Yemen and Zimbabwe pay their cultural dues, but Ireland acts the miser

Sat, Sep 22, 2012, 01:00

CULTURE SHOCK:AFGHANISTAN IS A MEMBER, as is Zimbabwe. Yemen pays its dues, and so does Rwanda. Practically every functioning state in the world – 133 in all – is a member of a body called the International Centre for the Study of the Preservation and Restoration of Cultural Property.

It may have a horrible title and an even worse acronym, Iccrom. But it’s a highly civilised and important organisation. It was established in 1956 by Unesco as the global expert body on the preservation of cultural heritage, from libraries and archives to buildings, archaeological sites and urban quarters.

It’s especially important to anyone working in any of these fields in Ireland, most of whom depend on it for courses, expertise and international scholarship. Ireland isn’t big enough to support these things itself; it gains enormously from having an international network to tap into.

But Ireland’s membership of Iccrom is lapsing because someone in the Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht has decided not to pay the State’s annual contribution. The size of that contribution? €16,300. No, a zero isn’t missing. This is what it costs to be a member. Ireland hasn’t paid for 2011 or 2012. In June the Labour TD Ann Phelan raised the issue in the Dáil with the Minister, Jimmy Deenihan.

His reply was that “I am advised that the benefits of Iccrom membership extend well beyond my department, with staff of the Office of Public Works and a range of regional and local authorities availing of the resources on offer.

“Discussions are ongoing regarding the continuation of Ireland’s membership of Iccrom, and any decision in this regard will have to take account of the reduced availability of resources in the current economic climate and the many competing demands for such resources.”

So the benefits of membership for expertise in national cultural institutions, the OPW and regional and local authorities are not in doubt.

Nor should they be: over the years, key people from Dúchas, the OPW, the State Laboratory, the National Monuments Service, the National Museum of Ireland and the National Gallery of Ireland have been trained on Iccrom courses.

But we’re so broke that we can’t afford €16,300. Let’s put this in context. The department’s budget is €232 million this year and has to be cut to €205 million by 2014. So Deenihan has to find €27 million in cuts. The department spends more than €1 million a year on consultants and another €1 million on “training, development and incidental expenses”. Presumably, €16,300 counts as an incidental expense; Ireland’s memberships of all international cultural bodies don’t even merit a subhead in the departmental estimates. It’s back-of-the-sofa money.

For the sake of this money, though, Ireland is making a show of itself.

Membership of Iccrom isn’t a whim. It’s a statement that Ireland is part of an international cultural community and that it shares common values in relation to the preservation of the things and places that connect us to the human past. It’s a recognition that our heritage belongs to the world and that the world’s heritage belongs to us.

Real, destructive forces are at work, from trophy motorways in Ireland to demented religious zealots in Mali. Being in Iccrom is the State’s statement that it values humanity’s common heritage.

It’s also a formal international commitment. Irish membership (as well as the statutes of Iccrom) was formally approved by the Dáil in July 1986, at the behest of the late Garret FitzGerald. In December 1986 the State lodged a “formal declaration of accession by Ireland” with Unesco. There’s a question of good public practice here. A self-respecting state doesn’t just ditch its international obligations on a whim. And telling the world that the State is so broke that it can’t find €16,300 is hardly the best way to advertise the fact that we’re “open for business”.

More broadly, though, this tiny episode illustrates an alarming absence of direction in cultural policy. What’s happening here is not that the State can’t afford €16,300. It’s not that someone has done a cost-benefit analysis and decided that being part of this organisation is a waste of public resources. It’s that the “current economic climate” has created a sense of paralysis. What’s happening with Iccrom is that nothing is happening. Nobody, least of all the Minister, has the guts to say, “For God’s sake, this is ridiculous. Are we really poorer than Yemen? Just write the feckin’ cheque.” There’s an evident fear that somebody in the Department of Finance might notice, and then somebody else would have to explain why we’re spending money that might otherwise keep a county councillor in annual expenses on some funny cultural heritage-type thingy. Better to keep the head down, say nothing and just let the membership lapse. And if anybody asks about it in the Dáil, just tell them that discussions are ongoing in the context of the current economic climate.

This lack of leadership is bad at the best of times, but it’s a disaster when you’re in the process of cutting another €27 million from the cultural budget. Somebody has to stand up against philistinism. Somebody has to have a clear sense of what matters and what doesn’t. Somebody has to have an eye to the long-term values that need to be preserved. Somebody has to know when making a tiny saving just for the sake of it, regardless of the damage done, is stupid.

There’s precious little evidence that that somebody is Jimmy Deenihan.

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