89% of all world heritage sites are either totally or partially closed. The heritage sector in Ireland, like all other sectors, has faced closures and job losses. Most facilities under the remit of the National Parks and Wildlife Service are closed to the general public, and our historical houses, castles, estates and gardens lie empty. There appears to be light at the end of the tunnel as many amenities are beginning to make plans to reopen. This is a mammoth task for these providers in making and putting in place mechanisms to ensure that facilities can be enjoyed safely. The Government must provide all supports necessary to enable them to do so.
A question that has been gathering a lot of momentum is whether our failures on biodiversity have caused the spread of the Covid-19 pandemic. More and more research is pointing to humanity's destruction of biodiversity as the cause of the conditions for new viruses and diseases such as Covid-19.
Regardless of whether that is the case, the Covid-19 pandemic presents us with major opportunities in the context of our natural heritage. The crisis has caused a 17% drop in daily global carbon emissions. The media has been awash with stories of wild animals and birds changing their behaviour because of reduced human activity. Green areas are being rewilded. We have a unique opportunity to maintain these areas of emerging biodiversity and reverse the destruction of our ecosystems.
Fianna Fáil welcomes this week's announcement from the European Commission of a major EU biodiversity strategy to 2030. Although this year's international dawn chorus day had to be cancelled, Derek Mooney put a lovely spin on things when he asked people to immerse themselves in the birds' world. He urged people to pull up a chair, open a window and enjoy a wonderful free natural concert that will not and cannot be cancelled. I also listened attentively this week to Padraic Fogarty from the Irish Wildlife Trust. Unfortunately, he was not so optimistic that the pandemic is giving nature a real opportunity to rejuvenate itself. He spoke strongly about the need to put in place more tangible efforts to protect our wildlife.
It is good to see our cultural institutions like the National Museum of Ireland working with the Heritage Council to launch the Know Your 5K initiative, which invites people to share their discoveries and insights about the hidden heritage of their locality. It is akin to the local authority golden mile competitions, which are dotted throughout the country. These are initiated by heritage officers in our local authorities and involve active local heritage enthusiasts in our communities throughout the length and breadth of our country. I am keen to take this opportunity to give great credit to the likes of Anne Marie Curley in Cavan County Council and Shirley Clerkin in Monaghan County Council. They ensure a focused effort to protect and preserve our heritage in our local authorities.
As the Minister is aware, Irish wildlife groups have called for the National Parks and Wildlife Service, NPWS, to be put on an independent footing through the establishment of a wildlife crime unit, with increased powers for enforcement and funding to address the biodiversity crisis in Ireland. They have called for the establishment of an independent agency - something like the Environmental Protection Agency - in the Department of Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht to be responsible for the enforcement and communication of information to people. The director of the national biodiversity data centre has acknowledged that while many people are doing small things in their gardens and some farmers and local authorities are helping out with biodiversity, it needs to be cranked up at Government level for transformational change to be achieved.
One year after this House declared a climate and biodiversity emergency there has been little progress in addressing the loss of certain species. That is the main point of view of experts such as Oonagh Duggan from BirdWatch Ireland. Not enough is being done to support and enhance the NPWS to strengthen its ability to nurture biodiversity, restore habitats and address the climate crisis. Kevin O'Sullivan wrote a lovely piece in The Irish Timesat the weekend. In summary, he suggested the Government is lagging behind the public regarding the acute need for action in terms of the loss of our hedgerows, the loss of our trees and the detrimental impact this is having on our environment. While we acknowledge that people are doing many things in positive ways and working with local authorities, it is certain more effort is needed on a transformational scale to address the climate and biodiversity emergency.